A hard, dangerous ride

Long hours, grueling schedules push many independent truckers to the edge

December 10, 2006|By Stephen Franklin and Darnell Little | Stephen Franklin and Darnell Little,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

Hurtling down a darkened Indiana highway, Roger Kobernick pulls his rig into a truck stop just long enough to grab his one meal of the day, a thin baloney-and-cheese sandwich that he gulps down with a huge mug of black coffee.

He has several more hours of driving ahead this night to reach a warehouse in Walton, Ky., where he wants to be the first in line so he can get quickly unloaded. The next morning, he sets off without breakfast or washing up. Hours later as he falls in with a truck caravan snaking along a stretch of North Carolina's Smoky Mountains, he relaxes and his worries spill out.

"I'm 42 years old," he says. "And what am I going to do? Give it up? No, you gotta go out and pay the bills. You gotta keep plugging at it. I don't foresee me ever retiring. My dad worked till the day he died, and I foresee that being me."

Spurred by a global economy that demands that goods be delivered on time and at low prices, business has never been so brisk and so cutthroat for truckers. Paid by the delivery, not the hour, the country's 350,000 independent truckers are lashed to punishing schedules that practically force them to live in their rigs. Counting all their time on the job, some earn as little as $8 an hour.

Long hours, chaotic schedules and exhausting work conditions make for a potentially lethal formula - for truck drivers and everyone else on the road.

Nearly a decade ago, the government vowed to significantly reduce the number of fatalities from truck crashes, but the results have been mixed. Nationally the death toll fell until 2002 and then started climbing. In the three most heavily traveled states, California, Texas and Florida, deaths involving large truck crashes have steadily climbed.

Over 5,000 people die and 116,000 are injured yearly in truck-related accidents, according to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration.

Most often the victims are in passenger cars.

Take the night last April when trucker Robert Spencer, 37, of Canton Township, Mich., was headed north on I-69 in Indiana, according to a sworn statement from an investigator.

His truck crossed the highway's divide and slammed into a southbound van carrying nine people from the Fort Wayne campus of Taylor University. All were injured; five were killed.

"Did I hit something? What happened? Who did this?" Spencer said at the scene. Besides five counts of reckless homicide, Spencer also was charged with filing a false logbook, concealing that he had driven 9 hours beyond the 11-hour daily maximum.

Truckers do not escape being victims; 930 were killed in the U.S. while working last year, up 33 percent from 1992. And while they made up only 2 percent of the work force last year, they accounted for more than 16 percent of fatal workplace injuries.

The health of truck drivers has been taken up by a federal appeals court in Washington, D.C. It heard the latest arguments in a long battle that has pitted trucking companies against groups concerned with driver safety. Companies are pushing to increase the time drivers can be behind the wheel; critics contend that extending truckers' work days is aimed at increasing corporate profits at drivers' expense.

The face-off began more than a decade ago. It started when Congress, alarmed by the growing toll of highway crashes, asked for new rules to protect truckers' health.

After much political wrangling, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration responded in 2003 by issuing a rule that, among other steps, expanded truckers' daily driving time to 11 hours from 10. Safety groups challenged the rule, a federal appeals court upheld their complaint and ordered the agency to revise the rule. The federal agency came back with its revision last year, but safety groups and others challenged it, too, saying it reflected trucking firms' interests in cutting costs. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, the federal government's workplace health research arm, backed the opponents, saying that expanding driving time would lead to even more driver fatigue.

In reply, federal officials said an 11th hour would allow some truckers the flexibility to finish work without laying over. Added to the new rule was a 14-hour cap on a trucker's work day and a 34-hour break after a week's work. Both changes, the officials said, were aimed at normalizing truckers' lives.

Critics contended, however, that a 14-hour cap would mean that drivers will be able to work nearly 40 percent more than before.

"You have drivers who are already working almost twice the normal 40-hour week," says LaMont Byrd, the Teamsters' Health and Safety director.

Dave Osieke, head of safety for the American Trucking Association, said the fact that fatality rates had fallen until only recently is evidence "that safety has improved."

One reason fatality rates haven't fallen faster, adds Ian Grossman, a spokesman at the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, is that highways are more congested and more truckers are on the road.

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