America’s Truckers Face a Chronic Headache: Finding Parking

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.

A rest area with truck parking on the eastbound side of Interstate 90 near Salem, S.D.Credit…Tim Gruber for The New York Times
A truck parked along the shoulder of a highway on-ramp near Lathrop, Mo.Credit…Tim Gruber for The New York Times

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.

Dean Key, a driver based out of Holstein, Iowa, said it was difficult to find a parking spot in a reasonable amount of time.Credit…Tim Gruber for The New York Times
Carmen Anderson, a South Dakota-based driver, recently had to park on an off-ramp in North Carolina.Credit…Tim Gruber for The New York Times

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.

Mr. Spencer said the push ramped up in 2009 after a truck driver named Jason Rivenburg was shot and killed in a robbery while parked at an abandoned gas station in South Carolina. Mr. Rivenburg had arrived early to deliver a load of milk and needed somewhere to park for the night.

Out of the tragedy came Jason’s Law, which passed Congress in 2012 as part of a broader transportation bill and required the federal government to assess the availability of truck parking in each state. Despite relentless campaigning over the years to increase parking spaces across the country, not much progress has been made.

“Drivers more and more find themselves in situations where there is no good choice, so you try to make the least bad choice you can,” Mr. Spencer said.

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.

The National Transportation Safety Board is reviewing two deadly crashes involving parked tractor-trailers: the accident in Illinois involving the Greyhound bus and a collision on a highway in Oregon.Credit…Tim Gruber for The New York Times

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. Mr. Bost’s grandfather started Bost Truck Service in Murphysboro, Ill., in 1935, and Mr. Bost later drove trucks himself and managed the company’s business operations for a decade.

“This is not just for the safety of your commercial driver,” Mr. Bost said. “More times than not, it is a noncommercial driver that normally hits them.”

During the Biden administration, the Transportation Department has awarded several grants to fund the construction of truck parking around the country, such as $23 million to build a commercial truck travel plaza in Caldwell County, Texas, in the region between Austin and San Antonio. Other grants have included $23 million to add 125 new parking spaces along Interstate 40 east of Nashville and $15 million to add 120 spaces along the Interstate 4 corridor between Tampa and Orlando in Florida.

In September, Mr. Buttigieg visited a newly expanded rest area outside Salem, S.D., along Interstate 90, which runs from Seattle to Boston. In 2021, the Transportation Department awarded a $62 million grant to South Dakota to overhaul a 28-mile stretch of the highway. One aspect of the project was the construction of new truck parking spaces.

Flanked by tractor-trailers, Mr. Buttigieg called truck parking “a life-and-death issue,” citing Mr. Rivenburg’s murder, and he said that his department had encouraged states to tap into infrastructure funding to build more spaces. During the stop, he and his team also met with about a dozen truckers over doughnuts and coffee.

Pete Buttigieg, the transportation secretary, met with truck drivers at a newly expanded rest stop on the westbound side of Interstate 90 near Salem.Credit…Tim Gruber for The New York Times
The westbound rest area was significantly expanded after the state received a $62 million federal grant to refurbish a 28-mile stretch of the highway.Credit…Tim Gruber for The New York Times

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 farmworkers 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.

The safety board will make recommendations once the investigations are completed. The Transportation Department and the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration can then use those recommendations to try to prevent similar crashes.

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. He “failed to control his speed,” according to the Texas Highway Patrol, and his Ford F-150 pickup truck hit a parked tractor-trailer. He was pronounced dead at the scene.

The crash occurred around 10 p.m., and Robert C. Hilliard, the family’s lawyer, said the tractor-trailer was parked without any cones or lights for Mr. Gonzalez to see. Mr. Hilliard said he believed that Mr. Gonzalez thought he was continuing along the highway rather than taking an exit.

Mr. Gonzalez’s family is suing the trucking company whose tractor-trailer was parked on the exit ramp. The company did not respond to requests for comment.

“We want change,” Ms. Barber said. “We want safety, and we don’t want anyone else to die in the manner that our father died.”

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