What’s life like for long-haul truck drivers in a COVID-19 world? We’ll get behind-the-wheel perspectives from driver (and musician) Paul Marhoefer and from Associate Professor Sal Hernandez who’s looking into how drivers have adapted to demanding conditions caused by the pandemic and the resiliency of the nation’s freight system.
Long-haul truck drivers are navigating a dramatically changed transportation landscape because of COVID-19. Sal Hernandez finds out how they’re coping.
NPR ANNOUNCER: A tractor-trailer overturned and burst into flames on Interstate 20 yesterday near Dallas. The driver says he hit a bump, lost control and slammed into a barrier. He and his dog were uninjured in this one-vehicle crash, but the precious cargo they were hauling was not so lucky — a full load of toilet paper on its way to bathrooms. Thousands of rolls of Texas TP burned before they could be… flushed.
STEVE FRANDZEL: Before toilet paper became a national obsession, a coveted luxury item, a target for theft, and a disturbingly frequent topic of discussion, that story would never have traveled past the Dallas traffic report. I heard it when I was hunting for background information for this episode, which is about how long-haul truck drivers have adjusted to the pandemic.
Welcome to one of several episodes we’re doing about COVID-19-related research at the College of Engineering. I’m your host, Steve Frandzel. This is Engineering Out Loud
[MUSIC: The Ether Bunny, by Eyes Closed Audio, used with permission under a Creative Commons Attribution License]
At first, the only connection between the wreck and the pandemic seemed to be the irony of a load of burning toilet paper. But it turns out the driver fell asleep before he veered off the road. Did he doze off because he was making more runs, driving more hours and resting less than he used to? We’ll never know for sure, but it’s a safe bet. Not long before the crash, the Department of Transportation relaxed its Hours-of-Service rules for truckers hauling essential goods. Those rules set strict limits on how long drivers could work at a stretch and the minimum amount of rest they had to take. Now, no limits. Drivers pulling the right kind of freight can go and go and go as long and as far as they want without a break. The DOT said they did this so hospitals could replenish desperately needed medical supplies, and so grocery stores could refill shelves that were picked bare because of the crazy amount of consumer hoarding.
To get an idea of what’s going on behind the scenes — and behind the wheel — we’ll hear from two return guests. Sal Hernandez is an associate professor of civil and construction engineering here at Oregon State. His research includes the trucking industry and driver safety. Paul Marhoefer, aka Long Haul Paul, is a veteran trucker based in East-Central Indiana. He’s worked as an independent owner-operator, and now he’s a company driver hauling refrigerated trailers, or reefers. And he’s an amazing singer-songwriter.
Last year, the two were my guests on a heart-rending episode about the shortage of truck parking. So stick around for another glimpse into a world that most of us know very little about. I’ll be sure to work in some of Paul’s music, like I did last time. In fact, why wait?
[MUSIC: Ballad of a Bullhauler’s Son, by Paul Marhoefer, used with permission of the artist]
I wish I could play the whole thing. In May, Sal and a colleague at the University of Arkansas sent out a survey to truckers all over the country. They wanted to know how life on the road had changed during the pandemic — things like driving behavior, safety concerns, availability of basic services, and parking. By the time I recorded this, well over 500 drivers had sent in responses. A detailed analysis of the data will take a while, but a few things pop out right away. Drivers are driving a lot faster than they were a year ago, but they’re not very concerned about getting pulled over. They’re taking more trips. They’re driving longer, and they’re pretty tired. Here’s Sal.
SAL HERNANDEZ: We are seeing more tired truck drivers, right? Fatigued. That can definitely lead to distracted driving and other elements. And that’s another thing that we see here. Not only are they feeling more fatigued, but they’re feeling that they’re zoning out more often now.
FRANDZEL: One day, when Sal was putting together the survey, his wife drove up to Portland. She pulled into a public rest stop near Wilsonville and struck up a conversation with a truck driver.
HERNANDEZ: And he told her the hardest part for me right now is just having to wait. Having to wait to be serviced and also, too, just driving longer hours and not having the opportunity to stop and rest. And he goes: And I’m resting today. I’m sitting here and I’m going to rest until I’m able to deliver my goods. And then he goes: Then I have to drive all the way back — drive all the way back, pick up some more goods and come back.
FRANDZEL: He didn’t say he was speeding. Why would he? But odds are, he was.
HERNANDEZ: We’re noticing that truck drivers are admitting that they are speeding quite often. I would say more than half the respondents say that they are speeding more than 15 miles per hour. And the reason is obviously there’s no congestion, and also the pressure that’s been put on them with regard to delivering the goods to the end consumers.
FRANDZEL: Plenty of cars have been speeding, too.
PAUL MARHOEFER: It was almost like a fire sale on speed out there.
FRANDZEL: That’s Paul.
MARHOEFER: In the early parts of the quarantine, it was like the Indy 500 out there, I mean guys in trucks.
FRANDZEL: He can also confirm that some drivers are cashing in on the relaxed Hours-of-Service rules.
MARHOEFER: I’m just a company driver now, so I’m not an owner-operator, but I have talked to owner-ops who were like running exempt and banging 1,200 miles a day, solo. The guy I was talking to said the brokers he was hauling for were expecting these thousand-mile overnights. When you’re an independent, you have the right to say no I can’t do that. Or you can say, yeah, I’m pretty fresh, I can turn a thousand-mile overnight. I mean a thousand mile overnight in the right truck is a 16-hour run. I’m not defending the practice, I’m not condemning the practice. I’m just saying. But we did see guys going crazy, and we did see guys driving really stupid, and not just 18 wheelers, but cars, too.
FRANDZEL: When Paul says “we,” he’s talking about himself and his wife, Denise. More about that in a little while.
MARHOEFER: The folks I work for, they did not — even though we had the paperwork from our shipper saying, this is COVID restock, this driver is not bound by the Hours-of-Service regulations — they did not bite on that. They said, no, we want you to just to run like you’ve always run. But I do know fellows that were owner-operators, independents, that were just getting all they could.
FRANDZEL: Paul did receive a premium for a while, COVID pay, for working during the pandemic.
[MUSIC: Late Last Night I Had a Dream, by Paul Marhoefer, used with permission of the artist]
MARHOEFER: We started hitting every barbecue joint we could and gorging ourselves, squandering our COVID premium on a quest to find the best barbecue in the country. The financial impact has been almost unchanged if not improved. And I almost hate saying that, because I know a lot of people are just dealing with this unprecedented impact in their lives. But we’ve been continuing to work and haul food. At some of the shippers, like in the early part, when there was a rush to the stores, these shippers were just so slammed. So sometimes you saw bottlenecks at the shipping points.
FRANDZEL: So, because truckers are flying down the highways, they’re getting to their destinations way ahead of schedule. But so is everyone else. So they have to wait. And that’s created a domino effect throughout the system.
HERNANDEZ: And we’re seeing that now. For example, they’re having to park and wait hours before they can even access the facility, because they’re waiting to be serviced. So that can cause a queue or a backup in the network.
FRANDZEL: In addition to those delays, Paul and Denise saw changes to pick-up and delivery protocols. At one huge warehouse in a tiny Midwestern town, they were greeted by a pandemic-inspired sign that read, “No truck drivers in the welcome center.”
MARHOEFER: Some of it at times seemed a bit onerous. Some of the places simply closed off their bathroom facilities to the truckers. I can understand the logic behind that, but it sort of degraded the workplace to an extent, or the work environment. You know, and there are places where we had to get our temperatures taken before entering the warehouse. I never reached a point where I said, I just can’t deal with this. This is crazy. People were just showing up trying to figure out how to keep their teams safe and how to make a living.
FRANDZEL: A few times, though, he and Denise ran into reduced services at private truck stops, like showers and food. It was inconvenient, but also inspirational. After pulling into a truck stop in Kentucky and finding the showers were closed because of coronavirus, Paul came up with a limerick. It appears in one of the articles he wrote about the pandemic for Overdrive Magazine, where he’s a regular contributor. Let’s hear it straight from Paul.
MARHOEFER: Nowheres to shower, nowheres to set. The more essential I’m gettin’, the stinkier I get.
FRANDZEL: That hum in the background is the 24/7 drone of a reefer, the refrigeration unit keeping those thousands of pounds of food fresh and cold. It’s unavoidable when you record in the cab of a semi. We’re all improvising these days. I’m recording this inside my car, which turns out to be a pretty good substitute for a sound studio. And it’s getting pretty hot in here, too. That’s a pretty good excuse for a music break, right
[MUSIC: Old Black Epiphone, by Paul Marhoefer, used with permission of the artist]
FRANDZEL: Meanwhile, back on the road. Instead of worrying about whether they’d be able to grab carry-out meals from restaurants, they just brought their own.
MARHOEFER: We just packed food, packed a lot of food, and I said, okay, let’s not beat ourselves up if we’re not going plant-based or keto here.
FRANDZEL: He’s talking about the low-carb, higher-fat keto diet he tries to follow.
MARHOEFER: And I’ll be honest, I think I acquired some kind of eating disorder, because I think I’ve gained 15 pounds in the last nine weeks. Because if you’ve got someone with you who’s bringing this constant flow of sandwiches from the back, it’s hard to turn that down.
FRANDZEL: Sure, man, blame your wife. But something else happened that caused a lot more stress than gaining a few pounds.
[MUSIC: Maybank Highway, by Paul Marhoefer, used with permission of the artist]
MARHOEFER: The biggest change in all of this was my wife Denise began to ride with me. We usually deal with separation pretty well, but she wound up riding with me for nine weeks. She had this fever, and I couldn’t find a thermometer, and it was just like, wow. In the early days of this, these worst case scenarios just kept running through our minds. What if I can’t get home, and she’s sick? What if I’m sick? So we just decided to ride it out together.
FRANDZEL: OK, let’s head back to Oregon. Information from Sal’s survey will be shared with state agencies and the trucking industry. It will also be integrated with other aspects of his research to identify factors that contribute to truck crashes. And he’s still working on that parking shortage — a problem that drivers consistently rank as one of the most aggravating of all. When COVID-19 hit, Sal expanded the scope of his research to consider the effects of the pandemic on the nation’s freight system and on its drivers. What he learns might help the country figure out how to support drivers better the next time a natural disaster threatens to disrupt the supply chain.
HERNANDEZ: It doesn’t have to be a pandemic, but something similar to a pandemic or something where there’s a definite change in the way we move, we travel, and how freight operates.
FRANDZEL: Even in normal times — I’m not sure what that means anymore — Sal is a big advocate for truck drivers, and he’s determined to protect them, pandemic or not.
HERNANDEZ: When it comes to the movement of goods and services, I’m interested on that truck driver’s side. It’s the safety element that we’re interested in and the impact there. We don’t want to lose truck drivers. As it is, it’s a demanding and personally very gratifying profession. But again, it’s a profession that sometimes has a hard time attracting new drivers into the industry. So whatever we can do to keep them safe and moving and rested as they’re driving, that’s more important.
[MUSIC One too many Straight Shots to Miami, by Paul Marhoefer, used with permission of the artist]
FRANDZEL: This episode was produced by me, Steve Frandzel, with special thanks to Paul Marhoefer. You heard just bits and pieces of his music here, so to listen to it properly, visit longhaulpaulmusic.com. He also hosts his own podcast, Over the Road, about the trials and triumphs of America’s truckers. For more episodes of Engineering Out Loud, visit engineeringoutloud.oregonstate.edu, or subscribe by searching “Engineering Out Loud” on your favorite podcast app. Bye now.