Without rest areas, truckers scramble to find rest

  • Article by: NICOLE NORFLEET , Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 15, 2011 - 5:33 AM

Since the shutdown closed state rest areas, truck drivers have had fewer options on where to go when they need to stop.

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The McStop truck stop along Interstate 35 in Lakeville was packed on Wednesday afternoon. Since the Minnesota government shutdown has closed state rest areas, private truck stops are filling up early in the day.

Photo: , Brian Peterson

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James Raymer found a place to park his truck, and he wasn't giving it up.

The driver, who pulled into the MegaStop Holiday truck stop in Lakeville about 1:30 p.m. on Wednesday, decided to wait until morning to deliver his load, rather than drop it off at 4 p.m. and risk being without a place to park overnight.

"I was lucky to find this," Raymer said, resting in the cab of his truck.

With nearly all highway rest areas closed during the state shutdown -- which continues, at least for now, despite an agreement between Gov. Mark Dayton and Republican leaders -- truck drivers have overrun truck stops and gas stations. It's feared that truckers could even resort to illegally parking on highway shoulders to sleep or drive past their allowed time. Experts worry that without a safe place to sleep, tired truckers will be behind the wheel.

"There ain't enough truck stops in the state of Minnesota to begin with," said trucker Dennis Ziegler, who drives through Minnesota about once a week. "The few that we have, there aren't enough spots."

A court decided Monday that highway rest areas were not core functions of state government and could not reopen during the shutdown.

Now, with no state rest areas, there's a shortage of space, which has led to inefficiency, frustration and higher costs for truckers, said John Hausladen, president of the Minnesota Trucking Association.

On Thursday, Hausladen wrote a letter to the U.S. secretary of transportation saying the shutdown was making it difficult for the Minnesota trucking industry to operate safely and in compliance with the law.

State regulations require truck drivers to rest for 10 consecutive hours after being on duty for 14 hours each day. Hausladen testified that truckers who can't find a private rest area in time have to choose between two illegal options: keep driving or park on a roadside, both safety hazards.

Sleep deprivation can have tragic consequences, especially for truck drivers, said Dr. Michel Cramer Bornemann, a sleep forensics investigator at Hennepin County Medical Center.

"To be able to have rest areas so that these individuals can get the adequate amount of sleep is very important so that personal and public safety can be assured," Cramer Bornemann said.

Sleep deprivation can cause short-term memory loss, delayed reaction times and just plain falling asleep while driving, all with potentially catastrophic consequences for people driving large vehicles, he said.

So far there hasn't been an uptick in accidents related to trucker fatigue or truckers parking where they are not supposed to, said State Patrol Lt. Eric Roeske.

But truckers are reduced to having to play a game of musical chairs to find spots to rest.

At the Lakeville stop, truckers have to show up early to vie for spots.

Raymer, a relatively new truck driver who was making a trip from Louisiana to the Twin Cities, found the stop by accident and then decided to cut his day short.

"After 4 p.m., what do you think this lot would look like? I wouldn't have had a place to park," he said.

Even before the shutdown, he recalled having difficulty finding a place to get off the road in Minnesota when his working limit was almost up.

Trucker Bob Horman said that while drivers may normally park at 5 or 6 p.m., since the shutdown they have to arrive at about 3 p.m. at some places to get a spot, he said.

"These things fill up pretty quick. ... Now, you have to go to truck stops pretty early if you want to get a space," Horman said.

Besides being inconvenient, getting there early costs truckers money, because it means fewer hours on the road, Hausladen said.

"If I get there after I've only worked 10 hours, I just lost four hours of productive time," Hausladen said.

Some drivers are working with their dispatchers to avoid having to take rest time in Minnesota altogether, meaning that rest areas near state borders such as those in western Wisconsin are seeing more trucks, too, he said.

Not everyone is frustrated by the traffic.

Mark Pearson, one of the managers of the Truckers Inn in Faribault, Minn., said that business has been good since the shutdown. He guessed that the stop has gotten about 30 to 50 extra trucks per night.

"Every time I look out there, it's packed at nighttime," he said.

At the Clearwater Travel Plaza, which is off I-94 near the closed Clearwater rest area, sales are up compared with the same time last year, said chief financial officer Becky Thorpe.

The rest stop has 120 to 140 spaces for trucks, she said.

"We're being pushed to the max now," she said. Some drivers are being turned away.

Despite the shortage of resting space, truck drivers are persevering, Hausladen said.

"The trucking industry is adapting every day to changes in the environment, whether it's bad weather, accidents, congestion, routes being closed -- so the government shutdown is just one big traffic jam that we will continue to work through until this is done."

Nicole Norfleet • 612-673-4495

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