During disruption events, truckers should be well-informed about the measures that are being taken to help them, according to Scott Grenerth, subject matter expert at Truck Specialized Parking Services.
Truck Specialized Parking Services offers drivers information on truck parking availability. Grenerth, who has logged more than 1 million miles of safe driving as a company driver and owner-operator, spoke at a webinar hosted by the Federal Highway Administration on July 21. The event was part of FHWA’s Talking Freight seminar series.
Grenerth pointed to the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic to emphasize the importance of communicating to truckers. When the pandemic caused stores and travel centers to limit services or shut down completely, truckers had difficulty finding so much as a cup of coffee.
In early April 2020, FHWA issued a notice to state departments of transportation that the agency would allow food trucks (or at least not ticket them) at federally funded interstate highway rest areas to support truck drivers during the pandemic. A few states responded quickly, including Grenerth’s home state of Ohio.
In surveying over-the-road truckers, Grenerth found that, in many cases, truckers weren’t notified about a food truck’s presence with enough time to exit the interstate. He suggested ramped up efforts to raise truckers’ awareness of what is being offered to them, through tools such as overhead variable message signs or signs that can be hauled behind a truck.
Grenerth noted this sort of extraordinary response in the future likely would hinge on emergencies linked to hurricanes, severe flooding and large wildfires.
“We definitely just need to make sure that whatever comes up like this kind of response, truckers know where they can get the help that they’re going to be seeking,” Grenerth said. “We just need to make sure they know about that.
Jason Miller, associate professor of supply chain management at Michigan State University, discussed effects of the pandemic on the trucking industry that have lingered after travel centers and truck stops reopened.
Miller said the pandemic has resulted in a change to the mix of freight getting moved, noting retail truck tonnage in 2021 is higher than levels recorded in 2018 and 2019.
“It ties into the challenges of [upsetting] the apple cart, and then we start to have a different mixture of freight taking place,” Miller said. “We have a mixture that is less manufacturing and substantially more retail. That creates a lot of disruptions.”
Compounding these disruptions are workforce challenges brought on by the pandemic. Miller said 74,000 fewer individuals were working in trucking in 2020 than in 2019.
In particular, he pointed to drops in the number of people working in the long-distance less-than-truckload and long-distance truckload sectors. However, Miller said the local general freight sector is up 16,500 individuals in May 2021 compared with May 2018 levels.
“We’ve had demand rebound to near-record levels,” Miller said, “but our number of long-distance drivers is down substantially from where we were even three years ago during that same time period of essentially record-high demand.”