As truckers struggle to make ends meet, they push the limits of endurance and highway safety
By Stephen Franklin and Darnell Little, Tribune staff reporters - Sun, December 10, 2006
Hurtling down a darkened Indiana highway, Roger Kobernick pulls his 75-foot-long rig into a truck stop just long enough to grab his one meal of the day, a thin bologna and cheese sandwich that he gulps down with a huge mug of black coffee.
Roger Kobernick waits on a dock of a produce warehouse in Homestead, Fla., while his truck is loaded. It took 2½ days to locate and pick up seven loads of produce. "I haven't had a vacation in 12 years. I have no dental. No pension. No savings," he says.
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 and back on the road.
"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 'til the day he died and I foresee that being me."
Truckers like Kobernick are travelers adrift in a tumultuous sea.
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. Paid by the delivery, not the hour, the country's 350,000 independent truckers like Kobernick 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.
More than 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 vehicles.
Take the night last April when trucker Robert Spencer, 37, of Canton Township, Mich., was headed north on Interstate Highway 69 in Indiana at close to 70 m.p.h., 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 Ft. Wayne campus of Taylor University. Five were killed, four of them students in their early 20s, and the rest were injured.
"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 1/2 hours beyond the 11-hour daily maximum allowed by law.
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 workforce last year they accounted for more than 16 percent of fatal workplace injuries.
Ongoing regulation battle
After much political wrangling, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration in 2003 responded 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 last year came back with its revision, 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 workday 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 drivers would 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. Since 1996 trucking mileage has soared by 43 billion miles, up 24 percent. Considering such dramatic changes, the death toll increase is quite low, he says.
Taking the surge in trucking mileage into account, the number of fatalities has fallen in the last 30 years.
In 1975, there were 5.51 fatalities per 100 million vehicle miles traveled; that number had dropped to 2.81 by 1996, and was 2.29 in 2004, according to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration.
A truck passes Cafe 27 on Florida's Highway 27, a truck stop where Kobernick spent two nights between deliveries and pickups.
Waiting, for nothing
Kobernick started working around trucks at age 16 at the same La Crosse, Wis., company that employed his father, LaVern. Nine years ago Kobernick became an independent trucker. And every other week for the last few years he has made runs to and from Florida from points in Wisconsin and Minneapolis.
On this particular day he had a good-paying load: more than 20 tons of fish, nuts, cheese, mustards and horseradish.
But going home with a profitable load is usually more difficult. Competition going north is so stiff that Kobernick sometimes barely breaks even or waits for days for better-paying loads. Time spent waiting is money lost because independents are not paid for sitting idle.
"Hopefully I will catch up one day here down the road," he says wistfully, early on a southern run as he steers through a clogged stretch of Interstate Highway 90 near Chicago.
Photographs of his family are stuck above the door beside him in the cab, and he calls home morning and night, asking his wife about their two young girls, and what's going on back home in La Crosse.
Because he cannot afford health care, he relies on state-sponsored coverage for himself and his family. They are qualified to receive food stamps, but pride stops them from doing so. In his best year he earned $40,000, but last year he made only $9,000.
Much has gone wrong for him in the last few years, and he partly blames it on freight rates that have barely gone up while fuel and other costs have soared and eaten away at his profits.
He also has made some financial missteps, among them expecting tax write-offs for his rig to help his bottom line. Instead, he owes $15,000 in state and federal taxes.
And 25 years behind the wheel have taken a toll. Last summer, barely able to bend his back, he had surgery. One doctor had turned him away, saying surgery would be foolish since he would return to truck driving.
The surgery put him out of work for four months. Without savings, he took out a home equity loan to pay bills, then sold his truck's trailer and bought a less costly model.
He also has decided to sell his 2-year-old $140,000 truck because the $2,000 monthly payments are killing him. To attract potential buyers Kobernick has had to steadily lower the asking price.
Once back to work, he initially drove his 18-wheel, 80,000-pound behemoth practically anywhere, as long as it brought in needed cash.
Now he focuses on the Florida run. Without looking at a map, Kobernick knows all the weigh stations and the truck stops where there's room for the night--a growing problem for truckers.
"I haven't had a vacation in 12 years. I have no dental. No pension. No savings," he says as the sun's dying rays filter through pine trees in South Carolina. "Hopefully, I'll catch up one day here down the line. But right now that isn't going to happen any time soon."
Union dominance disappears
When did the dream of being a trucker turn sour?
It began after the government deregulated the industry in 1980, says Mike Belzer, a one-time Chicago trucker and now a Wayne State University professor and trucking industry expert. Ever since, he says, it has been a "race to the bottom."
Before 1980, nearly 9 out of 10 over-the-road drivers were union members, he says. Today, 1 out of 10 carry a union card. That shift ushered in lower pay, fewer benefits and tougher working conditions.
It also made the highways far more dangerous as inexperienced and lower-paid drivers push themselves to earn more, Belzer adds.
"You get what you pay for," Belzer explains. It is a matter of choosing between a "skilled professional" and someone "from the soup line," he says.
New drivers' inexperience worries Kobernick too. Schmoozing at a warehouse in northern Kentucky, Kobernick swaps stories about new drivers with fellow trucker Jerry Knoy, 52, of Salem, Ind.
"I met a guy two weeks ago who said, `Hey, can you back my truck in for me,'" Knoy says.
`Sweatshop on wheels'
By the late 1990s much of the industry was transformed into a "sweatshop on wheels," Belzer claims. Truckers' income, when adjusted for inflation, dropped steadily as the market was flooded with new companies, new drivers, and pressures from shippers and manufacturers to keep freight costs down.
Figures from the American Trucking Association show that between 1980 and 2005, the number of interstate trucking companies soared from 20,000 to 564,000. But nearly 90 percent operate six trucks or less, according to the industry group.
The result is a highly fragmented industry with "low profit margins," according to an association study.
Out of an estimated 3.3 million truckers, about 1.3 million haul freight. Of these, about 350,000 are independent drivers. Most own their trucks but lease them to companies. Or, in Kobernick's case, they work for whoever has goods for them to carry.
Some Teamsters members earn as much as $70,000 yearly, and industry experts say the salaries of drivers for large, non-union fleets are close. Overall, the average pay is about $35,000 a year.
The average independent driver earns about $40,000 a year, according to the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association, a Missouri-based group that represents about 140,000 drivers.
"But to make that $40,000, you've got to work about 120 hours" a week, says John Siebert, an official with the group.
Both mental and physical health can be affected, he says.
Several years ago, when glancing through members' obituaries, Siebert discovered that their average age at death was 55. In his research, he also found a higher-than-average suicide rate for members and turned his findings over to NIOSH, which has been examining truckers' health for the last few years.
Siebert says he believes such problems are linked to difficult lives and financial stress. He lists organization surveys showing that nearly 9 out of 10 of its members are obese or overweight and nearly two-thirds expect to rely solely upon Social Security when they retire.
He especially worries about produce haulers like Kobernick who have highly unpredictable work schedules. If anything goes wrong, or their schedule is too tight, they lose out financially, and their health often is neglected as they push to work longer hours.
"These guys are working 100 to 120 hours a week, and their sleep patterns are all over the clock," he says.
Hard to stay positive
Kobernick is first in line in the morning outside the warehouse in Jacksonville, Fla. But he didn't have a definite time slot and workers say they can't unload him. That's it, a clerk coolly says and returns to her paperwork.
He phones the shipper, who tells him to leave the goods in a warehouse in Orlando.
That will mean two to three hours of lost time, and lost money spent on fuel and tolls--cash he didn't plan on spending.
Moreover, Kobernick is not sure he can make his next delivery on time in Pompano, and that unsettles him. He calls the warehouse and politely asks if they can stay open a little bit late. They say they can, but not much.
As he wheels his truck, the sunlight is blinding and Jacksonville's morning traffic seems glued to the road. He doesn't talk much this morning and unloads the truck himself in Orlando in order to get back on the road. There is no time for a break.
Luckily traffic is not bad, and he arrives with time to spare at a warehouse on a small side street in Pompano. Late in the afternoon he takes his day's first break at a farmer's market in Pompano, where truckers gather.
The banter is gloomy. Shipping rates are low, the truckers say. Some have been waiting days for a good load. Others are just tired of waiting and wondering about whether they can eke out a decent living.
The business, they say, is not what it used to be.
"There's no way a driver can go by the law," says a tired-looking, middle-age trucker. The group nods in agreement. They also complain about truckers who accept low rates that undercut others.
"There are guys sitting around here who'll take 75 cents a mile to get out of here. I need $1.50 just to make ends meet," says Steve Hinton, 63, of Atlantic, Iowa.
Kobernick doesn't have time to kill. He rolls on to a warehouse west of Ft. Lauderdale, almost in the Everglades. He parks at the entrance to the warehouse, and just before 10 p.m. falls asleep in seconds.
By 5 a.m. he is already anxiously waiting for the warehouse to open. He has taken only one shower in four days and there's no place to wash up or go to the bathroom.
He has no idea whether he will have a good load going home. Time spent sitting is simply lost money because independent truckers are paid only by a share of the shipping costs or by mileage, not their time on the job.
"Every day something seems to come along to put us out of commission. But you just gotta keep that positive attitude," he says in the warm, lonely darkness.