Exhaustion Is Her Co-Pilot: Six Days With a Michigan Trucker

December 18, 2014

By Jennifer Oldham

(Bloomberg) -- At 3:30 a.m. in a Kentucky truck stop on the sixth day of a five-state journey hauling auto parts, Tracy Livingston struggled to wake up. 

Worry over how she would pay a $2,000 ticket for an improperly loaded trailer had meant a restless night. Now she had to get out of the bunk in her Freightliner Cascadia tractor, get diesel and hook up a trailer. All this in pouring rain without benefit of coffee. 

“We should be home by now,” she told me, a reporter along for all 2,520 miles. “We won’t hit an open Starbucks for five hours.” 

Livingston is among the nation’s 2 million truckers, who endure back-to-back 14-hour days to deliver everything from aluminum cans to clothing to Christmas cookies. They practice an occupation that kills more of its practitioners than any other, with 525 dying on the road last year, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. 

Truckers pushed to their physical limits contribute to accidents in which almost 4,000 Americans die each year. Truckers like Livingston say regulations that have let them work 70 hours a week leave them constantly fatigued. 

They soon may be driving more. Last week, Congress suspended year-old rules requiring two nights of sleep before a work week at the behest of Senator Susan Collins, a Maine Republican. Lawmakers ignored Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx and consumer advocates in allowing drivers to work as many as 82 hours over eight days. 

Hitting Limits

The final arbiter of safety is physiology, not Congress, said Barbara Phillips, a medical professor at the University of Kentucky in Lexington who sat on the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration’s Medical Review Board from 2006 to 2010. 

“Fatigue and sleep deprivation are contributors to crashes in all drivers,” said Phillips. “Performance begins to decline after about four hours and is very severely impaired after 10 hours. Accidents happen because of impaired vigilance and delayed reaction time, so you don’t hit the brake as fast.” 

Exhaustion stalked Livingston on an odyssey that lasted from Dec. 1 to Dec. 6, a run from Michigan as far south as Tennessee. Hypervigilance sapped her energy, as did belligerent shippers and unresponsive dispatchers. She used every trick she knew to battle weariness, including frequent consumption of Starbucks Corp. Frappuccinos, snacks, brisk walks at rest areas, listening to audio books and dancing in her driver’s seat. Even her rest periods weren’t restful. 

“My 10 hours of break time between 14-hour days are not mine,” she said. “You can go get a glass of wine. I can’t do that. I’m stuck in this truck.” 

Monday, Dec. 1

Livingston, 46, relies on her $15.65 an hour from Van Buren, Arkansas-based USA Truck Inc. to pay the mortgage on a white clapboard house in Battle Creek, Michigan, that her mother, her son and his girlfriend, her husband, four dogs and 70 guinea pigs call home. She trains student drivers, who ride along with her, for an additional $550 a week. That adds up to about $7,200 a month if she has a trainee. 

Livingston, a former cosmetologist and medical assistant with wavy hair, glasses, 14 tattoos and deep reserves of physical strength, has driven for a decade. Her predilection for pink and the Barbie bag she uses at truck-stop showers distinguish her from other drivers, most of them men. 

She began her workweek at 6 a.m. after the Thanksgiving holiday with her chief stimulant: A venti Frappuccino with a half pump of mocha, five pumps of toffee-nut syrup, salt blended in and on top and extra caramel drizzle with a two-espresso-shot chaser. She adds six sugar packets to the shot. Livingston remembers the smallest Starbucks she’s visited (a drive-through in Oklahoma City) and the largest (Dallas, with its two fireplaces). 

Caffeine, Livingston said, helps her focus, particularly during early mornings as she maneuvers her white “80,000-pound killing machine” through traffic. 

“Everyone has a biological clock,” she said. “I really fight mine before the sun peeks. That’s the witching hour, and I can’t stay awake.” 

Although the Frappuccino is gone by a noon stop for steering components in Coldwater, Michigan, a 30-ounce sweet tea awaits under her citizens-band radio. After four stops in Michigan, Livingston heads to a rest area in Columbus, Indiana, where she parks for the night, forgoing dinner. 

Driven: 459 miles in 8.25 hours
Worked: 14 hours
Slept: 7 hours

Tuesday, Dec. 2

“We truckers go to breakfast in our pajamas,” Livingston declared as she climbed into the driver’s seat at 6 a.m. for a three-quarter-mile drive to Starbucks. “I played a half game of solitaire last night and was so tired I fell asleep.” 

I hadn’t been so lucky. Though Livingston had bought me a pillow, the lawnmower-like sound of a power unit, the rumble of idling rigs and the whooshing of traffic made relaxation impossible. Livingston said she sleeps better in her cab’s lower bunk than at home. A hundred miles down the road with the cruise set at 62 miles per hour, she stretched her legs and rolled her ankles to counteract hours of sitting. She finds opportunities to walk. 

“It’s not uncommon for a driver to have a stroke or a heart attack,” she said. “I don’t always park closest to the door. I try to get out.” 

After the day’s third stop, at a Kentucky warehouse, Livingston headed north past horse farms. To stay awake, she snacked on honey sesame sticks and listened to a book. She favors Nicholas Sparks, Stephen King and anything about dogs. 

“With the time change and winter coming, you don’t have as much sunshine,” she said. “When the sun goes down around 5 p.m., and you’ve got maybe three hours more to drive, it’s rough.”

There were few parking spots at a Lebanon Junction truck stop at 8:12 p.m. A tanker pulled forward so she could inch in her 72-foot rig and ease down the 13.5 feet to the ground to buy dinner before hitting the sack in her jeans and long-sleeved pink T-shirt. 

Driven: 511 miles in 9.5 hours
Worked: 14 hours
Slept: 6.5 hours

Wednesday, Dec. 3

Livingston began her day at 6:25 a.m. in the outfit she slept in and hit Louisville’s rush hour almost immediately. 

“Our clock is ticking and we are not moving,” she said as an ambulance screamed by. 

After a 384-mile (620 kilometer) drive to Belleville, Michigan, Livingston pulled into an auto-part manufacturer’s lot at 4:45 p.m. to take on an unusually large load. A yellow arrow on Interstate 75 signaled her into a weigh station near Monroe, Michigan, where the trailer registered 7,000 pounds overweight on the back end. This imbalance would shape the rest of the trip. 

States regulate the weight and balance of loads to promote safety and preserve highways. Drivers must ensure their trailers meet the mark. Livingston hadn’t weighed her load before leaving, and state police issued her the $2,000 ticket that would still haunt her three days later in Kentucky. It was a personal expense and more than a week’s wages. How could she pay it and still afford a Christmas break? 

She couldn’t leave until weight was removed. After she waited two hours on hold to speak to adispatcher, her company said it couldn’t send help until morning. Livingston was stranded in an impound lot without dinner. The new 82-hour week approved by Congress may stretch her endurance further. 

Collins’s victory in suspending more stringent regulations for study followed lobbying by trucking groups, who argued that tighter rules forced more vehicles onto the road during rush hours. The measure nullified a key component of a 15-year effort to reduce deaths caused by drowsy drivers. 

Burton Weis, vice president of human resources for USA Truck, said the suspension of a rule requiring two consecutive nights sleep permits flexibility. 

“It allows drivers to rest when they need rest and allows them to do their jobs to avoid congestion and plan properly in the early morning hours,” he said.  

Livingston, whose runs often follow set patterns, may adapt more easily to an 82-hour week than some, Weis said. 

“She can measure the impact on herself because she’s on a dedicated route,” he said. “The majority of drivers that are on an irregular route, it’s hard to say right now.” 

Livingston said the new workweek will let companies push some truckers beyond the pale of safety. 

“Good drivers stop and park,” she said. “Bad drivers, those macho guys or girls, think they can run their wheels off and they can fall asleep.” 

Weis said Livingston has her priorities in order. 

“The amount of responsibility on a driver is enormous,” he said. “When we think about professional drivers, that is Tracy.” 

That Wednesday, the professional lay awake, too stressed to sleep. 

Driven: 427 miles in 10 hours
Worked: 14 hours
Slept: 3 hours

Thursday, Dec. 4

At 11:45 a.m., a tow truck and a second USA Truck rig arrived to offload cargo. Livingston returned to the Belleville warehouse and asked the loader to redistribute the weight evenly. He refused until his supervisor intervened. 

After a 90-minute wait for reloading and a visit to a scale house, the axle weight was still uneven. After another hour and another visit, they were finally 33,440 pounds each. Then, after almost 24 hours of delay, Livingston realized the total weight was still about 5,400 pounds heavier than what the paperwork listed. Shippers, who pay by the pound, have an incentive to overload. 

“The more it weighs, the more it costs,” she said. “So they fib.” 

She was furious at the loader’s acknowledgment that he knew of the discrepancy. After arriving in Urbana, Ohio, at 9:10 p.m., Livingston was unable to nap as a forklift unloaded the trailer. 

“I’m done,” she said, shaking her head. “I’m just done.” 

Our resting place was still an 80-minute drive away. Corn fields and tiny towns aglow with Christmas lights flashed by under a full moon. The day ended at midnight. 

Driven: 261 miles in 5.75 hours
Worked: 14 hours
Slept: 7 hours

Friday, Dec. 5

Needing a break, Livingston walked a mile and back from a shipper in Englewood, Ohio, to a Starbucks. 

“It’s raining and I have a headache and I’m going to miss Christmas shopping with my family, but the freight will get there,” she said. 

Livingston faced 333 miles back to Kentucky. She hadn’t recovered from the three-hour night at the weigh station. As Friday’s sun sank low, out came the sesame sticks and audio books. Near the Interstate 65 exit for Abraham Lincoln’s birthplace of Hodgenville, Kentucky, Livingston pulled into a rest area for a brisk walk. 

After dinner and a shower, Livingston arranged a sunshade over the front window at a truck stop and lay down at 10 p.m. She couldn’t rest well, knowing the alarm would sound at 3:30 a.m. 

Driven: 372 miles in 7 hours
Worked: 14 hours
Slept: 5 hours

Saturday, Dec. 6

A week of intermittent rest caught up with me after I was ejected from a half-sleep by a chirping bird alarm. I pitched off the top bunk, striking my chin on the gear shift.  Our early wakeup required a bleary-eyed Livingston to muster all the tricks she used throughout the week, plus a few more. She memorized restaurants and hotels listed on road signs to recall minutes later. She recounted other truckers’ strategies, including chain smoking, dialing random numbers on mobile phones and amphetamines. 

There was a late Starbucks run and a vigorous session of air drums played to songs by Nickelback. After driving 9.75 hours to bring the 2,520-mile six-day run full circle, she parked in Battle Creek and began weekend errands at a food market, where she bought green peppers for the guinea pigs. 

Following dinner and a mojito, Livingston crashed on her leather couch, where Bella and Boomer, a combined 305 pounds of great Dane, piled on top of her. She awoke there at 5 a.m. the next day. Twenty-three hours remained before she started the run all over again at 4 a.m. on Monday, Dec. 8. 

To contact the reporter on this story: Jennifer Oldham in Denver at 303-318-9512 or joldham1@bloomberg.net 

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Stephen Merelman at 212-617-3762 or smerelman@bloomberg.net