The Trucker's Inn, a 28-acre truck stop near Interstate 95 in Howard County, for years has beckoned weary drivers with everything from a meat-and-potatoes diner to a barbershop, laundry facilities and a video arcade.
This month it added another attraction: a bar.
From noon to 1 a.m., drivers can mingle, shoot pool or listen to the jukebox while enjoying beer, whiskey and other alcoholic beverages at the truck stop's roomy Brass Fiddle lounge. Most nights, they also can take to the dance floor while a band plays set after set of country and western tunes.
The Trucker's Inn is among hundreds of truck stops across the nation that sell alcohol, either at lounges or over the counter at convenience stores. The Washington area -- a major crossroads for truckers because of its many interstates -- includes other truck stops in Baltimore, Frederick, Md., and Massaponax, Va., that sell alcohol. They do so despite opposition from the American Trucking Association and many large trucking companies, which don't want drivers tempted by alcohol. Indeed, the Trucker's Inn is off limits to drivers for many big companies.
"More and more companies are requiring drivers to say, 'If you want my business, get rid of the alcohol,'" said Greg Mussell, a manager with Builders Transport Inc., of Camden, S.C., which has 3,500 drivers. "Letting them stay at a place where they have a lounge, that's just making it too easy for them."
Mussell and other trucking executives said they want to do whatever they can to prevent alcohol abuse among their drivers, and added that they worry especially about someone attempting to navigate a 40-ton rig while under the influence. Selling alcohol at truck stops, they contended, invites trouble.
"We don't want it within their reach," agreed John Kane, executive vice president of E.I. Kane Inc., a Jessup firm with 280 trucks in the area.
But many truckers regard access to alcohol as a working person's right after a tough day on the road.
"All of us get a certain amount of stress," said Lonnie Durbin, 39, a truck driver from Liberty, Mo., who had a couple of mixed drinks the other night at the Brass Fiddle before retiring to his cab to sleep. "If you're laid over, a guy needs to unwind. We're on off-duty time. It's nice to be able to sit back and relax."
The nationwide focus on the dangers of drunken driving, as well as increasing public concern about drug and alcohol abuse among transportation workers, has given new immediacy to the issue of whether alcohol is available at truck stops.
The U.S. Department of Transportation recently proposed tougher regulations on alcohol use by truckers, including random alcohol testing for drivers and other transportation workers. The rules would cover the 6 million holders of commercial drivers' licenses -- drivers of trucks of more than 13 tons gross weight and passenger vehicles that carry more than 16 people. The new regulations would govern trucks and passenger vehicles whether or not they cross state lines.
The current penalties for ignoring federal laws on alcohol are very specific. A first conviction of driving while intoxicated means the loss of a trucker's commercial driving license for a year. A subsequent conviction on the same charge can mean the loss of the license for life. In addition, under current federal law, an interstate trucker can be grounded for 24 hours if police detect any presence of alcohol on the driver or if the vehicle is carrying alcohol that is not part of its cargo.
Baldev Singh, who bought the Trucker's Inn last year, said concerns about truckers drinking at truck stops are being overblown.
He said he has yet to see a driver go to the wheel after a drink at his Brass Fiddle lounge, and police in Howard County said they've had no problems with drinking there.
Singh said drivers stay overnight in the truck stop's 115 rooms or in their rigs in the parking lot, which can accommodate 500 trucks.
"People are creating a big fuss over this, but we have a better environment for them, and they don't cause accidents," Singh said. "They remain on the property. They are not driving. They go have a couple of drinks and then they go back to their truck or to their room and sleep until morning."
On a recent afternoon, the lounge's patrons likewise said there's nothing wrong with a drink at the end of the day, as long as they don't drive until the next morning. On any given night, Singh said, about 50 drivers will gather there for drinks.
"We're not out here trying to hurt anybody," said Barry Wright, 31, of Indianapolis, as he sipped a mixed drink one recent evening. "I've got a wife and twin girls at home. I can't jeopardize having a drink and going back in my truck and driving on. It would be foolish."
According to federal officials, trucking executives and industry watchdogs, truckers are less likely than car drivers to use alcohol or other drugs. However, because of the consequences of truck accidents, all agreed that more stringent regulations are necessary.
According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, 3,198 people died last year in tractor-trailer crashes. Most victims were in passenger vehicles; only 422 truck occupants were killed. Of the truck drivers who died, 6 percent had very high blood alcohol concentrations, the institute reported.
The National Transportation Safety Board released an eight-state study in 1990 in which it found that one-third of the truck drivers who were killed in accidents tested positive for alcohol and other drugs.
Roger King, communications director for the National Association of Truck Stop Operators, estimated that less than 20 percent of the group's 1,000 members sell alcohol, mostly at convenience stores, he said. All told, there are more than 4,500 truck stops across the country, he said.
The truck stop association has campaigned against banning alcohol sales, although King said many members "have raised Cain" over the position.
Besides the Trucker's Inn in the Washington area, truck stops in Baltimore and Frederick, Md., sell alcohol at lounges. In Virginia, RaceTrac Petroleum sells beer at a convenience store at its truck stop in Massaponax. A RaceTrac official said most sales there are to neighbors, not truckers.
Many major trucking companies prohibit their drivers from patronizing truck stops that sell alcohol, banning them from stopping there even for fuel. The American Trucking Associations declared its opposition to sales at truck stops in 1990. Citing safety and other concerns, some of the nation's largest truck stop chains, including Petro Stopping Centers Inc. and Unocal, bar the sale of alcoholic beverages.
Within 20 miles of the Trucker's Inn, the new managers of the Baltimore Port Truck Plaza, also off I-95, said they intend to close their Silverado bar next month in the hope of attracting business from Builders Transport and other firms. The bar generates $60,000 a month, managers said, adding that they hope to recoup that and more when drivers from the big chains are allowed to stop there.
At the Trucker's Inn, Singh said that if truckers didn't drink at his place, they would go elsewhere. He said that's what they were doing until he opened the lounge on Dec. 3. The truck stop had been dry since Singh bought it in September 1991. The previous owners had a lounge.
Most patrons spend less than $10 on drinks, Singh said. He said bartenders are instructed not to "over-serve" and to take keys to prevent drunk customer off the road. He said there's been no need to do that.
"The main thing is how you manage the place," Singh said. "If you provide the right services and know when to stop them, it works."