Monday, May 27, 2024

In the wee hours one night in July, a Greyhound bus heading to St. Louis turned onto an exit ramp leading to a rest area in Southern Illinois and hit three parked tractor-trailers, smashing its front, crumpling its roof and ripping off part of its side. Three passengers were killed. The tractor-trailers were parked along the ramp’s shoulder, a common sight on the nation’s highways.

“It’s scary because it can happen in the blink of an eye,” said Carmen Anderson, 64, a South Dakota-based truck driver for America’s Service Line, who recently had to park on an off-ramp in North Carolina after not being able to find parking at rest areas or truck stops.

The accident in Illinois highlighted a widespread complaint among the nation’s truckers: Parking spots for commercial trucks are hard to come by. As a result, truckers often take refuge in store parking lots, along the shoulder of highways and on ramps, though the legality of doing so varies by location.

The shortage of parking is both inconvenient and financially costly for truck drivers, and it can lead to dangerous situations when truckers are forced to improvise. Federal transportation officials and lawmakers are trying to bring some relief to truckers. Under the Biden administration, the Transportation Department has awarded tens of millions of dollars to projects around the country to build more truck parking, and a bipartisan proposal in Congress would allocate hundreds of millions more to address the issue.

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said the lack of parking spaces was one of the top issues he heard about from truckers. In an interview, Mr. Buttigieg said the Greyhound bus crash was a reminder of the pressing need to tackle the problem.

“People who aren’t even part of the trucking industry lost their lives in a scenario that was impacted by those trucks being there on the ramp,” Mr. Buttigieg said. “It’s not that the drivers on the ramp are careless about safety. It’s that they don’t feel like they have a better choice.”

To illustrate the shortage, the trucking industry cites a lopsided statistic: Across the nation, there is one truck parking space for every 11 truck drivers. An industry study found that drivers typically sacrificed about an hour per day to find parking. That loss of driving time works out to about $5,500 a year in lost earnings, or a 12 percent cut in pay, according to the American Trucking Associations, a trade group.

Long-haul truck drivers typically sleep in their cabs, and the scramble for parking is partly driven by federal safety rules about how long drivers can be at the wheel before stopping to rest. In the past, truckers kept paper time logs, which enabled them to bend the rules when they could not find parking at the exact time they were due for a break. But a federal rule that took full effect in 2019 forced truckers to switch to an electronic system that uses a digital time log. Truckers can be penalized if they do not
begin their break on time.

“Finding a place to park where you’re safe, where your vehicle is safe, and finding that parking in a reasonable amount of time so that it doesn’t cost you compensation is hard at the end of the day,” said Dean Key, 56, a truck driver based out of Holstein, Iowa.

Todd Spencer, the president of the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association, which represents truckers, said that trucking companies and drivers had been pressing the federal government to address the lack of parking for more than two decades.

On Capitol Hill, lawmakers in both parties have pushed in recent years to chip away at the problem. Funding for truck parking was included in an infrastructure bill that passed the House in 2021, but the provision did not make it into the Senate’s bipartisan infrastructure measure, which became law later that year.

This year, a bipartisan group of lawmakers reintroduced a bill called the Truck Parking Safety Improvement Act, which would provide $755 million over three years to build more truck parking.

In an interview, one of its sponsors, Representative Mike Bost, an Illinois Republican whose family has a trucking business, pointed to a federal survey in which nearly all truck drivers reported having difficulties finding safe parking.

During the Biden administration, the Transportation Department has awarded several grants to fund the construction of truck parking around the country. In September, Mr. Buttigieg visited a newly expanded rest area outside Salem, S.D., along Interstate 90. Flanked by tractor-trailers, Mr. Buttigieg called truck parking “a life-and-death issue,” and he said his department had encouraged states to tap into infrastructure funding to build more spaces.

The National Transportation Safety Board is reviewing the accident in Illinois involving the Greyhound bus. It is also reviewing a deadly crash in Oregon in May in which a tractor-trailer hit a van carrying farm-workers that was parked on a highway shoulder, pushing it into another tractor-trailer that was also parked there. Seven people in the van were killed, and the driver of the first tractor-trailer has been indicted on manslaughter and other charges.

In the meantime, Lori Ann Barber, who lost her father this summer in a crash involving a parked tractor-trailer, has been left to cope with the death of a loved one while hoping that the government addresses the shortage of truck parking. In July, Ms. Barber’s father, Mario Gonzalez, was driving on a highway south of San Antonio when he turned onto an exit ramp leading to a rest area and his Ford F-150 pickup truck hit a parked tractor-trailer. He was pronounced dead at the scene.

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