If you’re anything like me, when you go into a grocery store to pick up dinner or cleaning supplies or a last-minute birthday present, you rarely think about how that item ended up on that particular store shelf. Chances are a large truck would be a good guess as to how the item arrived just when you needed it.
A new study by the American Trucking Associations (ATA) reports 70 percent of America’s freight is transported by truck. It’s a statistic that reflects a huge demand in the trucking industry and highlights one of its major obstacles: a driver shortage.
The ATA estimates companies hiring drivers for Class 8 trucks, i.e. all tractor trailers, were short 36,500 drivers in 2016 and estimates the shortage probably surpassed 50,000 drivers at the end of last year, though those numbers are not yet finalized.
“Many carriers, despite being short drivers, are highly selective in hiring drivers because they have made safety and professionalism high priorities,” Bob Costello, ATA chief economist and senior vice president, wrote as the report’s author.
Why might his words be a cause for concern? The issue is many companies strive to maintain safety standards during the driver shortage—but not all. And that risks the safety of those sharing the road with large trucks.
Several factors have contributed to the shortage, including increased demand, a mostly male worker composition, a difficult lifestyle and changing regulations. However, Costello noted driver age as one of the largest factors for the shortage. The average age for for-hire over-the road truckers is 49, and it’s 52 for private fleet drivers, compared to 42 for all U.S. workers. This means that as drivers reach retirement age, the shortage will likely worsen.
The city of Atlanta, where my family and I live, just topped the 2018 list for having the worst truck-oriented congestion. The intersection of I-285 and 85 North, or “Spaghetti Junction” as it’s known, can be a nightmare for car drivers and truckers alike. As I’m sure anyone who has driven it already knows, spaghetti junction is particularly treacherous, and when things go wrong, they often turn deadly. It’s in spots like these that a lack of experience—something that seems to accompany workforce shortages—can play a tragic role.
An influx of young and/or inexperienced drivers, which would be the case if they decrease the legal age to drive a tractor trailer across state lines from 21 to 18, will likely not make an already struggling profession safer. At some point, the trucking industry will have many younger drivers, ideally that understand the importance of a safety culture. But only time will tell if that dream comes close to reality.
American Trucking Associations