Ever wonder why so many truckers park their rigs on highway off-ramps, in retail store parking lots and at other odd locations? It’s not their first choice, and it’s not the safest choice either, but sometimes it’s their only choice. Research by Sal Hernandez reveals that the national truck parking shortage takes an enormous toll on people and commerce.
[MUSIC: Elloree, by Paul Marhoefer, used with permission of the artist]
STEVE FRANDZEL: Jason Rivenburg hugged his pregnant wife, Hope, and his two-year-old son and left for work. He was filling in as a long-haul truck driver to earn extra money. He hopped into the cab of his semi and drove out of Fultonham, New York, about 45 miles west of Albany. He dropped off a load in Virginia and headed to his second delivery: organic milk for the Food Lion distribution center in Elloree, South Carolina.
He had arrived early in the evening, well ahead of schedule. But he was turned away because his appointment wasn’t until 8:00 the next morning. The center doesn’t allow early deliveries, and it won’t let truckers park and wait.
He needed to rest, but there were no truck stops or other proper facilities nearby. He pulled into an abandoned gas station on a county highway in St. Matthews, a dozen miles from his destination. It was a safe place, according to the grapevine. That night, he was shot twice in the head with a .45-caliber handgun by a career felon on probation. His body was found two days later. On March 18, 2009, less than two weeks after the murder, Jason’s wife gave birth to twins.
SAL HERNANDEZ: He was just simply looking for a place to rest. There was no adequate truck parking locations for him to do so when that happened. He was simply parked in an abandoned gas station just to make sure he met his hours of service, and he was killed for seven dollars – for a measly seven dollars.
FRANDZEL: That’s Sal Hernandez, an assistant professor of Civil and Construction Engineering. Sal’s research covers a variety of transportation issues, including transportation safety.
HERNANDEZ: Truck parking shortages is a national concern. The problem is finding safe and adequate truck parking. And it’s forecasted to see a rise in truck volumes over the next few years, so finding safe and adequate truck parking is the issue. There is not enough of it.
FRANDZEL: Welcome, I’m your host, Steve Frandzel. In keeping with this season’s theme of research at Oregon State that’s focused on health and safety, we’ll take a closer look at that shortage and what’s behind it. We’ll examine the harm it causes to people and commerce and offer up some good reasons why anyone who drives should care about a problem that they may not even know exists.
FRANDZEL: From the College of Engineering at Oregon State University, this is Engineering Out Loud.
You’ve probably noticed long-haul trucks parked on highway off-ramps and shoulders, on access roads, in retail store parking lots. I never really gave them much thought. I had no idea that the reason they sometimes park in such odd places is because drivers struggle to find better spots, appropriate spots. And it’s happening all over the country. Making the problem worse has been the closure of many designated highway rest areas where truckers are allowed to sleep in their cabs. Federal law mandates that truckers can drive no more than 11 hours within a 14-hour window, so long as they’ve rested at least 10 hours beforehand. More and more, those hours are tracked and reported automatically by electronic logging devices.
[MUSIC: Looking for the Son of Man, by Paul Marhoefer, used with permission of the artist]
HERNANDEZ: Like a stopwatch, it indicates when their hours are over, and when their hours are over, they have to pull over and rest. That could be in the middle of anywhere in America, any roadway, it may not be even close to a truck parking location.
FRANDZEL: So drivers resort to whatever they can find. The closer they get to their driving limit, the more urgent things become. Options go from bad to worse.
HERNANDEZ: Really what motivated me on this whole issue was when I was actually driving between I-10 and I-5, over the last few years, seeing trucks parked along the roadway, seeing truck-related crashes, when we see vehicles crashing into trucks along those routes, and just seeing our exit and off ramps just full of truck drivers. And I felt, you know what, there’s something that needs to be done, and it was quite timely. During the time when I was really thinking about doing some of this research, the Oregon Department of Transportation, ODOT, had reached out to me and said, Sal, there’s an issue with truck parking, I don’t know if you’ve heard of Jason’s law, and, as a matter of fact I had.
FRANDZEL: Jason’s Law, named for the murdered trucker Jason Rivenburg, was enacted in 2012. The law provides $120 million in federal funds for the construction and restoration of safe roadside parking lots where truck drivers can rest. The money is also used to study regions where parking shortages are most acute. The Pacific Northwest is one them.
HERNANDEZ: So Jason’s law makes safe parking for truck drivers a national priority in hopes of protecting our truck drivers of course. And the idea behind Jason’s Law, it actually provides additional funding and opportunities for states to do some self-assessment. We knew the problem existed, but it took something tragic to really get that national attention, that funding, for states to conduct studies.
FRANDZEL: Jason’s Law even inspired a song, called Elloree, which you heard at the start of the episode. It was written by full-time trucker and part-time singer-songwriter Paul Marhoefer, aka Long-Haul Paul. I caught up with Paul on a frigid, late-January day in Northern Illinois.
PAUL MARHOEFER: Hello?
FRANDZEL: Hey, is this Paul?
FRANDZEL: Paul, hi, this is Steve Frandzel calling from Oregon State University.
MARHOEFER: Yes, Steve, yes, how are you?
FRANDZEL: I’m doing well, thank you, how about yourself?
MARHOEFER: I’m doing pretty well, I’m near Rockford, Illinois, I just dumped off a load of milk and I’m easing down to go back to the farm and get another load. It’s a little cold here, it’s about 2 degrees.
FRANDZEL: We compared notes on the weather and found out we grew up not far from each other in the Chicago area. Paul mentioned that he used to deliver tropical plants throughout Oregon. And he told me that his own troubles with parking was a big reason why he switched to running shorter routes. Then he told me the story of how Elloree came to be. After performing at a trucking show in Dallas a couple of years ago, one of his fans had a little surprise for him.
MARHOEFER: There’s a very nice lady from Texas who was giving me these beautiful vintage harmonicas that were in pristine condition, and she gave me this gorgeous handmade Italian accordion. And she said I want you to do something for me. And I thought, OK, I didn’t know her that well, and I didn’t know where this was going. She said, could you write a song about Jason’s Law? I usually have to get angry, or I usually have to be sort of in a state of duress before I write a song. And I did find myself upset enough to write that song and framed it as a murder ballad, and the intent was to do what murder ballads always did: to sort of mark and mourn by trying to do a truthful reporting of the event. It was sort of a way to memorialize in a sense.
[MUSIC: Elloree, by Paul Marhoefer, used with permission of the artist]
FRANDZEL: If you’re getting the impression that the parking shortage is something that only truckers need to worry about, well, that’s only part of a much bigger story. If you drive a car, if you just ride in a car, you might want to pay attention here. It’s bad enough to collide with another passenger vehicle, but the thought of smashing into a 40-ton brick on wheels at high speed is kind of terrifying. I would prefer that those drivers are well-rested and alert. They would too. This is where Sal’s research comes in. He conducted a study for the Oregon Department of Transportation to look at the extent and impact of Oregon’s truck parking shortage.
HERNANDEZ: We really couldn’t look at the whole state, but we focused on U.S. 97 first to see what the issues were on that route.
FRANDZEL: U.S. 97 runs 289 miles from California to Washington on the east side of the Cascades. It’s the most important north-south highway corridor in the state, other than Interstate 5. Truck traffic is heavy. Sal surveyed 201 truckers who deliver goods in the Pacific Northwest to find out more about their parking woes. He also gathered seven years of historical data for truck crashes on 97. He looked for crash trends and crash hot spots. And he applied something called crash harm.
HERNANDEZ: Crash harm is a metric that we use. It allows us to quantify the impact of safety issues. For example, it allows us to take into account various economic, potential loss of life, maintenance, rehabilitation, due to a crash. So there are numerous studies out there that actually allow us to quantify injury severity, types of crash, the monetary loss, damage to goods and so forth. So we use these values, put them together, and that becomes the potential crash harm metric.
FRANDZEL: Results from the first part of the study confirmed what was evident.
HERNANDEZ: I kind of had an idea of what we would be expecting to see: We don’t have enough truck parking locations.
[MUSIC: George Corley Wallace, by Paul Marhoefer, used with permission of the artist]
FRANDZEL: The survey did, however, add depth to that knowledge. For example, nearly two-thirds of the drivers said they often have trouble finding safe and adequate parking. The worst season is winter. The worst day is Friday. And the worst time is from midnight to 6:00 a.m. What shook things up was the second part of the study, which found that crashes where truckers were at fault were far more likely to occur when parking was most difficult to find.
HERNANDEZ: We basically analyzed all the at-fault truck crashes that may have been related or could have been related, or had some correlation to truck parking. Through our data analysis and through these surveys, we determined when there’s increased volumes we see, again, high demand for truck parking, and that high demand increases the possibility of seeing more crashes related to the lack of truck parking.
FRANDZEL: He has some pretty good ideas why this is the case.
HERNANDEZ: You end up seeing drivers who are maybe more fatigued who cannot find truck parking locations. We may be seeing drivers speeding on our highways because they’re trying to race before their hours of service clock is out to reach a safe and adequate truck parking location. And we’re seeing a lot of truckers parking on exit and on ramps along the roadways, on empty lots along the roadways, and that causes a safety hazard and safety issue to our general public.
FRANDZEL: Even more compelling was the huge economic hit caused by the wrecks.
HERNANDEZ: And we came up with a value of about $75 million in potential crash harm if we did nothing in this state. That was the big number that really caught people’s eyes. Whoa, $75 million, holy cow, especially if it’s only one corridor, the U.S. 97 corridor.
[MUSIC: George Corley Wallace, by Paul Marhoefer, used with permission of the artist]
FRANDZEL: Those numbers represent a very human toll: In 708 at-fault crashes identified in the study, 30 involved fatalities, and 264 resulted in injuries. A few other truck parking studies were floating around when Sal’s work was published in summer 2017, but they didn’t get much attention beyond the industry. Seventy-five million dollars, though, that set things on fire.
HERNANDEZ: As soon as the study ran, I was getting calls off the hook from radio stations in Klamath Falls, from folks from Wisconsin, New York, Florida, Oregon, I got interviewed by channel 21 Bend news with regard to truck parking, and they independently interviewed several truckers along U.S. 97 and completely confirmed the results of this study: that there is not enough truck parking. So even up to this day, I’m still receiving requests and calls about, Hey, what was your study about? What are the trends, what do you think is going to happen in the future with the application of new technologies that are coming into the market?
FRANDZEL: Solutions can’t come soon enough. The country relies more and more on trucks to deliver food, fuel, holiday gifts, pet supplies, clothing, you name it, more of it is going to come by truck.
HERNANDEZ: Our consumer behavior is changing, the way we’re purchasing and buying things is more online. It has to either come by truck or by rail, or by airplane. The container ships are growing, so they’re carrying more goods, and that creates more truck traffic at our ports, which then creates increases of volumes on our roadways.
FRANDZEL: I asked Sal the same thing that the media asked: What’s next? What’s it going to take to solve this problem?
HERNANDEZ: In the short term, I think when you look at the issue of truck parking, things like development of apps – there’s a lot of apps out there that provide information to truck drivers on the number of spaces available on both public and private truck parking locations. As that technology – those apps – become more prevalent in the market, we may be seeing better planning by our carriers and the truckers, of course. DOT is doing their best to work with and create private/public partnerships with industry to provide more truck parking locations. Some other technologies that are being provided are these variable message signs along the highway routes informing truck drivers on the nearest truck parking location and the number of spaces available for them to park so they can start planning.
FRANDZEL: Sal’s also preparing a study for the Idaho Transportation Department. He wants to determine if truck parking information can be integrated into the state’s 511 traffic information hotline. And he’s evaluating the potential of other technologies and that could help truckers plan ahead. Then there’s the autonomous elephant in the room.
HERNANDEZ: Medium-longer term is the penetration of autonomous vehicles in the market, especially for long-haul distances. Of course, you’ll still probably need a truck driver in some of those just to make sure when you’re approaching a dense urban area that the trucker can maneuver the vehicle in the system if the city is not ready to handle such technologies. But at least in the long-haul distances, we’ll see, I would say, more rested truck drivers. I’m very optimistic, hopefully in my lifetime I see that all the vehicles are autonomous, maybe like the Jetsons, we’re flying around, everything is quite autonomous and free of crashes of course.
FRANDZEL: But he made it clear that it’ll be a while before autonomous freight vehicles play a major role in freight distribution. Until they do, we need truckers, and they need rest, they need proper parking, and they deserve the right to sleep easy.
[MUSIC: Mother Maybelle, by Paul Marhoefer, used with permission of the artist]
*HERNANDEZ: Anything we can do to improve the safety of our driving population, especially our truck drivers, they do so much. Our economy really depends on them, really, a big part of it. If we don’t provide a safe and adequate location for them to park, it makes it really difficult for them, it makes it really dangerous for everybody.
FRANDZEL: This episode was produced by me, Steve Frandzel, with additional audio editing by Molly Aton and production assistance by Jens Odegaard. Thanks Jens.
[MUSIC: Tooter and the Line, Paul Marhoefer, used with permission of the artist]
JENS ODEGAARD: You’re welcome.
FRANDZEL: Special thanks to Paul Marhoefer, who graciously let us to share some of his wonderful music. All the music in today’s podcast came from Paul. I just can’t stop listening to his stuff. Check him out on YouTube. There’s a link in the show notes for today’s episode. Our intro is “The Ether Bunny” by Eyes Closed Audio on SoundCloud and used with permission of a Creative Commons attribution license. For more episodes, visit engineeringoutloud.oregonstate.edu, or subscribe by searching “Engineering Out Loud” on your favorite podcast app. Bye now, and keep on truckin’.