Pull up behind an eighteen wheel tractor trailer long distance interstate hauler and chances are you will see a sign posted on the rear cargo doors: Drivers Wanted. CNN reports a need for 48,000 additional truck drivers, up from 30,000 two years ago and 20,000 a decade ago. Annual salary: $73,000. Demand is up, wages are increasing, why are 48,000 jobs going unfilled?
According to ABC, driving a truck was the single most hazardous occupation in the U.S. last year. Highway accidents were the leading cause of deaths of workers in all lines of work. More truck drivers were fatally injured on the job, 852, than in any other occupation. Around 500,000 trucking accidents occur every year in the U.S.; approximately 5,000 result in fatalities. One out of every 8 traffic fatalities involves a trucking collision. The work is inherently dangerous: heavy loads, cumbersome equipment, hazardous materials, long hours, weather, pressure to meet freight deadlines, and lack of safe overnight parking spaces.
And the pay: Although the American Trucking Association reports the median annual wage for a truck driver that works for a private fleet, such as Walmart as $73,000, the Labor Department puts that figure at $40,000. What either of these figures don't show is the amount of unpaid hours truck drivers spend waiting for loads, looking for safe parking spaces, and complying with the highly-regulated HOS (hours of service), which are required for sleep and for breaks. Truckers get paid by the mile, not by the hour, they are gone from home and family for long periods, and the hourly wage, for time spent on the road away from home can be as low as $15 per hour.
Driver Safety, Driver Scrutiny
Typical causes cited for trucking accidents include: use of prescription drugs, speeding, lack of familiarity with roads, driver error, driver fatigue, distracted driving and aggressive driving, all of which seem attributable to driver behavior. But the real question is how much of this "driver behavior" is a result of a system in need of reform and how can systemic changes in the trucking industry produce a safer highway system for all drivers?
Most of the causes cited for trucking accidents stemming from driver behavior can be traced to fatigue. The trucking industry is highly regulated and on paper looks safe: Drivers are covered by Hours of Service rules, which can generally be summarized as the 11 Hour Driving Limit: Drivers may drive a maximum of 11 hours after 10 consecutive hours off duty. Seems simple, seems safe. But there is an old saying in the trucking industry: "Drive when you have to, sleep when you can." The trucking industry runs 24/7/365 as do many shippers and receivers.
Loading and unloading can be 3 a.m. one day, 2 p.m. the next; delivery at 4 a.m. today, 10 a.m. tomorrow. Drivers have to have enough hours available to make it through all deliveries and stay within the legal guidelines. An example: a driver will drive 8+ hours to a shipper for an 8 pm appointment. The driver waits to be loaded (load times vary and cannot be predicted with certainty), once the loading is completed, the driver now has to look for a parking space. Late at night this can be impossible. Truck stops and rest areas are jammed by nightfall and it may take 2 hours to find a place to shut down. So the ten hour "break" becomes 4 hours to load, 2 hours to find a rest spot, an hour for a shower and dinner, 3 hours to sleep. As one trucker puts it:
For those who are about to enter the industry, be prepared to sleep at any time of the day or night, and drive the same way. It could be midnight tonight, and noon three days from now. You might get 4 hours of sleep tomorrow, then 14 hours in a few days. There is absolutely no cycle, no rhythm, and no schedule for when you sleep. Drive when you have to, sleep when you can.
Truck drivers are scrutinized under a labyrinth of federal regulations: background check, drug test, physical, credit check, fingerprinting and employment verification. Enforcement is strict: cameras on the loading docks, cameras in the cab, automatic reporting of driving and idling habits; scanning and tracking by the scale houses; random searches. And every inspection, ticket and accident is reported and recorded.
Business is Good
For trucking companies and the industry in general, business is good. The American Trucking Association reports total trucking industry revenue at $700.4 billion in 2014, up 3% from 2013; up 9% from 2012 and up 28.7% from 2009. Combined revenue for the top 50 trucking companies is up by 10% from last year to $117 billion. UPS, one of the top shippers in the country reported more than $58 billion in revenue for 2014. CEO compensation at UPS more than doubled to $8.4 million in 2014 from $4.1 million in 2013.
With such success in a booming, albeit, dangerous industry, it seems logical to expect the industry to provide incentives to procure drivers and to provide them with a safe workplace. One place to start is in assessing how much the industry spends to insure both driver and highway safety.
The American Trucking Association is currently undertaking a Safety Expenditure Study. The 2015 study, the first of its kind, addresses the investments made for drug testing, driver safety incentives, training, onboard safety technology, safety personnel compensation, and consulting fees. The purpose of the study is to assess and quantify the actual dollars that the trucking industry is investing in highway safety. This is a start. The industry also needs to look at driver scheduling, hours of service, safe overnight parking: balancing the safety of the truck driver with the needs of the industry and assuring that profits are allocated to improve safety conditions for both truck drivers and the public, so that when we travel to visit loved ones this season, we can all have a safe and happy holidays.