A growing number semi-trucks on the road has produced not only more traffic congestion and accidents, but also a safety hazard that forces some truckers to drive tired and break rules by working too many hours.
The problem is abundantly clear at a rest area on Interstate 75 between Dayton and Cincinnati. By early evening, the rest stop south of Monroe is packed with rigs parked for the night, taking up every available spot and even less desirable slots along the entrance and exit ramps.
Sitting in her semi at the rest stop on the southbound side, truck driver Angela Sanders of Toledo described the situation as a competition between trucks to find suitable parking.
“Sometimes people have driven miles illegally just trying to find a place to park and that’s not good,” Sanders said.
Under federal rules, drivers can put in 11 hours a day driving, and work no more than a total of 14 hours before a mandatory 10 hours of down time. According to Sanders, the number of parking spots has not kept up with the increased number of trucks on the road.
“Oh it’s terrible,” she said. “It’s awful because when I first started there wasn’t as many trucks out. I think it’s dishonest for the system to give us the rules and not prepare a place for us to park.”
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s count of trucks on the road shows just how much traffic has increased in recent years. The NHTSA said the number of large trucks registered across the country grew from 8.2 million in 2004 to 10.6 million in 2013.
The state Ohio, meanwhile, has seen an increase in truck accidents with a record 21,290 crashes in 2014, with 143 of those involving fatalities.
Hit by a truck
Linda Copeland of Darke County lived to tell about her encounter with a tired trucker in 2011. She was driving on U.S. 127 and had stopped to make a left-hand turn at an intersection. She noticed a truck in the distance minutes earlier. Once in the intersection, a check of her rear-view mirror gave Linda a glimpse of the oncoming truck speeding up rather than slowing down.
“I didn’t have time to think of anything else. I thought he’s gonna hit me. And that’s the last thing I remember,” Copeland said.
The truck rear-ended her car, destroying it. Copeland woke up in Miami Valley Hospital with multiple injuries and emotional scars that linger to this day.
“If a semi gets behind me on the road I go into panic mode. I don’t drive on 127 anymore,” she said.
Copeland’s attorney, Andy Young, is a former truck owner and driver himself who specializes in truck safety.
“In Linda’s case, we ended up with a fatigued driver. He was beyond his hours of service, ” Young said.
Even with the federal rules, financial pressure can push people to bend or break the rules. Lucy Vaillancort, a long-haul trucker from Quebec, Canada, said the common expression is “when the wheels aren’t turning, you’re not earning.”
Sanders, the trucker from Toledo, said it took her several years to learn how to deal with the onset of fatigue behind the wheel.
“I used to drive and try to prop my eyeballs open or whatever. I would drink something,” Sanders said.
Later, she learned that good nutrition and exercise play a part in getting the rest she needs.
Tony Price, an experienced driver from Dayton, agreed, adding that more parking would be a step forward for safety. Price said too many truck stops are full at night and most shopping centers and commercial areas are off-limits to big trucks.
“You’re 80 feet long and you weigh 80,000 pounds. You can’t just park at a meter downtown,” Price said.
The trucking industry is well aware of the parking problems. Kevin Burch, president of Jet Express in Dayton and 2nd Vice Chairman of the American Trucking Associations, said drivers often are caught in the middle between the push to keep the wheels rolling and the need to abide by the rules of the road.
“We are in a perfect storm of regulation of drivers’ circadian rhythm, if you will,” he said. “The rest is important, but you’ve got to have a place to park.”
With 80 percent of all goods delivered by semi-trucks, Burch said retailers want products delivered on time but do not want to allow truckers to park on site.
“These truckers have to have rest, so where do they go?” Burch said. “The truck stops are full. The rest stops are full. The shopping centers have no parking. It is a big problem that no one seems to care about.”
Truck driver hours of service and other safety issues will be considered in the next federal transportation bill, already being discussed in Congress. Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, told the I-Team that he signed a letter supporting tougher safety standards sought by Sen. Cory Booker, D- New Jersey.
“Bad things can happen. People can die. People can be injured,” Brown said. “We just want to make sure truck safety rules are in place and enforced sooner rather than later.”
As Congress debates safety issues, truck drivers have their own ideas about what the public can do to avoid becoming a crash victim.
Angela Sanders, the trucker from Toledo who spends much of her time on I-75, said her pet peeve is people who make illegal U-turns on the expressway and pull in front on oncoming trucks.
Tony Price, who has been driving semi-trucks for more than nine years, said people should avoid driving next to them.
“Probably the most dangerous place to be is driving next to me.”