Drivers, regulations top list of critical trucking issues

Hours of service changes introduced in July 2013 put stricter limits on driver time behind the wheel, requiring drivers to take a half-hour break after driving a set number of hours, and made it more difficult for drivers to take a 34-hour “restart” at the end of a week. That’s cutting trucking productivity, costing the industry as much as $3.9 billion annually, ATRI said.

The ATA still hopes legislation that would suspend the 2013 restart changes while requiring more study of the effect the HOS changes have on safety will make its way through Congress when legislators return to Washington after the November election. Trucking officials insist the current restart puts more truck drivers on the road at 5 a.m., increasing accident risks as rush hours begin in metropolitan areas, a claim challenged by supporters of the new rules.

In its report, ATRI also proposes advocating for increased flexibility in sleeper berth rules and an independent review of the cost-benefit analysis used by federal regulators.

The driver shortage was ranked first among the top 10 concerns by 24 percent of respondents, which moved the shortage up from third place in 2013 to second place this year. The escalating shortage has become the leading check on over-the-road truck capacity. The inability to hire enough drivers means more parked or “unseated” trucks at carriers and concerns shippers seeking additional capacity as demand for goods and products rises.

Based on survey comments, ATRI recommended several steps to address the difficulty motor carriers face finding, hiring and keeping truck drivers, including convincing federal and state authorities to consider a graduated commercial drivers license program to qualify younger drivers for CDLs. The research firm also recommended researching effective recruitment strategies and encouraging carriers to hire more U.S. military veterans as drivers.

Many truckload carriers are trying to tackle the issue by raising driver pay — which truck drivers have said is the biggest issue convincing them to either switch carriers. Swift Transportation, the largest U.S. truckload carrier, raised driver pay Aug 4. U.S. Xpress Enterprises, the sixth-largest truckload operator, raised solo driver pay 13 percent.

Concerns over the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration’s CSA program dropped from second to third place this year as those over the driver shortage increased. CSA was the top concern in 2012. In the past year, the ATA has become increasingly critical of the program, calling for the carrier scores made public in 2010 to be removed from public view until they are “strongly predicative” of the actual risk of a crash. The trucking also wants crash accountability built into the scoring system, so non-preventable crashes won’t push up a carrier’s CSA scores.

Driver retention — the ability of a carrier to keep a truck driver once he or she has been hired — shot up from No. 7 last year to No. 4 on the 2014 list. With driver turnover rates on average stuck above 90 percent at large truckload carriers, those companies increasingly “poach” drivers from competitors. Finding ways to keep drivers satisfied and reduce the increasingly high cost associated with turnover is becoming a higher priority, closely linked with finding solutions to lost productivity and the overall driver shortage.

Most of the remaining critical issues identified by ATRI also involved drivers. Ranked fifth was the electronic logging device mandate being developed by FMCSA. That mandate will eventually require all truck drivers to switch from handwritten hours of service logs to onboard computers. The scarcity of available truck parking in the U.S. ranked sixth on the list.

Transportation infrastructure, including congestion and funding, rose to No. 7 among the top 10 critical issues, while driver health and wellness ranked eighth.

At the bottom of the list were the economy, which tumbled from fourth place in 2013 to ninth place this year, a sign of the strength of the U.S. economic recovery in freight markets, and, in tenth place, driver distraction. The drivers in question here include motorists as well as truckers, as the use of mobile phone and texting put all highway users in danger. ATRI recommends a federal ban on hand-held cell phone use and texting for all motorists.