A hard, dangerous ride

The Baltimore Sun

Hurtling down a darkened Indiana highway, Roger Kobernick pulls his rig into a truck stop just long enough to grab his one meal of the day, a thin baloney-and-cheese sandwich that he gulps down with a huge mug of black coffee.

He has several more hours of driving ahead this night to reach a warehouse in Walton, Ky., where he wants to be the first in line so he can get quickly unloaded. The next morning, he sets off without breakfast or washing up. Hours later as he falls in with a truck caravan snaking along a stretch of North Carolina's Smoky Mountains, he relaxes and his worries spill out.

"I'm 42 years old," he says. "And what am I going to do? Give it up? No, you gotta go out and pay the bills. You gotta keep plugging at it. I don't foresee me ever retiring. My dad worked till the day he died, and I foresee that being me."

Spurred by a global economy that demands that goods be delivered on time and at low prices, business has never been so brisk and so cutthroat for truckers. Paid by the delivery, not the hour, the country's 350,000 independent truckers are lashed to punishing schedules that practically force them to live in their rigs. Counting all their time on the job, some earn as little as $8 an hour.

Long hours, chaotic schedules and exhausting work conditions make for a potentially lethal formula - for truck drivers and everyone else on the road.

Nearly a decade ago, the government vowed to significantly reduce the number of fatalities from truck crashes, but the results have been mixed. Nationally the death toll fell until 2002 and then started climbing. In the three most heavily traveled states, California, Texas and Florida, deaths involving large truck crashes have steadily climbed.

Over 5,000 people die and 116,000 are injured yearly in truck-related accidents, according to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration.

Most often the victims are in passenger cars.

Take the night last April when trucker Robert Spencer, 37, of Canton Township, Mich., was headed north on I-69 in Indiana, according to a sworn statement from an investigator.

His truck crossed the highway's divide and slammed into a southbound van carrying nine people from the Fort Wayne campus of Taylor University. All were injured; five were killed.

"Did I hit something? What happened? Who did this?" Spencer said at the scene. Besides five counts of reckless homicide, Spencer also was charged with filing a false logbook, concealing that he had driven 9 hours beyond the 11-hour daily maximum.

Truckers do not escape being victims; 930 were killed in the U.S. while working last year, up 33 percent from 1992. And while they made up only 2 percent of the work force last year, they accounted for more than 16 percent of fatal workplace injuries.

The health of truck drivers has been taken up by a federal appeals court in Washington, D.C. It heard the latest arguments in a long battle that has pitted trucking companies against groups concerned with driver safety. Companies are pushing to increase the time drivers can be behind the wheel; critics contend that extending truckers' work days is aimed at increasing corporate profits at drivers' expense.

The face-off began more than a decade ago. It started when Congress, alarmed by the growing toll of highway crashes, asked for new rules to protect truckers' health.

After much political wrangling, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration responded in 2003 by issuing a rule that, among other steps, expanded truckers' daily driving time to 11 hours from 10. Safety groups challenged the rule, a federal appeals court upheld their complaint and ordered the agency to revise the rule. The federal agency came back with its revision last year, but safety groups and others challenged it, too, saying it reflected trucking firms' interests in cutting costs. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, the federal government's workplace health research arm, backed the opponents, saying that expanding driving time would lead to even more driver fatigue.

In reply, federal officials said an 11th hour would allow some truckers the flexibility to finish work without laying over. Added to the new rule was a 14-hour cap on a trucker's work day and a 34-hour break after a week's work. Both changes, the officials said, were aimed at normalizing truckers' lives.

Critics contended, however, that a 14-hour cap would mean that drivers will be able to work nearly 40 percent more than before.

"You have drivers who are already working almost twice the normal 40-hour week," says LaMont Byrd, the Teamsters' Health and Safety director.

Dave Osieke, head of safety for the American Trucking Association, said the fact that fatality rates had fallen until only recently is evidence "that safety has improved."

One reason fatality rates haven't fallen faster, adds Ian Grossman, a spokesman at the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, is that highways are more congested and more truckers are on the road.

Since 1996, trucking mileage has soared by 43 billion miles, up 24 percent. Considering such big changes, the death toll increase is quite low, he says.

Kobernick started working around trucks at age 16 at the same La Crosse, Wis., company that employed his father. Nine years ago Kobernick became an independent trucker. And every other week for the past few years he has made runs to and from Florida from points in Wisconsin and Minneapolis.

On this particular day he had a good-paying load. But going home with a profitable load is usually more difficult. Competition going north is so stiff that Kobernick sometimes barely breaks even or waits for days for better-paying loads. Time spent waiting is money lost because independents are not paid for sitting idle.

Photographs of his family are stuck above the door beside him in the cab, and he calls home morning and night, asking his wife about their two young girls.

Because he cannot afford health care, he relies on state-sponsored coverage for himself and his family. They are qualified to receive food stamps, but pride stops them from doing so. In his best year he earned $40,000, but last year he made only $9,000. Much has gone wrong for him in the past few years, and he partly blames it on freight rates that have barely gone up while fuel and other costs have soared and eaten away at his profits.

He also has made some financial missteps, among them expecting tax write-offs for his rig to help his bottom line. Instead, he owes $15,000 in taxes.

And 25 years behind the wheel have taken their toll. Last summer, barely able to bend his back, he had surgery, which put him out of work for four months.

"I haven't had a vacation in 12 years. I have no dental. No pension. No savings," he says. "Hopefully, I'll catch up one day here down the line. But right now that isn't going to happen any time soon."

When did the dream of being a trucker turn sour?

It began after the government deregulated the industry in 1980, says Mike Belzer, a one-time Chicago trucker who is now a Wayne State University professor and trucking industry expert. Ever since, he says, it has been a "race to the bottom."

Before 1980, nearly nine out of 10 over-the-road drivers were union members, he says. Today, one out of 10 carries a union card. That shift ushered in lower pay, fewer benefits and tougher working conditions.

It also made the highways far more dangerous as inexperienced and lower-paid drivers push themselves to earn more, Belzer adds.

"You get what you pay for," Belzer explains. It is a matter of choosing between a "skilled professional" and someone "from the soup line," he says.

New drivers' inexperience worries Kobernick, too. Schmoozing at a warehouse in northern Kentucky, Kobernick swaps stories about new drivers with trucker Jerry Knoy, 52, of Salem, Ind.

"I met a guy two weeks ago who said, 'Hey, can you back my truck in for me?'" Knoy says.

By the late 1990s much of the industry was transformed into a "sweatshop on wheels," Belzer claims. Truckers' income, when adjusted for inflation, dropped steadily as the market was flooded with new companies, new drivers, and pressures from shippers and manufacturers to keep freight costs down.

Figures from the American Trucking Association show that between 1980 and 2005, the number of interstate trucking companies soared from 20,000 to 564,000. But nearly 90 percent operate six trucks or fewer, according to the industry group.

Of an estimated 3.3 million truckers, about 1.3 million haul freight. Of these, about 350,000 are independent drivers. Most own their trucks but lease them to companies. Or, in Kobernick's case, they work for whoever has goods for them to carry.

Some Teamsters members earn as much as $70,000 yearly, and industry experts say the salaries of drivers for large, non-union fleets are close.

The average independent driver earns about $40,000 a year, according to the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association.

"But to make that $40,000, you've got to work about 120 hours" a week, says John Siebert, an official with the group.

Both mental and physical health can be affected, he says.

Several years ago, when glancing through members' obituaries, Siebert discovered that their average age at death was 55. In his research, he also found a higher-than-average suicide rate for members.

Siebert says he believes such problems are linked to difficult lives and financial stress.

Stephen Franklin and Darnell Little write for the Chicago Tribune.

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