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Truck driver shortage demands action — better wages, working conditions are part of the solution

Former U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao claims that a shortage of truck drivers demands unprecedented action. However, she is wrong to advance reckless proposals like putting teens behind the wheel of a large tractor-trailer. In July 2021, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg and Labor Secretary Martin Walsh stated the obvious: “The core reason for America’s truck driver capacity issue is the startlingly low retention of current drivers.” Secretary Buttigieg estimates the industry loses roughly 300,000 drivers annually, describing it as a “leaky bucket.” Many suggestions offered by former DOT Secretary Chao in her opinion piece miss the mark in addressing the root causes of the truck driver retention problem — inadequate pay and benefits, and harsh working conditions.

The industry-supported Teen Trucking Pilot Program endorsed by Secretary Chao is a reckless solution. The overwhelming abundance of data is emphatic that teens and trucks are a lethal combination. For example, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) cites the University of Michigan research demonstrating a stunning 500 percent increase in injury crashes per mile traveled with truck drivers younger than 21 compared with drivers of all ages. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death for teens. Conscripting the highest risk, least experienced drivers into what the Bureau of Labor and Statistics routinely cites as one of America’s deadliest professions is tragically short-sighted.

I agree with Secretary Chao that truck driving is a “grueling” job. However, special interest exemptions from federal truck driver Hours of Service rules have made this profession even more demanding and more dangerous. Truck drivers are exempt from the Fair Labor Standard Act and are paid by the mile and not by the hour like the majority of U.S. workers. When Chao led the U.S. DOT, she championed a rollback in the Hours of Service rule by eviscerating the 30-minute rest period under the guise of “flexibility.” Now, under this rule, truck drivers are permitted to work loading and unloading a truck and have it count as “rest” during their required 30-minute break. This rule, taking away much-needed rest from drivers, only makes this occupation even more deadly. Over 900 truck drivers are killed annually, and the National Transportation Safety Board routinely cites truck driver fatigue as a “major contributor” to truck crashes. 

Rushing the deployment of autonomous trucking technology as Chao suggests is not a solution, but a recipe for disaster. As Advocates for Auto and Highway Safety President Cathy Chase pointed out in recent House Testimony on autonomous vehicles, “The lack of comprehensive federal performance standards, strong government oversight, adequate consumer information, and effective industry accountability imperils all road users…” We have seen what happens with the unchecked deployment into the marketplace of so-called passenger car self-driving technology. There have been multiple incidents of poorly designed Tesla vehicles ignoring stop signs or crashing into emergency vehicles resulting in death or serious injury. Without adequate safeguards in place, crashes could be even more catastrophic with 40-ton tractor-trailers traveling at high speeds alongside other motorists.

The solution to the trucking industry’s self-inflicted wounds is not putting teens in big trucks, callously increasing driving and work hours, or irresponsibly rushing unsafe and unproven self-driving technology onto our roads and highways. The solution is simple. We should work to make truck driving more appealing by actually improving work conditions, salary, and benefits. This includes reducing the current excessive driving hours allowed of 77 hours in 7 days, and paying drivers by the hour, instead of by the mile which tempts drivers to drive as far and as fast as possible. Unfortunately, none of these systemic solutions were pursued by Secretary Chao during her tenure. Department of Labor research has concluded that higher wages would “ameliorate” any long-term driver shortage. Anyone, not just labor economists, can look at the stunning decline in truck driver earnings and reach the same conclusion.

Truck drivers and the motoring public deserve better. Nearly 5,000 people already lose their lives in truck crashes every year. Commonsense solutions exist to support truck driver retention, enhance public safety, and provide truck drivers with decent working conditions. Teen trucking is not a solution, but a safety nightmare for all. Empty store shelves do not compare to an empty chair at the dinner table because a loved one has needlessly been killed in a preventable truck crash.

Joan Claybrook is Chair of the Citizens for Reliable and Safe Highways (CRASH) and former administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Tags Elaine Chao Pete Buttigieg Truck safety

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