David Lones pulled his red and silver 18-wheeler off Interstate 95 South into the Maryland Welcome Center in Savage shortly after 5 p.m., some 12 hours after his day started in New Hampshire and in time to get a parking space for the night. He's not always so lucky.
"You get here after dark, you can't find a parking space," said Lones, a friendly, big-armed 52-year-old from outside Chattanooga, Tenn. Those nights, he said, he has no choice but to drive back onto the highway, hoping to find some place to park before his federally mandated drive-time expires.
Drivers and trucking industry representatives said that as truck traffic has increased and federal rules have further limited truckers' driving hours, parking along the nation's highways has become a persistent national problem, particularly in the Northeast. Land for new stopping areas in this part of the country is scarce, and residents often oppose truck stops in their neighborhoods.
The State Highway Administration recently won a $2.6 million grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation for an $8 million project to nearly triple the number of truck parking spaces at the I-95 South Welcome Center, from 21 spaces to 61. The work is expected to begin in the spring and take about a year, said Charlie Gischlar, an SHA spokesman.
"It's for safety," Gischlar said.
A sleep-deprived driver is a potential hazard, as is the driver who cannot find a place to pull over during bad weather, and the trucker who stops on a highway shoulder.
Last year, a Maryland State trooper was killed in the middle of the night on I-95 South near the Welcome Center when his cruiser plowed into the back of a tractor-trailer parked on the highway shoulder. The driver said he had pulled over to check directions.
Gischlar said the trooper accident was not the sole reason the agency is expanding truck parking, but he said, "what it did was heighten awareness of that situation."
The situation is clear enough on weekday afternoons and evenings, as trucks start rolling off the highway into the Welcome Center, one of 10 limited service centers and rest areas in the state, in addition to the Maryland House and Chesapeake House on I-95, that offer full-service restaurants. This one has an information center, vending machines, restrooms and parking for cars and trucks.
Once the 21 marked truck spaces are taken, truckers park at the edges of the parking fields and the sides of access roads. Eighteen-wheelers stretching about 70 feet long marked with names like Indian Valley and Landstar, Crete Carrier Corp. and Wisconsin Nationwide sit idling to keep the air conditioning going. Many of the cabs appear empty, their drivers either out for a break or tucked into their beds behind the seats. Some drivers shroud their windows with blankets against the sunlight.
One recent Monday evening, trucks were spilling out of the rest area onto the ramp leading to the highway and onto the shoulder. By 7 p.m., more than 40 trucks were parked in and around the Welcome Center. On another day, about two dozen trucks were parked by 6:30 p.m, one near the highway shoulder. Across the highway, near the northbound rest stop, trucks were stopped along the shoulder.
David Mullis of Barbourville, Ky., stood outside his red SuperService rig sipping a Starbucks Frappucino he bought from a vending machine, taking a break before heading to his overnight break spot south of Washington. He was on his way to Charlotte, N.C., with a load of household goods he had picked up that afternoon in Bordentown, N.J.
Mullis said he wouldn't even try stopping here after dark, figuring he'd have no chance to find a spot. He's seen trucks parked along the highway shoulder here and elsewhere, and at times has done it himself.
"It's dangerous, but it's less dangerous than driving down the road and falling asleep," Mullis said.
To help keep drowsy drivers off the road, federal rules that went into effect in 2004 limit how long truckers can drive before taking a break. Rob Abbott of the American Trucking Associations said the rules require truckers to take a 10-hour break either after 11 hours behind the wheel or being on duty for 14 hours regardless of driving time.
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Some drivers, such as Tony Roach of Athens, Ga., carry electronic logs to keep track of their hours. Sitting in the cab of his SuperService tractor, he pressed a spot on the screen and out popped a robotic woman's voice: "You have 1 hour, 4 minutes of remaining drive time."
Hence, he stopped here, as he did a few weeks ago on a Sunday, and found parking. As long as he makes it in before dark, he said, he can figure on finding a space.
Many drivers were pleased to hear about the state plan to expand the parking by 40 spaces, although that's a relatively small number compared with the total of 2,400 spaces in Maryland, about 90 percent of which are in private truck stops, according to the National Association of Truck Stop Operators. Spokeswoman Tiffany Wlazlowski said Maryland's state-run rest areas offer 300 truck spaces.
The state also allows trucks to use Park & Ride areas between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m.
"We'd like to see more parking spaces" for trucks in Maryland, Wlazlowski said, but in the meantime, the industry is trying to figure out ways to help drivers find the parking that is available. She said some members have created mobile applications to tell drivers where to find parking.
Darrin Roth, director of highway operations for American Trucking Associations, said spaces are short everywhere, but it seems particularly bad in the Northeast, where available land is scarce and where "communities often resist efforts to build facilities that are likely to attract trucks."