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Trucks remain tight as electronic logbook rule to take effect

Truck rates remained strong following the Thanksgiving holiday with no letup in sight as the mandatory electronic logbook regulation is slated to take effect later this month.

“There aren’t enough drivers right now and that’s not going to change with electronic logging coming in soon,” said Len Epley of Banks Brokerage Co. Inc., based in Gilbert, SC.  “It’s going to be a mess. Coast-to-coast trips are going to take at least a day longer, maybe two.”

On Dec. 18, the long-anticipated Electronic Logging Device Rule (ELD Rule) of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) goes into effect. While the agency did announce a 90-day waiver for agriculture in late November, it has yet to issue guidance with regard to that waiver and what type of hauls it affects. The ELD Rule mandates that all trucks be equipped with electronic logging devices, which will automate compliance with FMCSA hours of service regulations. Ken Gilliland, transportation manager for Western Growers Association, based in Irvine, CA, noted that the new rule does not change the hours of service but will most likely cut down on violations of that rule. That’s an assertion that is widely held and has the trucking industry up in arms.

“Independents hate the new rule,” said Epley. “They know it’s going to cut down on income and is just another way for the government to keep track of what they are doing. Instead of being able to make three cross-country hauls in a month, a driver will only be able to make two — if he’s lucky.”

There are many nuances to the hours-of-service regulations, but basically a driver can only haul for 11 hours and then he or she must take a 10-hour break. That has been the rule for many years but it is an open secret that it is widely violated by drivers using hand-written logbooks.

The FMCSA ag waiver was issued at the request of the livestock industry, which petitioned for the exemption, noting that their haulers were not prepared for the logbook change and that it would be unreasonable for a trucker to have to pull over and rest for 10 hours when his freight is live animals. Haulers of bees made a similar argument, noting that bees could die during the interim. The livestock haulers basically acknowledged in their petition that the hours-of- service regulations were not being followed.

When announcing the waiver, Gilliland said FMCSA did not differentiate among various agricultural hauls but promised clarification would be issued in early December.

Even if fresh produce hauls are included in the temporary waiver, that would not totally solve or even delay the issue for most truckers operating in this space. Gilliland said many produce truckers haul fresh produce from production areas to population centers but the backhaul is mostly common goods. So those truckers would have to have electronic logging devices in their cabs anyway, monitoring all of their trucking activity.

Joe Carlon of Joe Carlon & Associates, a Salinas, CA, truck brokerage, said most of the drivers he currently works with are already equipped with ELDs and he said there is a sharp learning curve. “It costs at least a day (on a cross-country haul) and that’s only if you are very careful.”

He said multiple pickups and drops are extremely problematic if you are following the letter of the hours-of-service regulation. Pulling into a produce dock and waiting two hours to be loaded is drive time and must be calculated as part of the 11-hour work day. And, he said drivers have to put themselves into a good geographic position to take the 10-hour break. Position for that break can be time consuming. He added that it does happen that a trucker is 100 miles from destination when his allotted time expires. “He’s got to park the truck and wait 10 hours.”

Going into the Thanksgiving weekend, most drivers wanted to get home for the holiday, so trucks became scarce and rates climbed. A Salinas-to-Boston haul a week before Thanksgiving was in the $9,000 range. By early December, those rates had come off a bit but they were still in $8,000-$9,000 range, and sometimes higher. Carlon said most of his hauls are on a contract basis but he did hear of some five-digit rates the week after Thanksgiving.

Epley told The Produce News on Dec. 6 that truck rates from the West to Florida were in the $7,500 to $8,000 ballpark and trucks were scarce. “Nobody wants that haul because there is very little coming out of Florida (because of the fall storms) and they have to deadhead out of there. I don’t think these rates are coming down at all.”

Pam Young of Pam Young & Co. Inc., another Salinas truck broker, noted that there are other factors also influencing the rate structure at this time of year. “We do a lot of runs out of the Northwest and at this time of year the Christmas tree business is also competing for equipment.”