June 19, 2017

In the transportation industry, there are few things worse than being idle. As the saying goes, there is no earning when the wheels aren’t turning. That’s especially true when it comes to truck drivers, who too often find themselves detained for hours at pick-up or destination points while their freight is loaded or unloaded. This has serious ramifications not only for the drivers but also for the wider industry in general. To better understand the issue, let’s take a deeper dive into what causes driver detention, how it’s affecting the industry and what might be done to address it.


Put simply, driver detention occurs any time a trucker’s schedule is delayed beyond the expected timeframe. This may occur at either the pick-up point or the destination and is usually the result of delays in loading or unloading freight. The industry standard for wait times is generally two hours, but up to 63 percent of drivers report routinely being delayed for three hours or more. In some cases, that detention may even expand to five hours and beyond.

This, of course, is bad news for drivers and carriers. Detention pay is intended to defray some of the costs of detention, but that, too, is fraught with issues. The pay structure varies from company to company, and detention pay generally only begins after a “free” period – often the standard two hours, but sometimes even longer. Further, the rate is variable and often fails to adequately compensate drivers for potential lost wages and other expenses. To make matters worse, brokers sometimes fail to even collect detention pay from shippers in the first place.


The end result is a system that has significant negative effects on drivers, carriers and the industry as a whole. When trucks aren’t moving, everything comes to a standstill. A 2009 study by the U.S. Department of Transportation estimated that the sum effect of excessive driver detention costs the trucking industry as much as $4 billion each year in lost productivity alone. The cost to the public, according to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA), runs as high as $6.5 billion per year. No matter how you slice it, the message is clear: driver detention is one of the greatest problems facing the trucking industry today.

The routine detention of drivers at pick-up and destination points has other, secondary effects as well. FMCSA studies have suggested that drivers who are detained are more likely to drive faster or for longer periods of time in an attempt to meet ever-tighter schedules and recoup lost productivity. This increases the risk of accidents and other mishaps, which could result in higher insurance costs in addition to posing a public safety hazard. The increased stress may even have direct health impacts on drivers themselves.


The problem of driver detention is certainly an intractable one, but a number of mitigation measures have been suggested. The Department of Transportation Office of Inspector General has launched an audit of the issue with the aim of better understanding its impacts and identifying potential solutions, but many in the trucking industry remain wary of government regulation. Instead, many feel that the answers must come through carriers and brokers working together to call shippers to account. Brokers and carriers often suffer from poor communication that underplays the real issue of driver detention, and brokers frequently fail to collect sufficient detention fees – which, in many cases, means drivers ultimately don’t get compensated.

Another potential solution is the implementation of systematic shipper ratings. Some shippers are known for their particularly lax approach to prompt loading and unloading, and making it easier for carriers and brokers to identify problem shippers could allow the market to squeeze out those who detain drivers regularly – or force them to change their ways. Carriers could also be empowered to factor the likely cost of detention into their rate negotiations, ensuring that drivers are more fairly compensated even if they find themselves delayed. If the industry is unable to correct the issue and the government is forced to step in, the ultimate solution may be the implementation of a strict set of regulations outlining when shippers are permitted to delay truckers and for how long, how much they will be required to pay and what options drivers have for dealing with excessive delays.

Delays in loading and unloading freight have been a problem for as long as the transportation industry has existed, but the reality of soaring costs and lost productivity demands a solution to driver detention. The transportation industry faces a challenging and uncertain future as it is, and losing billions of dollars and countless hours of productivity each year is simply unsustainable. There is unlikely to be a single magic-bullet solution, but the proposals outlined above may go a long way toward keeping America’s truckers moving.

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