Road Worrier Blog

Road Worrier: NC troopers ordered to catch truckers napping

Drivers approach their semi-truck while parked in a rest area of the Truckstops of America Travel Center at the Highway 61 exit in Guilford County, NC Friday, June 5, 2015. This popular truck stop is on the busy I-40/85 interstate corridor through North Carolina.
Drivers approach their semi-truck while parked in a rest area of the Truckstops of America Travel Center at the Highway 61 exit in Guilford County, NC Friday, June 5, 2015. This popular truck stop is on the busy I-40/85 interstate corridor through North Carolina.

Sleepy truck drivers who park for naps alongside interstate on-ramps can expect rude awakenings this summer from state troopers under orders to enforce an overlooked no-parking law.

The first wake-up message was delivered in a May 26 “attention all truckers” memo from the Highway Patrol that focused on Interstate 77 in the western Piedmont. It spelled out a stern prohibition against parking on the shoulders, exit ramps and on-ramps of interstate highways and rest areas, and at weigh stations after hours.

Trucking companies complained. The Highway Patrol retracted the I-77 memo, announced a statewide focus, in friendlier language, that included cars as well as trucks – and added thanks to the N.C. Trucking Association for helping to spread the word.

“We’re not picking on truckers or commercial drivers,” said Sgt. Michael Baker, a patrol spokesman. “We’re asking all motorists to plan their routes and make sure they have proper stopping points.”

A state traffic law forbids drivers to “stop, park, or leave standing any vehicle, whether attended or unattended, on any part or portion of the right-of-way” of an interstate highway – except in emergency. The public right of way includes the paved and dirt shoulders along the ramps as well as the main road, Baker said.

“This has come out of our commander’s office,” Baker explained “The colonel has traveled the state and noticed a lot of this. We’re basically asking our troopers to step up the enforcement of that statute.”

Col. Bill Grey, the Highway Patrol commander, called it a safety issue.

“With the increased traffic volume across the state, it is imperative that we keep our highways free of roadside hazards to include improperly parked vehicles,” Grey said in a news release.

Citing traffic statistics from the state Department of Transportation, Baker said parked vehicles were a factor in 101 out of the 512 deaths recorded in interstate highway crashes over the past five years.

Death can come when a driver veers off the road and clips a vehicle parked on the shoulder. The victims can include a motorist changing a tire or a police officer writing a ticket.

But have any of these crashes involved trucks parked up along the ramps – well away from the freeway traffic itself? Baker said he didn’t know of any such cases.

Truckers say the Highway Patrol may be missing the real safety issues raised by those naps on the freeway ramp. They stop there because they’ve run up against federal work limits – designed to reduce driver fatigue – or because they really do need some shut-eye.

“It’s crucial for truck drivers to be able to safely park and rest,” said Norita Taylor, spokeswoman for the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association, based in Missouri. “Truckers are not able to control their schedules and are also required to comply with hours of service regulations. If you see a truck parked on an entrance ramp, it’s likely because he or she had no other choice.”

Hours of service rules require truckers to stop after they’ve worked 14 hours in 24, or have driven 11 of those hours. Company-employed drivers rely on their dispatchers to schedule their trips so they’ll be able to rest at a safe and legal spot, such as a truck stop. Independent drivers have more responsibility for their own schedules.

“If trucking companies work with their drivers, they know their hours are ending at a certain time,” said Ernie Brame, manager of the Kenly 95 Petro truck stop on Interstate 95 at Kenly, which provides space where as many as 400 truckers can spend the night. “They need to plan their trip so they’re at a place where they can stop. And if they run out of time, they’re going to have to stop where they are and pull off on an exit ramp.”

Truckers and other drivers need to find a safe, legal place to nap, Baker said.

“We’re not going to make a trucker drive down the highway if he’s tired or he’s run out of hours,” Baker said. “But there have been times we’ve come upon a driver who had run out of hours, and instead of driving 2 more miles down the road to a truck stop, they pulled over.”

Interstate parking is a minor offense – an infraction – under state law. It may be one of those charges that officers file only in the event of an accident. State court statistics suggest that troopers won’t have to work very hard to beef up their ticket numbers this year.

In 2014, North Carolina officers cited only 177 drivers for interstate-parking violations, down from an average 285 over the preceding five years.

How does that compare with other infractions? The citation counts vary – but not in any way that necessarily matches the seriousness, or apparent prevalence, of the violation.

In 2014, North Carolina officers cited 110,622 drivers for failure to wear seat belts. But only 2,575 were charged with texting while driving, and just 53 drivers under 18 years old were charged with using cellphones. It would be easy to improve upon these numbers, too.

On the other hand, 1,429 drivers were cited last year for one of the silliest offenses in North Carolina traffic law: failure to sign the vehicle registration card.

So when that trooper rousts you from your nap and demands your license and registration, ask her if you can borrow her pen first.