Drivers Needed

Drivers Needed

Copyright 2004, Traffic World, Inc.

If you want some sense of how additional changes to the hours of service rules for truck drivers might change shipping patterns and trucking strategies, don''t go to Washington. Drive about four hours north of the capital on Route 15 to New Columbia, Pa., and talk to Ed Ferguson. As field operations manager for Watsontown Trucking, Ferguson has more hands-on knowledge of logbooks and loading docks than a barrelful of bureaucrats or circuit court judges. He''s been driving trucks since 1969 and for the past three years he''s been recruiting and training drivers for Watsontown Trucking.

In the rolling green countryside of Central Pennsylvania, where you''ll find a tractor-trailer parked in front of every other farm house, the court decision sending the revised hours of service rules back to the drawing board hasn''t generated as much heat as you might expect.

"I''ve only had about six to eight drivers ask me about it," Ferguson said last week. That''s a far cry from the response the new rules generated when they took effect. "In the first week of January, I probably had a hundred phone calls from guys asking, ''Am I doing it right?''" said Ferguson.

Perhaps Watsontown''s drivers are just too busy to worry overmuch about the latest twist in the hours of service saga. The truckload carrier''s business is booming. While many of the major truckload carriers talk about holding the line on hiring and adding equipment to keep a tight rein on capacity, smaller operators such as Watsontown are filling in service gaps created by the economic expansion.

"We hired 30 drivers last year, and we keep on adding more," Ferguson said. "Business is fantastic."

That''s certainly true for many trucking companies. J.B. Hunt Transport Services saw net earnings surge 79 percent in the second quarter, with its trucking division posting an 87.5 operating ratio. ABF Freight System posted an OR of 91.6 in the second quarter, and its LTL tonnage increased 9.8 percent over first quarter volume (see stories, pages 26-28). That jump reflects the extent and momentum of the economic recovery, especially in the domestic manufacturing sector.

With business that good, the question many trucking executives are asking is not, "Do my drivers have enough hours?" but "Do I have enough drivers?" If you can''t haul a shipment because you don''t have a free truck, whether the rules allow 10 or 11 hours of driving a day becomes a moot point. Trucking capacity reportedly is so tight that some traffic may even be shifted to barge, or so Columbia Coastal Transport President Bruce Fenimore hopes (see story, page 32).

The economic recovery took the bite out of the transition to the revised HOS rules for many carriers earlier this year and it may take the bite out of further changes to the rules, as long as those changes are not so draconian they would hobble the trucking industry.

That doesn''t mean that uncertainty over the rules or further regulatory revisions shouldn''t concern shippers. "I don''t think this can benefit shippers," said Gary Bentle, director of logistics and transportation for textbook publisher Thomson Learning in Independence, Ky. "Carriers have already made changes to comply with the new rules. Any more changes will require more driver training, with the costs to be passed on to shippers."

Watsontown Trucking retrained all its 160 drivers last year before the new rules took effect, and if the rules are altered, "We''d just have to bring the drivers back in and retrain them again," Ferguson said. If the HOS rules change dramatically, "It''s going to come down to the consumers paying more, as the trucking companies charge higher rates and manufacturers charge more for their products," he said.

Some things, it seems, never change.