Opinion: Driver Dock Detention Costs All

By Herb Schmidt


Con-way Truckload

This Opinion piece appears in the Jan. 17 print edition of Transport Topics. Click here to subscribe today.

Anne Ferro, administrator for the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, recently addressed members of the National Industrial Transportation League about an issue that’s become all too common industrywide — driver detention at the docks.

Ferro reminded those shippers and receivers in attendance that driver safety and that of the motoring public will remain at risk as long as drivers feel pressure to reclaim lost income from hours they have to sit at the dock waiting for customers to load or unload their trailers — hours that do not earn them an income.

The issue of safety alone should be enough to get the industry motivated to demand a change to this wasteful practice, yet driver detention continues to be a problem ignored. Shippers are in a position to make driver detention a thing of the past and create a win-win for all of us — benefits of which move well beyond safety.

When freight moves without delay, drivers can provide for their families, shippers benefit from improved service and cost-effective rates, and carriers can reduce costs associated with expensive relays and deadhead miles.

Driver detention charges alone are not the solution and hardly cover the true associated costs. Today, there is ongoing discussion about the need to increase productivity in the industry and keep equipment, freight and drivers moving. Though awareness is a good start, the conversation must evolve toward outlining ways that shippers can work with carriers to minimize, and one day eliminate, driver detention.

“Dwell time” is one of the primary elements of a carrier’s operating cost. It’s a “lost opportunity” cost that’s factored into the systems all carriers use to price freight. Drivers have a finite number of hours of service available to drive, and once their clock starts, it doesn’t stop until they run out of those hours. You no longer can split the sleeper berth as in the past. So, when drivers are burning time at a dock and not receiving any income from it, that’s a huge inefficiency. The driver has to lie down for 10 consecutive hours before he can start his driving time again.

All of this translates to higher costs and, therefore, higher rates for shippers. By detaining drivers at the docks, shippers are increasing not only their own rates but those of all shippers. For every detained driver, there are shippers that aren’t getting served on time and drivers who can’t earn a living. And, with hours-of-service regulations, you simply cannot make up time. It’s gone forever.

Some of the most common reasons for delays at shippers’ docks include lack of manpower to load and offload freight efficiently, poorly maintained equipment and lack of coordination between truck arrival and departure times, resulting in overbooked dock space.

Shippers can turn these problems around in several ways. One is to schedule appointments. Many shippers will give carriers appointment windows of three to four hours. Shippers can work with those times and use them as an opportunity to pre-stage freight and prepare for carrier arrival times in a way that’s organized and methodical. This preparation takes more management on the part of the shipper, but it will dramatically improve dock efficiency.

Successful dock operations require coordination and management of people and equipment, and there is little room for slack in dock procedures and in protocol. If you’ve got forklifts that aren’t operating, it doesn’t matter how many dockworkers are on hand.

It’s important for shippers to survey dock operations, identify weaknesses and rectify the situation — whether repairing equipment or calling in additional help on the dock.

Part of the challenge is that the industry is making a transition from the old warehouse model to using the trailer as a warehouse — that’s important, as smart shippers take cost out of their supply chains and schedule freight delivery very close to the time it’s needed. Years ago, the decision often was to put freight in a warehouse or pre-stage it at another location and then rehandle it. The industry needs to adapt to this change.

Driver detention has tentacles that reach far and wide. It affects the service levels provided to customers all the way down the line, following a delayed stop. It affects driver pay because carriers aren’t generating as much revenue from detention charges as they would if the truck were moving. In turn, it affects driver morale and results in greater competition for drivers as compensation packages are forced to increase.

All of these issues — coupled with greater demand, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration’s Compliance Safety Accountability program requirements and pre-employment screening processes — already are poised to curtail driver capacity. Let us not forget the overarching conundrum of safety at large.

Driver detention charges serve merely as a patch over a much larger issue. It’s time to take responsibility for the problem, gain a more in-depth understanding of what’s really at stake, investigate solutions and take action.

As an industry, we are long overdue for this change.

Based in Joplin, Mo., Con-way Truckload is a subsidiary of Con-way Inc. and a provider of expedited, time-definite, full-truckload transportation services across North America.