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May 23, 2011 8:00 AM, EDT

Detention Self-Help

This Editorial appears in the May 23 print edition of Transport Topics. Click here to subscribe today.

There’s no doubt that the failure of some shippers and consignees to promptly load or unload trailers is a serious issue for the trucking industry.

And because of this, most fleets have added detention rules into their contracts with their customers, detailing just how long it should take for a trailer to be loaded or unloaded.

When shippers fail to meet the rules, fleets are then able to charge their laggards for the time that is lost: both to help cover drivers’ wasted time and for tying up the equipment.

So we understand the motivation behind the recent moves to put more pressure on fleet customers to not impede the flow of commerce by detaining drivers and equipment. (See story, p. 5)

But we also strongly believe that this is not an area that needs a new round of federal regulations and oversight to solve, because the so-called “solution” could turn out to be a lot worse than the problem.

The last thing the trucking industry needs is for the federal government to decide just how long is “too long” when it comes to loading and unloading trailers.

We appreciate the attention that Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) has brought to the issue of driver detention and can understand his desire to ensure that our national supply chain isn’t impeded by laggards in the chain.

But we have to strongly object to the solution he proposes: the creation of national standards by the Department of Transportation and the imposition of fixed penalties for violations.

As Dan England, ATA’s first vice chairman and the president of C.R. England Inc., put it last week: “No carrier wants to see our drivers’ time wasted. However, this is not an issue that can be handled with a ‘one-size-fits-all’ regulation, and as a result, is best addressed in contractual agreements between carriers and shippers.”

And ATA Chairman Barbara Windsor said, “Federal regulation in this area would directly affect shipping rates and would significantly change the playing field for carriers and shippers.” Windsor runs Hahn Transportation, a tank-truck carrier in Maryland.

In other words, what might be acceptable for England’s Utah-based refrigerated carrier might not work for Hahn’s tank-truck fleet or a flatbed carrier.

This is surely a situation where the involved carrier has to determine acceptable detention times — and the penalties to be assessed when customers violate them.