A truck driver shortage does exist, but not in the way the ATA and it’s mega-carrier members would like for us all to believe. The driver shortage myth has been perpetuated for many years now with studies and surveys commissioned mostly by the ATA. All of those numbers and percentages, repeated again and again, seem to back up the driver shortage claim. It doesn’t take a study, however, to debunk such a theory. A quick look at two simple factors will suffice. Freight rates and driver pay have stagnated for at least a decade now. The absence of any significant rise in freight rates suggests the opposite of a driver shortage. Instead of low competition driving rates up, rates offered, and accepted that are near, at, and even below break-even suggests a driver surplus.
The same is true of driver pay. The ATA uses the high driver turnover numbers of its members to support the driver shortage theory. The 2005, ATA commissioned study, The U.S. Truck Driver Shortage: Analysis and Forecasts, states that driver pay is one of the largest factors in high driver turnover. Yet there has been no appreciable difference in the pay rates offered by carriers. Although the industry is experiencing turnover in excess of 100%, carriers don’t seem to have any problem finding newly licensed drivers to fill the empty seats. If retention issues were the cause of a driver shortage, driver wages would increase to encourage retention. The actions of these carriers are contrary to an effort to stem the flow of drivers leaving the industry, or to an effort to attract and keep experienced drivers.
In a true driver shortage, not only would rates increase, but shippers would find themselves waiting for trucks to load their products on. The second, and perhaps even more telling, reason that a driver shortage does not exist is that shippers are having no problem finding trucks to transport their goods at depressed freight rates and stores are not running into difficulty getting product to stock their shelves. The ATA has been very crafty at crying driver shortage while at the same time petitioning for mandated speed limiters on trucks. The ATA claims that speed limiters would increase truck safety as well as “level the playing field” between the larger, already speed-limited, fleets and smaller carriers. The claim is that high driver turnover is partially caused by drivers leaving large carriers to drive for those offering non-governed trucks. While ignoring the fact that the FMCSA has no role in economic legislation regarding the trucking industry (the industry has, after all, been deregulated) and that such a mandate would effectively be returning the decision of maximum speed limit to the Federal level, the ATA is bold enough to insinuate that the majority of truck drivers are lawless renegades that will run out of control if not kept on a tight leash. The safety angle of the argument ignores every study showing that large speed differentials between automobile and heavy truck traffic actually leads to less safe driving conditions.
A similar position is mirrored in the ATA’s comments regarding electronic on-board recorders for monitoring compliance with the Hours of Service regulations. The ATA points out that the majority of its carriers do not have a problem with the Hours of Service, ignoring the potential for misuse, such as the documented use of Qualcomms to force drivers to drive as long as they have driving hours available regardless of their level of fatigue. It also leaves out the poor safety records of its major carrier members, even those currently using similar technology, yet at the same time, attempts to claim that it is the smaller carriers and owner-operators who are most likely to fail to comply with the HOS.
The FMCSA’s baffling new rule-making regarding EOBRs appears to have taken the concerns of the ATA to heart while glossing over the concerns of smaller carriers and owner-operators represented by OOIDA. The ruling blatantly favors mega-carriers in some areas, ignores the Constitutional rights of drivers in other areas, and completely neglects to address anything resembling an effort to increase compliance with the Hours of Service. EOBRs can not distinguish between duty status’ such as “on-duty, not driving”, “off-duty”, and “sleeper berth”, therefore use of the devices could not possibly monitor HOS compliance accurately. The mandate would follow carriers instead of drivers with records of HOS violations. Drivers–both good and bad– would simply leave an EOBR mandated carrier and move to one without the requirement.
That such a rule has even been proposed –-one that cannot even hope to achieve its intended aim, all the while trampling the Constitution–- is mystifying. With all of this uproar supposedly aimed at truck safety, one area has been suspiciously quiet. While the FMCSA entertains comments on EOBRs and speed limiters and the debate over both roars on, only a small voice is heard calling for actually making the drivers safer. In a day when a new driver can go from Burger King employee to licensed CDL holder in control of a 40 ton vehicle in less then a month, only OOIDA is aiming any real effort at all towards tightening the training requirements needed to obtain a CDL. The effort to curb the practice of third-party testing –-that is, the ability of carriers and trucking schools to train, and then test their own applicants and certify them to receive a Commercial Driver’s License-- however, seems to be left entirely un-manned. Although the potential for fraud is high in this area, and fraudulent CDLs have been issued in many cases, no one is making much of an issue over it.
Yet, removing third-party testing from the equation has the power to really change the industry for the better. Our drivers would be better trained and more qualified, as tested by an objective state examiner with no financial interest in getting new drivers behind the wheel. Since the industry is actually hyper-competitive, putting an end to third-party testing would help stem the flood of new drivers into the industry, allowing some breathing room for freight rates to adjust to inflation and the high operating cost associated with the industry. Higher freight rates and driver wages brought about by this breathing room would increase driver retention for carriers. Better trained, less stressed, and no longer financially strained drivers would be less likely to push the speed limits, and the Hours of Service, to their limits and beyond, leading to much lower incidence of fatigued drivers on the road and increased levels of safety without the use of expensive, inept, and invasive devices to attempt the job.
There is a driver shortage out there, we have far too few professional, experienced, and qualified truck drivers on the road. If we could all quit looking past the obvious, and work to strengthen CDL requirements and ban third-party testing, the roads will be safer and more profitable for everyone.