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Dealing With Driver Detention

Author: David Ray


When your goal as a tractor-trailer trucker is to keep those 18 wheels rolling, how do you deal with driver detention? After all, as a truck driver, you have little to no control over the time it takes shippers and customers to load and unload freight at the docks. Often times the issue is due to strained dock logistics. However, in some instances there is workplace stress, or perhaps a personality conflict, among the drivers and dockhands. If you are concerned with managing trucker detention, which is a prime problem for reefer haulers in particular, check out the reasons detention exists and ways to manage this situation. 

Defining Driver Detention

Driver detention is when truck drivers are left waiting at loading and unloading docks for a length of time, often hours at length, before they are loaded or unloaded. The time truckers are sitting at docks deducts from the amount of on-duty time they have for making their deliveries. According to the US Government Accountability Office report “Commercial Motor Carriers: More Could be done to Determine Impact of Excessive Loading and Unloading Wait Times on Hours of Service Violations,” there are two main causes of driver detention:


  • Shippers set delivery schedules early in order to maintain high-priority of goods, but they fail to have enough dockhands or lumpers available for unloading the freight.

  • Trucks arriving at docks are taken first-come, first-serve, or by personal preference, both of which create a lengthy lineup and unpredictable unloading time.

Note that these causes are due to shippers and receivers of goods, rather than because of truck drivers themselves. Other causes include inadequate staffing, lack of bays for trucks, and not having enough or adequate loading equipment. All of this results in a bottlenecked dock, which creates a backup for truckers who are scheduled for pending pickups and deliveries.

Top Concerns of Detention for Truckers

Long haul truck drivers need to get from Point A to Point B in a set period of time, both to meet the demands of the shippers and receivers, as well as the trucking companies or carriers for whom they work. Perishable, frozen and time sensitive goods must be moved in expedient fashion in order to maintain their integrity. A load of freshly caught Alaskan salmon cannot sit for hours at a loading dock and still be considered top shelf when received by a high-end New York restaurant. Cases of strawberries picked ripe from Californian fields left to linger in reefer trailers overnight due to Hours of Service regulations are as good as mush upon delivery. Driver detention is a serious threat to the transportation industry that affects truckers and their customers on a daily basis.

Hours of Service Clashes with Detention

One major problem occurring when loading docks get behind is the result of the Department of Transportation Hours of Service safety rules. In fact, 80 percent of truck drivers have had their Hours of Service requirements impacted directly due to driver detention, according to the US Government Accountability Office.

  • According to the FMCSA regulation §395.2 for Hours of Service definitions, on-duty time includes: “All time loading or unloading a CMV, supervising, or assisting in the loading or unloading, attending a CMV being loaded or unloaded, remaining in readiness to operate the CMV, or in giving or receiving receipts for shipments loaded or unloaded.”

If a driver is waiting for lumpers to unload his freight at a receiving dock and it stretches into his off-duty period, then he has to leave the loading dock and return during his next on-duty period. This causes a serious back-up for a trucker’s schedule, especially if he is trying to get to another destination in a set period of time. Loss of time on the road, as well as missed loads and a decrease in revenue, make driver detention a serious issue. In many instances a truck driver’s hand is forced to make compromising decisions regarding Hours of Service regulations.

  • As noted by the Commercial Carrier Journal (CCJ): “Unpaid detention time often results in pressure for drivers to drive beyond the federal hours of service limits, as a matter of economic necessity, risking driver fatigue and jeopardizing highway safety.”


Risk for Reefer Truckers

Truck drivers who pull reefer trailers have the most at stake when it comes to detention. Reefers are pulling perishable goods, either that are refrigerated or frozen. For perishable goods delivery times are of the essence. If a trucker is stuck at a loading dock for 4 to 6 hours waiting to be loaded or unloaded, they are jeopardizing the quality of their freight. Furthermore, for empty reefer trailers waiting on a load, in most instances the trailer has to be pre-cooled, which is more costly for an empty trailer. To have to maintain this cooled interior for hours adds to the fuel cost and strain on the reefer unit. Essentially, a sitting reefer trailer becomes a free method of cold storage for the shipper or deliverer, at the expense of the trucker and rig owner.

Detention creates havoc for everyone in transportation from the truck drivers, owner-operators, carriers and trucking companies, to the shippers and receivers. The loss of revenue is partly due to truck drivers missing other loads because load scheduling is overextended. Additionally, overtaxed refrigerated units lead to increased maintenance and repair costs for carriers, owner-operators and trucking companies. Fortunately, there are ways to remedy this problem.

Tips for Handling Driver Detention

Getting Compensated for Detention

If you are experiencing driver detention as a trucker you should be compensated for your time waiting in line at loading docks. The grace periods for detention are:

  • One hour for short hauls

  • Two hours for long hauls

A grace period is the time in which a driver or trucking carrier does not charge for detention time. However, anything beyond that period of time will cost the shipper a fee. Most trucking companies, carriers or owner-operators stipulate in the bill of laden the amount to be charged for detention, i.e. $90 per hour beyond the grace period. Of course, the driver should receive a percentage or flat rate of the detention costs given they are the ones left behind the wheel and unable to earn money while rolling.

Drivers who are not being paid for detention should bring this issue to light with their carrier or trucking company. If you are a rookie driver who is fresh out of truck driving school, make sure you are receiving detention rates from your trucking company. There is the concern that trucking companies accepting newbies are not paying detention. This results in a higher turnover for these companies as the drivers soon discover they should get paid detention and move along to find a better paying trucking company.

How to Reduce Detention

While scheduling by the shipper is beyond your control as a truck driver, there are ways you can reduce detention for yourself. The key here is to remember that you are dealing with real people from the dockhands to the lumpers. Here are some tried and true ways to keep your cool and improve detention times:

  • Plan to your destination at least 15 minutes earlier than your appointment time to reduce the likelihood you will be late.

  • Never be late for your appointment time, or you will lose out on any detention pay.

  • Keep a positive and polite attitude when conversing with the company and the dockhands. Truckers remark that a smile or kind word has gotten them moved up in the loading/unloading line many times.

  • Don’t give reasons or make excuses for why you need to be unloaded quickly. Your customers have heard every excuse in the book, and they aren’t interested in your pity stories. After all, every trucker in the line needs to get on the road; you aren’t the only one.

  • Give yourself a time buffer in between your loads and deliveries, whenever possible, to avoid overbooking your on-duty hours.

  • Contact the shipper to find out exactly when the bays and docks are open, and try to find out when the busiest times for the docks are so you can avoid these times if at all possible.

  • Ask the shipper about the use of lumpers, or lack thereof, so you can be aware if you are required or permitted to assist with loading/unloading in order to speed things up.

Driver detention is a long-standing issue. However, that doesn’t mean it has to prevent truckers from doing their job satisfactorily. In fact, pre-planning and advice regarding what detention means for everyone in logistics gives truckers the knowledge they need to help them alleviate stress and take control of a problem they face every trip.

If you are experiencing difficulties with driver detention, or you would like to share your personal trucker tips with handling this issue, then please leave a comment below. Let's get a conversation started about the best ways to manage a normally uncontrollable situation for truck drivers across the US!



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