Because a Hollywood star was critically injured in an accident caused by a tractor trailer, the public conversation has turned to road safety and how big trucks fit into that equation. Never mind that beyond Tracy Morgan’s high-profile crash there are 500,000 accidents with tractor trailers every year in which an average of 11 people die each day.
Although those are incredibly high numbers, they don’t tell the whole story. A majority of the accidents are not the fault of the truck driver -- 60% are caused by the drivers of the other vehicles and their bad judgment. My commute takes me through major trucking routes, so I see that in spades. From drivers tailgating trailers to many more who pull out in front of trucks under the foolish thinking that such a big vehicle really can’t be going 55, I often wonder why there aren’t more accidents.
But this doesn’t mean the industry isn’t without fault. 40% of the accidents – or 200,000 a year – are the direct result of truck driver error or faulty equipment. Of those, 13% (26,000) are attributed to fatigue, the cause du jour of the press as it was the reason behind the accident that nearly killed Morgan. The leading contributor to truck accidents is prescription drugs (twice as many as the fatigue-related crashes).
Now, combine both of those factors with a seemingly unrelated statistic – the average age of a commercial driver is 55 – and you can piece together a puzzle that highlights a safety and economic crisis in the trucking industry.
Fatigue is a result of overworked drivers. Federal law allows for 70 hours of driving a week, which many drivers want to – or are forced to – take (the average workweek is 58 hours).
Prescription drug use is more common among older people which is why that causal factor of collisions is so high – it’s a direct outcome of the older workforce in the industry.
Drivers working longer hours and longer into their lives mean just one thing: There is a shortage of drivers.
The proof is in the pudding as there are currently just under a half-million job openings for truck drivers across the country. A half-million jobs are wanting and there are no takers! That number will only magnify over the next 10 years as the Baby Boomers behind the wheel drive off into the sunset of retirement.
This obviously isn’t the 1970s anymore, when the CB radio craze and hit movies like Convoy popularized the career and many men jumped at the chance to be mavericks and have it be just “them and the road”.
Whereas the young once desired that lifestyle and wanted to see the world, those days are gone. Generation Y and the Millennials think they are seeing the world from their smartphones and computers, so the attractiveness of actually experiencing the world and travelling are long gone.
It also doesn’t help that parents, school counselors, teachers and the media relentlessly push the college-or-bust routine and push kids away from blue-collar jobs, even though the rewards are there.
With a $2,500 to $5,000 investment in a commercial driver license, drivers can command starting wages of $38,000 for local work and $45,000 for over-the-road hauling. Experienced long-distance drivers net $75,000 and many top out at $100,000. Those hefty values are direct result of the supply and demand of the labor pool and the incredible responsibility and trust put on a driver.
If the twenty- and thrity-somethings don’t begin to fill the ranks, the trucking industry will still continue to have its issues with safety, no matter what iterations of federal law are proposed. If that’s not damning enough, consider the economic consequences.
Despite many folks choosing to malign big trucks, truckers are some of the most important private sector employees out there. If it weren’t for them, there wouldn’t be food in the grocery stores, products at your local Wal-Mart, medical supplies at the hospitals, and supplies at factories. Drivers keep the world moving.
As their ranks continue to slip or grow at a rate far below demand, there certainly won’t be enough product on the move. Delivery times will slip. Costs will rise. The impact on the end consumer from a service and cost standpoint will be astounding. Come 2020, unless something changes drastically, the economy will be in full crisis mode in regard to the shipping of food and goods.
But, how do we fix that? If the freedom of the road and high wages aren’t attractive to younger people in an already-tough economy, what will be?