Truck safety group debates driver pay vs. driver shortage

A study examining how driver safety correlates with age and experience sparked a discussion among members of a federal safety panel about whether higher pay should be used to address a potential future shortfall of qualified drivers.

The discussion followed a July 14 presentation by Susan Soccolich, a researcher at Virginia Tech Transportation Institute, to the Motor Carrier Safety Advisory Committee (MCSAC), which makes recommendations to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA).

The institute’s study, released earlier this year, examined commercial truck drivers as young as 21, while pointing to a “widely held concern about a growing commercial vehicle driver shortage.”

To address the shortage, the study concluded, among other things, that there was “no safety-based reason not to use younger drivers when structured training, mentoring, and coaching systems are in place.” It also found that driving experience, rather than age, had a greater impact on safety.

Many on the panel agreed that the industry had to improve on retaining current drivers due to chronically high driver turnover rates, particularly within the truckload sector. In fact, driver retention could get even worse, according to MCSAC member David Huneryager, president and CEO of the Tennessee Trucking Association.

“There are conditions that are being set up across this country that are going to make it more and more difficult for carriers to find qualified drivers,” Huneryager said. “If I had a group of 20 of my members in my office today, they’d have anywhere from 5-8% of their trucks sitting empty because they don’t have a driver to put behind the wheel.”

Greer Woodruff, senior vice president of safety, security and driver personnel at J.B. Hunt (NASDAQ: JBHT), cited a study showing an aging driver population over time, with about 27% of Class A CDL holders 55 or older. “So we do have this looming percentage that are going to leave industry due to retirement over the next 10 years or so,” Woodruff said. “And we have societal trends that are going to impede our ability to attract them, such as legalization of marijuana and addictions to smartphones, which are a safety risk.”

However, Steve Owings, president of Road Safe America, a safety group, said that “if drivers were paid for every hour they work — not just drive — there wouldn’t be so much turnover in the industry or so much stress on the drivers.”

Committee member Danny Schnautz, vice president of Pasadena, Texas-based Clark Freight Lines, agreed. “I think it’s the availability of good work that keeps driver turnover high,” he said. “It’s not that drivers aren’t available at any price, it’s that they’re not available at today’s prices.”

For committee member Todd Spencer, president of the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association, the premise that there will be a future shortage of drivers is false. “It’s something I’ve been hearing for over three decades and I’m doubting I will ever see one,” he said.

“There really isn’t any structured ladder to climb up to improve your economic situation based on how safe a driver you are. For the most part drivers get paid for miles driven. That’s really the wrong incentive if the priority is supposed to be safety, professionalism and responsibility. We have all the wrong incentives built into the profession. I’d like to think it could change on its own, but without nudges coming from different directions, I don’t see that happening.”

Spencer suggested that drivers should be rewarded not only economically but from a system created by regulators so that oversight of the industry is less of a burden for drivers who have proved to be safe.

“Focus on where the problems are — if you’re not crashing, you’re not the problem,” he said. “It’s a better return all the way around. If people entering trucking could see that they can improve their economic situation, they’d be more inclined to stay. But if it never gets any better, it’s easy to find something else to do to make a living.”

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