How to Tackle the Trucking Industry’s Driver Shortage

The trucking space looks attractive in 2021, given its stable economic position with more than 70 percent of goods consumed in the U.S. moving by truck, consistent job growth expectancy, and the promises made to boost infrastructure spending in the United States.

However, demographics have been steadily working against the trucking industry since 2018, and the American Trucking Associations (ATA) says they have been struggling with a driver shortage for the past 18 years. This is because, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average age of commercial truck drivers in the U.S. is 55 years old, and many are looking to retire.  

With the average age of drivers being 10 years older than the average age of other comparable industries like manufacturing and construction, the trucking industry experienced a high rate of older drivers who either retired or exited the industry due to COVID-related health concerns.

The trucking industry has yet to see the same level of new entrants into the industry. Still, even if the shortage numbers fluctuate, it remains a serious concern for the trucking industry, the supply chain, and the economy. This is why the driver shortage has become a top priority for executives this year, and according to Heavy Duty Trucking (HDT) Magazine’s 8 Changes to Expect in Trucking in 2021 article, “It’s arguably the biggest challenge the trucking industry will face in 2021.”  

“In addition to the sheer lack of drivers, fleets are also suffering from a lack of qualified drivers, which amplifies the effects of the shortage on carriers,” said ATA Chief Economist Bob Costello.

To manage the driver shortage and lack of qualified drivers, “Fleet providers are hoping that new, cutting-edge technologies … will entice a younger generation to get excited about joining the trucking industry. Now there’s a sense of urgency for OEMs to implement even more safety technologies – on the factory floor or through third-party vendor integrations” (HDT Jan. 2021).

Perception and Safety Need an Upgrade

However, attracting young new drivers may require more than an upgrade in tech.

The younger generation stays well informed, but the media carries a heavy weight on perception today. Now, a trucker’s lifestyle has been labeled “less than ideal” after trucks began to be portrayed as a negative reality on the road.

The dangers on-the-road are also no secret, and these dangers have yet to be fully addressed or solved by the trucking industry – for the safety of drivers and the public. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) traffic death report, overall deaths involving incidents with large trucks have been on the rise since 2009.

The NHTSA’s report found:

  • In 2018, 4,862 large trucks were involved in a fatal crash, a 1% increase from 2017 and a 51% increase since 2009
  • In 2018, 885 large truck occupants died; the highest in more than 30 years
  • In 2018, 4,951 people died in collisions with large trucks; a 46% increase from the number of deaths in 2009

“The numbers are even more reason that we shouldn’t head in the direction of loosening safety rules proven to work to make trucking safer, and that help reduce the risks for people who share the road with trucks,” said Russ Rader, spokesman for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), Trucking Fatalities Report).

Even though large trucks are only responsible for 3% of injury-causing motor vehicle incidents, these collisions typically cause much more significant harm than ordinary traffic accidents due to most trucks’ large size and heavy weight. Of these traffic incidents with large commercial trucks and big rigs, passenger vehicles’ drivers are primarily to blame. Among these incidents, most are caused by abrupt lane changes, unsafe passing and turning, poor acceleration, and not understanding the limitations to the capabilities of large vehicle acceleration, braking, and visibility.

Due to the fatality rates, it’s no surprise the American Transport Research Institute’s (ATRI) 2020 survey of the top issues facing trucking found insurance availability and cost, and compliance, safety, and accountability (CTA) closely followed the driver shortage as the industry’s highest rated issues.

“To better protect employees and the bottom line, each employer needs to understand the root causes of the most serious workplace injuries they face,” said James Merendino, Liberty Mutual’s general manager of risk control and national insurance. “Only then can they effectively mitigate and manage these through work design, system controls, technology, training, and strategic risk management. Insurance companies and brokers can be a key ally in these efforts.”

Mitigate Risk to Attract New Drivers and Reduce Costs

In 2012, the IIHS conducted a study that looked at the potential crash reductions with ‘crash avoidance features’ such as blind spot detection, forward collision warning/mitigation, and lane departure warning. The combination proved to “prevent or mitigate as many as 107,000 police-reported crashes each year, representing 28 percent of all crashes involving large trucks. As many as 12,000 nonfatal injuries, large truck crashes, and 835 fatal large truck crashes each year could be prevented or mitigated.”

Today, medium and heavy-duty fleets are only just beginning to adopt reliable and robust safety systems, like Radar, to help avoid collisions. According to fleet experts, there will be a more significant focus on safety with driver assistance technologies and compliance in 2021 and the years to come.

“With the start of a new year and new administration in D.C., we are likely to see major shifts in the commercial trucking industry,” said Fred Fakkema, Zonar’s vice president of safety and compliance. “Federal agencies, including the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, will further their commitment to bring advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS) to the market.”

“The ATA and other leading authorities will also shape their safety standards around these technologies. Additionally, we can expect to see federal groups pick up Obama-era compliance and safety programs, including the FMCSA’s Beyond Compliance provisions” (HDT Jan. 2021).

Why Safety Initiatives Will Get Top Billing in 2021

Experts say this will be the year fleets begin to adapt models to address the younger generation’s safety concerns and prepare for the potential rising insurance minimums starting in 2021. “The new administration is expected to increase insurance minimums, which will put a strain on smaller operators,” noted Fakkema. “We expect industry players to push back, and insurance providers will respond with new incentives to encourage fleets to leverage safety technology and avoid incurring excess expenses.”

Per the ATRI, insurance costs will increase in 2021, but at a ‘somewhat lower rate of growth’ if the trucking industry adopts active safety systems to help prevent the increasingly dramatic rate of post-accident liability lawsuits of truck-involved incidents.

For years the National Transport Safety Board’s goal has been to get collision mitigation systems, like Radar, on all commercial vehicles, stating these systems can minimize the severity and lessen collision rates.

“In the past few years, fleet managers have seen the power of safety technology and the cost savings in reduced fines, insurance, and legal fees that these technologies can provide on a mass scale,” said Fakkema. “There are a handful of safety product features that will be must-haves in 2021. Collision prevention, blind-spot [monitoring] … and assisted braking will be key safety components that will be in high demand by the industry” (HDT, Jan. 2021).

“When done properly, safety efforts prevent incidents,” the International Risk Management Institute (IRMI) reported. “Over time, the benefit of preempting incidents begins to have a less obvious cost-benefit as incidents become fewer. Thus, collecting good data in the early implementation phases becomes a factor in continuing to demonstrate value over time” (IRMI, The Cost of Safety).

Major Players Are Successfully Making Big Investments in Fleet Safety

Here are just a few examples of the many companies making big investments in their fleets safety and making an impact on driver acquisition and retention with best safety practices:

  • Recently, Fresh Freight in Phoenix, Arizona, decided to acquire a new fleet of premium trucks to attract top driversand address concerns for maintenance and safety. “It changes the way people look at you,” Matt Heroux, Chief Executive Officer, and President said. “They feel like … you understand their business concerns as fleet operators and aren’t going to do things that will put them in a bind.” According to Heroux, the company went from having zero drivers to picking the absolute best candidates possible to come and work with them, thanks to these changes.
  • Among many other companies making a significant investment in the safety of their fleets and driver acquisition practices, Walmart announced in February that they are “offering an $8,000 sign-on bonus for qualified Class A commercial truck drivers in select locations … in an effort to recruit the best and safest drivers to its private fleet (HDT, Feb. 2021).” Plus, they are also offering quarterly safe driving 
  • DTE Energy’s fleet optimization manager, and a 2020 Fleet Visionary of the Year Honoree, Marca Brown, notes that safety is critical to their fleet’s success and an important asset. This is because of DTE’s ‘modernization efforts,’ which focus on giving their drivers the safest vehicles possible to safely and effectively do their jobs. Today, DTE’s vehicles have standardized ADAS safety options, such as backup or cross-traffic monitors, lane departure, pre-collision assist, blind spot information, and auto high beam. Brown also notes that “educating drivers about the solutions made available on fleet vehicles is a critical part of her fleet processes” (Automotive Fleet Feb. 2021).

As major players within the trucking industry continue to look at the ROI and benefits of safety technologies, James Merendino and others believe this will positively impact the space. By tracking those numbers – and the impact of implementation – this data will undoubtedly “help employers, risk managers, and safety professionals improve workplace safety by highlighting its financial impact in total for specific industries,” concluded Merendino.

By tracking these costs and numbers, fleets can track how the safety and driver acquisition rates change over time, showing where safety and technology investments, like PreView Radar, can reduce insurance rates and return their initial costs.