It has been widely covered in the media the last several years that the United States trucking industry is experiencing a significant decline in its labor market that will ultimately result in a shortage of 175,000 drivers by 2026. What’s more, the American Trucking Associations, ATA, who conducted the research, has estimated the industry would need to hire “900,000 drivers over the next 10 years just to replace drivers leaving the industry, mostly through retirement.” However, a recent market analysis conducted by the Bureau of Labor Statistics revealed that while the ATA’s research and data certainly show a restricted market in need of an influx of drivers, the trucking industry itself has proven to be resilient as “supply responds to increasing labor demand over time.”
Trucking Companies are Forced to Change Their Hiring Process
Even though this new research provides some optimism surrounding the future of the trucking industry, there are still a variety of factors that suggest trucking companies will continue to be negatively affected and forced to drastically change their businesses. One factor that is arguably the most consequential is that of aging truck drivers. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average age of a commercial truck driver is 55 years old, meaning a majority of drivers in that age range will soon be retiring in the coming years. With such a large portion of its driving population retiring within the next decade, trucking companies have been forced to actively recruit younger drivers or provide increased incentives to older drivers to convince them to keep driving past the age of retirement. While the former option brings questions of inexperience, is the latter decision to encourage older commercial truck drivers to stay on the road posing a significant risk to driver safety?
Recent Uptick in Commercial Trucking Crashes
While there are numerous benefits for keeping experienced drivers on the road, it cannot be denied there is evidence of an increase in the number of crashes taking place each year with aging commercial truck drivers behind the wheel. Based on an investigation conducted by CBS News in 2016, drivers over the age of 65 made up 10 percent of commercial vehicle operators in the United States and over a three year period from 2013 to 2015, there were more than 6,636 accidents involving elderly drivers in 12 states throughout the US, marking a 19% increase. This isn’t to say that elderly drivers should not be on the road. Just as there are many highly capable teenage drivers, they also happen to maintain the largest fatal crash rate amongst all drivers in the United States. With that being said, understanding the risks associated with the decisions being made by these trucking companies can only help us be more aware and safer in our driving habits.
Making the matter more complicated is the fact that under Section 391.11 of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA), a maximum age limit has not been set for commercial truck drivers, making it all the more likely that the rate at which aging drivers remain on the road will continue to increase. It is easy to imagine that while the demographics of the industry rapidly change over the next decade and trucking companies find ways to retain drivers and expand employment to a younger demographic, the number of crashes involving elderly truck drivers will only continue to rise.
Although there is no age limit restricting older drivers from maintaining their commercial license, the FMCSA, under Section 391.41, requires all drivers to meet a series of physical qualifications to be determined by a medical examiner, which is valid for up to 24 months. Several examples of qualifications that must be met are that the driver must not have a loss or impairment of limbs; have no established medical history of respiratory dysfunction, arthritis, epilepsy, etc. However, more interesting is the fact that the FMCSA mandates that a driver must have a “distant visual acuity of at least 20/40 in each eye without corrective lenses or visual acuity separately corrected to 20/40 or better with corrective lenses.” As we all know, our vision only gets worse as we age and although 20/40 vision is not terrible, this law effectively establishes that so long as an older driver has corrective lenses providing them with 20/40 vision, they may continue driving for two additional years before having their eyesight checked again. One can only imagine how much an individual’s vision may change in two years, especially as we age, only making the FMCSA’s requirement more suspect.
Available Resources for Drivers and Companies
All of this information makes it appear as though the industry is allowing unqualified drivers to remain on the road. With that being said, commercial truck driving is already a grueling job, requiring long hours and the ability to maintain focus. As a way for trucking companies to be more diligent in the hiring process and manufacture safe driving conditions, J.J. Keller & Associates, Inc’s. Preventable Accident Manual serves as a great resource. The manual goes to great lengths to provide many countermeasures trucking companies may take. Looking at Section A6 of the manual, covering Illness and Fatigue, several tips are provided which inform managers they should be cross-checking driver logs, notifying drivers of violations, and most importantly, they should be aware of the physical qualifications and medical examinations required for the hiring process. As more evidence points to aging commercial truck drivers remaining on the road past their years of retirement, such countermeasures must become more central to how trucking companies employ and train their drivers.
While this new data on the trucking industry may show positive signs that the industry is not struggling as much as it was previously believed to be, it’s important for the public to be aware that although the industry may be resilient, there are still significant risks associated with these changing demographics of drivers. We must maintain knowledge of how road safety dynamics may shift in the coming years due to changes such as these. The more we know and study this data, the better protected we will all be.
Stay safe out there!