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Spreading the real story behind the ‘driver shortage’

Recently, an old friend – a fellow journalist – sent me a link to an article.

His note read, “I’m sure you already know the crux of this CBS News story, but I’m sending it along in case this take offers something different and useful.”

The article was the usual panic piece about how the supposed truck driver shortage was going to create problems for everyone.

It noted that the ATA thinks the industry is short more than 50,000 drivers right now, and could be short 174,000 in eight years’ time if “nothing happens.”

As you can imagine, I replied that, yes, I am quite aware of what the story is talking about.

But then I decided to go further. I’m always encouraging truckers to educate people outside the industry about what’s happening, so I best put my money where my mouth is.

My reply was a bit long: 

Yes (I’m aware of what CBS is reporting on), although there’s an interesting story there.

The overall industry has an annual turnover rate of roughly 100 percent. Most of that is in the largest carriers in the truckload sector, which have turnovers far in excess of that (and they are the ones touting – for roughly 30 years – the “shortage.”). Some are well above 200 percent annually.

More than 400,000 new CDLs are issued every single year for Class A drivers, in addition to those already possessing those licenses. So when they talk about in a few years needing 50,000 new drivers, one wonders what they did with the 400,000 new ones from this year alone.

Taken with other facts, it’s clear that the problem is not a shortage. The problem is the turnover, which is caused primarily by their poor pay and poor treatment of their drivers.

Are grocery and Walmart shelves empty? If a real shortage existed, they would be. Loads are moved, and moved on time.

If the supply of drivers was low and demand was high (i.e., a shortage), then the price of that commodity (what is paid to drivers) would go up. In fact, driver pay in constant dollars is at the lowest level since 1980. Some drivers make less now in absolute dollars than drivers in 1980.

However, the large corporations who have a vested interest in keeping driver pay low have spent millions on a massive PR campaign to convince everyone a shortage exists – and everyone is buying it, even in the face of contrary evidence.

While citing the perceived shortage, some of those companies have asked for drivers from other countries to be allowed to drive here, for 18- to 21-year-olds to drive interstate, and other measures to increase their potential supply. Notably, they are looking at groups that are easier to exploit than their current pool of potential workers.

Notably, smaller carriers that pay more, offer better benefits and better treatment have very low turnover rates. The less-than-truckload sector, dominated by union shops with good pay and benefits, have astoundingly low turnover. The difference is pretty clear, even to the casual observer.

It’s one of the worst examples of our profession (journalism) falling prey to a PR campaign without independently checking out the facts that I’ve ever seen. And unfortunately, it’s being used to push through federal policy that allows the exploitation of hundreds of thousands of people.

That’s my answer when a friend entirely outside trucking asked about the driver shortage. What’s your answer? You can email me here or call our listener comment line at 1-800-324-6856.

Don’t just let us know. Tell other people – friends, family, neighbors and more.

The ATA is bluntly winning this war of public opinion. Together, we can turn public attention to the truth.

Theater of the absurd

This started out as a plain old RAZZBERRY, and it’s definitely deserving of that. But I also think it’s deserving of a whole lot more.

It happened in a recent hearing of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee that was ostensibly about the FAST Act and things in it that would affect motor carriers and, more specifically, those folks behind the wheel with the CDLs. The fact that truckers had zero representation at the hearing is in itself worthy of a RAZZBERRY, but that’s not what I want to talk about.

No, what I want to talk about happened at the very tail end of the hearing, probably long after any sane person had stopped watching. Naturally, I was still tuned in and listening closely.

Good thing, too, otherwise I would have missed the show. Rep. Steve Cohen of Tennessee was the last member of the committee to question the panel of witnesses that included Jennifer Tierney, a board member for Citizens for Reliable and Safe Highways, or CRASH.

The subject at hand was underride guards and what followed was an exchange between the two that came off more like two members of a high school drama club reading from a prepared script. Rep. Cohen lobbed softball questions up in the air and Ms. Tierney knocked ’em down. They quoted statistics that sounded alarming but offered no context or insightful questions. It all came off – to me anyway – as a well-orchestrated bit of theater aimed at demonizing truckers and playing off the sympathies of those who have lost loved ones in trucking-related accidents.

About those sympathies. At one point Rep. Cohen said that he has found that the response from the trucking community in his district has been “negative, harrowing, and that the safety of a potential victim is not of a concern.”

Excuse me? With all due respect, congressman, just who the heck have you been talking to? How dare you sit there at a hearing to which not one single truck driver or other CDL holder was even invited and pretend to speak for what truckers are concerned about.

How about you talk to a trucker who has been involved in a crash where someone died and ask them if they have a concern for the victim? Or the trucker who – just recently – swerved his truck into a ditch to avoid hitting a school bus full of children. Do you think he had concern for the potential victims?

Ms. Tierney’s father died in a crash where his vehicle slid under a truck, and that is without a doubt a horrible tragedy, and I am truly sorry for her loss. But I also have no doubt that most truck drivers involved in a crash like that would feel the same way. Heck, most truck drivers period would feel the same way. Not that we would know it based on that hearing.

Rep. Cohen, you had no problem at all inviting a family who lost their son in a crash involving a truck to the hearing so that you could use their misery for political gain, but where were the truck drivers? What about the driver who was involved in that crash? These are human beings behind the wheels of those trucks, not monsters.

These kinds of one-sided emotional appeals are dangerous and only serve to further cloud the issue while completely ignoring the facts. And the facts, by the way, are these:

  • The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has determined that an underride mandate would be impractical and the costs would far outweigh any safety benefits.
  • The equipment with the strength needed to prevent underride wouldn’t be able to absorb energy in a collision and in fact could fully crush an automobile, causing even more damage and loss of life.
  • Underride guards would add another 1,000 pounds to already heavy trucks, and the cost alone would hit small business truckers the hardest.
  • Underride guards would limit the use of spread-axle trailers to distribute weight, thus decreasing efficiency and increasing safety risks.
  • According to recent statistics from the FMCSA, the point of impact for more than half of fatal truck-involved crashes occurred at the front of the trucks. Side impacts accounted for just 16 percent.

Those are cold, hard facts. Presented without emotion (other than a little righteous indignation). Underride guards would be a costly solution with little proven safety benefit. Period. And one other fact that isn’t listed up there is that truckers are some of the most caring, generous, dedicated, big-hearted, safety-minded people you’ll ever want to meet.

You might know that, congressman, if you ever bothered to meet any of them.

Society has an obligation to truckers’ safety as well

A couple of weeks ago, I was going through my desk and clearing out old files. I ran into a document I had not seen in a very long time, and it brought a very terrible story back to my mind.

At the time, California was going through one of the worst heat waves in recent history. I found a report about a woman who had died inside a truck.

We were closely watching reports out of California related to new CARB restrictions and local idling ordinances, and the possible connection between that and the woman’s tragic death caught my attention.

As I looked into the story further, I came to the conclusion that I had found what may have been the first death attributable to anti-idling regulations. So I decided to plumb a little further.

That involved calling the coroner and asking for the autopsy report that was produced after the woman’s death. I also talked with a trucker who knew the woman and her husband, who were both in the sleeper when the incident occurred.

Here is what I learned:

The couple were at the end of a run at a company terminal, but when they arrived company officials told them they had to leave the truck in the company lot.

However, as they were not at their home base, and the terminal was in an industrial area, they had no transportation to get to another location before the start of their next run. So they were stuck with their truck at the terminal. The building was locked, preventing use of the bathrooms, and no food or water were available there.

The area was under a tight anti-idling ordinance and of course strict CARB regulations.

Because nothing was available to eat or to drink, the husband and wife decided they had to do something. In the midst of that terrible heat, they walked a mile and a half to the nearest convenience store and then back to their truck.

Because of the heatwave that was underway, the sleeper – essentially a big metal box – amounted to being inside an oven. Their company truck could not idle, and it had no APU or other CARB-approved power source to run the air conditioning.

The Centers for Disease Control says that when outside temperatures range from 80 to 100 degrees, the inside of a vehicle can quickly climb to anywhere between 130 and 172 degrees. With the outside heat so high, with the lack of any meaningful shade, in a parking lot made of material that absorbs heat – well, you get the picture.

Not long after they returned, the woman began to exhibit serious medical symptoms. Her heart failed and she died.

I tried to call the husband, but he never called me back. I have to think that it was simply too much for him to talk about after what happened. Who could possibly not understand that?

My hope was that I could get something from the coroner’s report that would link her death directly to the lack of climate control, hence to idling. And I knew that her having to walk so far in the heat to get basic food and water played a big role.

The coroner was simply not willing to make that leap in logic, to draw that conclusion. In the end that’s why I dropped the story. I simply didn’t think I had enough to go forward.

Cleaning out those old files, I found the coroner’s report and it brought the entire incident back to mind.

I did not use her name here, nor will I. I simply do not think in the circumstances it’s appropriate.

However, I think it’s a story that on some level, I need to share.

To the general public, these laws sound very well meaning. Many think, who could possibly object to less pollution?

They leave out the human cost. Then leave out the fact, as so many do, that these trucks are not simply automations, but vehicles driven by people, real people, people who have the same basic human needs as anyone else.

That includes food, water, shelter and a safe environment. The parking lot where the couple and their truck sat was lacking the food, the water and the safe environment.

The coroner pointed to factors like the heat, like the fact that the woman was a bit heavier. I understand that was part of the equation. However, to me, it does not negate a very basic truth.

Someone stranded where they didn’t have their basic human needs met through no fault of their own simply because of the job they chose to pursue to make a living, died because of a regulation.

Those anti-idling regulations are still there, and so many truckers – especially company drivers who have no choice in what they drive – are still vulnerable, still facing that danger.

Plus, now we are debating things like ELDs, like hours of service, like underride guards, like so many other regulations that are floating around there as realities or proposals, all of which can have a significant effect on a trucker’s safety and well-being.

We need once again to recognize the same basic fact I mentioned earlier: These are not just automations or machines. These are vehicles driven by real humans.

And society has just as much of an obligation to protect them as anyone else.

When is everything old new again?

A while back, I had a big part replaced on my car.

It’s not the first time. Back in the 1980s, I drove a 1975 Plymouth Valiant Brougham, a car that was out of style the day it came off the assembly line but was as durable as a rock.

Durable or not, during the life of that car, I replaced body parts, engine parts and more. I even replaced the K frame, the structural element that held the entire front end of the car together. It had rusted to the point that it was only an inch wide at the most crucial point. Mechanics told me that without it the engine would just fall out, and it was bad enough that it would only take one crossing on a particularly rough railroad grade to break it.

Later, I had a Dodge Grand Caravan (I liked the Mopar for a long time). Over the time I owned it, that sucker had significant replacement of body parts on the rear, new front axles, large portions of the engine replaced, and on and on. It rant to more than 250,000 miles, which is a lot for a car.

I’ve had friends who virtually reinvented a car, completely disassembling, adding new parts as necessary, replacing body panels, whole sections of the front, the leaf springs on pickups – replacing a significant percentage of the vehicles involved.

During all of this, when did any of those vehicles become a new car?

I would contend never.

So when does an old truck become a new truck? When have you replaced so many parts that it’s no longer old?

That’s the real debate with glider kits.

If you replaced body and interior parts one at a time, over years, at no point would you consider that a new truck. You could even replace the frame rails, as long as you did it at a different time than the rest of it. That’s repair and maintenance.

You can even rebuild the engine and still legally it’s not a new truck.

But do a lot of that at once – let’s say, replace everything but the engine – and suddenly, people think you have a new truck.

EPA would have no authority over an old truck. If you can literally, over time, rebuild the entire truck – as long as they do it one part at a time, just not all at once – in the end, what’s the difference?

That’s far more than an intellectual exercise. It’s what’s happening right now. And God forbid any part of the government for one moment consider what would be good for small businesses.

That’s the point. Big business doesn’t want a break for glider kits. Big carriers don’t have a need for gliders, since they update their trucks every few years. Big truck makers don’t like it because they think it costs them business. Some may frame this as strictly an environmental issue, but it’s just as much a big vs. small business debate, as so many things are.

That said, one more aspect of this deserves consideration.

How many 1999 and before engines still exist? They are the real issue at the heart of this, the engines the environmentalists most object to. Well, it’s a finite number.

In the end, they will reach a point where they disappear forever. The problem the environmentalists worry about will be over.

Even if every single glider kit used a pre-1999 engine (they don’t – plenty of 10-02, ’07 and 2010 engines in those), all gliders combined are only 4 percent of annual truck sales, according to the latest figures available.

The New York Times took aim at glider kits in a recent article and pointed to that number as part of the reason gliders represent a problem.

To me, it represents how small of a problem it is and why we might want to consider another course.

How about we give small business a break? How about we acknowledge they have a different business model than big fleets, that they don’t replace their trucks every few years, that they work hard to make the truck last as long as possible? Can we agree that small businesses have a special need to save on expense, have a higher chance of failing, and yet produce more jobs than any other size of business, and so are worthy of helping and preserving?

How about we let these glider kits go, and acknowledge that at some point, the oldest of engines will finally be gone, and that the overwhelming bulk of trucks on the road now do have the pollution controls at issue, and that the environment will be safe?

I’m truly not sure that it will have a significant impact on the environment if gliders get a break. But it will make a hell of a difference to a lot of truckers, especially those one-truck carriers. It’s about time they got their due.

An exchange of letters

Let us examine, for a moment, a statement on Facebook attributed to America’s Road Team, an outreach program of the American Trucking Associations.

The post was a response to a letter from OOIDA to President Trump requesting that he meet with truckers about their concerns.

(OOIDA has officially responded on the Association’s Facbook page.)

In OOIDA’s letter, the Association points out that OOIDA represents 160,000 small-business truckers, and that the small business segment of the industry represents 96 percent of registered motor carriers. In fact, that percentage is an ATA figure, and it represents the percentage of motor carriers who have 20 or fewer trucks.

It talks about the president’s positive statements regarding truckers and his record of rolling back regulations. However, it also speaks about the many truckers who feel that, even though they voted for the president, they do not think he has been responsive to their greatest concerns, especially in the regulatory area.

In that spirit, the letter asks for a meeting. 

ATA’s response – which is attributed to America’s Road Team and posted on the team’s Facebook page – was a direct attack on OOIDA.

So let me address some of the claims made in that attack.

For the record, OOIDA never said anyone was not a "real trucker," never once in the letter did the Association use the word "fake," (which ATA's response put in quotes, which to those of us who write for a living means someone actually said or wrote it, which they did not) and OOIDA has never, ever endorsed or in any way encouraged violence of any kind. Quite the opposite.

(For the picky among us, Todd Spencer did use the word “fake” in a tweet on his personal Twitter feed, referring to the ATA executives, not the drivers. But the letter did not.)

The Association has made a point of promoting truckers speaking out in a responsible manner.

The Association did not make a “threat” to the president or anyone else. (Notice the quote marks? Because ATA actually wrote that. That’s how that works.) The letter stated something we have heard from hundreds of members who have called in about the issue.

One of the basic logical fallacies they teach in high school debate is what's called a "straw man argument." That’s where you make an outrageous statement that your opponents never said, attribute it to your opponent and then tear the statement down as a way to discredit your opponent. This is a classic example. If anyone there has trouble understanding that, I know an excellent high school debate teacher who has coached several students to nationals and who I'm sure would be glad to help.

OOIDA's letter was nothing more than a professionally worded request that the president speak to truckers he has not spoken with – something they and the Association that represents them – have a right to do under the First Amendment, which says citizens have the right to petition their government for redress of grievances.

For my part, let me say this: I have enormous respect for the truckers who are part of America’s Road Team. I have met many of them and find them to be professional, good, decent people. No one here has any interest in insulting them or any intention to do so.

However, I would say the same thing about the many truckers I have met who are OOIDA members, but in this building and elsewhere. Yet Chris Spear, the president of ATA, called those very truckers “amateur hour advocacy groups” that “believe they know what’s best for our industry.” (Again, quote marks, because he said that in a news release from his organization.)

We’ve also seen Mr. Spear’s organization say the only reason to oppose ELDs was if you wanted to keep cheating – in essence, calling them all lawbreakers.

Let me ask all of you behind the wheel – do you consider someone saying that about you to be insulting? Is the pot calling the kettle black? I’ll let you judge for yourselves.

I’m not sure if the actual truckers who make up America’s Road Team really wrote the response to OOIDA or if some official at ATA headquarters did. I’d be fascinated to know. But what we do know is that the response is from ATA.

So let’s look at the ATA. They do, in fact, represent big carriers. That’s their purpose. The Road Team members work for ATA members. The ATA represent truckers in the same way Andrew Carnegie represented steel workers – i.e., they don’t.

That’s not a rap on them. However, I would hold that it’s the truth. As is the case with many associations, the influence of a member company in ATA is, to a great extent, determined by their membership fees, which is determined by their size.

In OOIDA, all truckers who are members are equal. Membership fees are pretty much consistent for everyone. It’s $45, unless you sign up at a truck show or with another special deal, in which case it’s $10 off. So no one trucker or company has any more influence than another.

The Board of ATA is made up of company CEOs and presidents, along with representatives of state associations. Some of them head companies among the largest carriers in the nation. Some of them run medium-size carriers, having a few hundred trucks. That may meet the government’s definition of small, but it does not meet mine. These are executives, and for the most part they work in offices, not truck cabs.

The board of OOIDA is made up of people who drive a truck for a living, most of them owning only one truck. If you are not an actual truck driver, you cannot be named to the OOIDA board.

Who is more in touch with what actual truckers think, what they care about, what issues are most important to them? People in suits who run a trucking company or the actual truck drivers themselves? I think it should be clear to anyone by now where my vote goes.

That said, I’m not here to demonize people for running or being part of a large business or for being employed by one. I’ve been the employee, and I have known the employers. It’s America, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

However, someone who runs a large business is not the same as a person in a truck who is responsible only to themselves. ATA does not represent those people. Those people do not want ATA saying they represent them. And according to ATA figures, those very truckers, those who own one to 20 trucks, make up 96 percent of all the motor carriers that exist.

That’s who OOIDA stands for. And that’s who the Association will continue to fight for. And for that, we owe no apologies to anyone.

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