TRUCKING: What are the Implications of the Worsening Driver Shortage?

It is no secret that the trucking industry has been struggling with a shortage of truck drivers for more than 10 years, as a truck accident lawyer Trenton, NJ trusts knows all too well.  While there have been fluctuations in the annualized shortage rates due, in part, to episodic softening in demand for service by the trucking industry, the problem has never really abated.  And now, according to a 2017 study by the American Trucking Association, the driver shortfall is expected to rise an all-time high through 2018. What are the explanations behind this trend and what does it mean to you and me?  Below is a short analysis of the findings.


The ATA report documents many factors, including appeal of the industry amongst various demographic sectors and regulations which limit the ability of the trucking industry to draw young workers.  For example, current age requirements mandate an operator must be at least 21 years of age in order to pilot a tractor-trailer across state lines, limiting interstate carrier’s from accessing young persons before they enter other potential career paths, such as construction or retail, where they do not face similar age-based restrictions on starting their careers.  Demographic factors, such as a low appeal amongst women, was also cited by the authors of the study. For example, while women comprise over 45% of the US labor force, only about 6% of all truck drivers are women; a ratio which has been largely stagnant since 2000. Lifestyle factors and the need to be away from home for extended periods are likely a primary reason for the lack of appeal to women.  But the study indicates that the single most significant factor is “the relatively high average age of the existing workforce.” Surveys performed by the ATA show that drivers in the “for-hire over-the-road truckload industry” have an average age of 49; even older in other sectors of the trucking industry. As such, the impact of retirement has continued to increase, and motor carriers report a struggle to find sufficient qualified drivers to meet demand.


According to the study, the trucking industry experienced a shortfall of approximately 36,500 drivers in 2016 and projected that number would exceed 50,000 by the end of 2017 and could be as high as 174,000 by 2026.  The vast majority of the shortfall rests in over-the-road drivers. The “local” driver segment of the industry has been far less impacted. In sum, it is projected that the trucking industry will need to hire nearly 900,000 new drivers over the next decade.  Nearly half of that number is directed to replacing the aging driver population, but growth within the industry is the second largest factor, accounting for nearly 30% of the demand for new drivers.

Given that the vast majority of goods in this country continue to be moved by truck, its not hard to understand that this shortage has tremendous implications for everyone who consumes goods & services which depend on a robust trucking industry.  Projections suggest severe disruptions in the overall supply chain due to shipping delays, “higher inventory carrying costs, and perhaps shortages at stores.”

For non-commercial users of the roadway, this issue has serious implications; particularly in light of the way in which our political system operates.  First, as the ATA study suggests, the driver shortage likely “feels” worse to motor carriers than the figures would suggest, because those figures don’t address the issue of quality.  Carriers seeking to hire only “the best” drivers may find the shortage to be a much bigger problem than those who don’t, and my find that they have to raise wages to attract the “best” drivers.  Unfortunately, many carriers may lower standards in the wake of the shortage. And lower “quality” typically means reduced safety for the general public.

Another serious implication raised by the shortage is the continued viability of regulations.  The trucking industry is subject to a great deal of regulation, and for good reason. However, the industry is largely self-policing.  The more stressed the industry becomes, the greater the push for “de-regulation” may become. As “regular people” do not have the access to legislators that industries have, there is an increasing risk that the industries “de-regulation” rallying cry may begin to find greater purchase as this problem continues to grow.

We have already seen the impact of this disparate access to the “ear” of our legislative bodies.  Calls for increases in the amount of mandatory insurance coverage have met with stiff resistance despite clear evidence of need.  Most parents in this country would agree that “young” drivers, particularly young men, are amongst the worst safety risks behind the wheel; a fact which accounts for the restrictions on the driving age for interstate trucking.  Yet, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration is preparing to conduct a pilot program that contemplates lowering the minimum age by studying “the safety of commercial motor vehicle drivers under the age of 21.” Industry groups, like the ATA, have applauded this measure and have called for “broad participation.”  However, fortunately, the FMCSA has thus far limited involvement in the program to current or recently separated military personnel.

There is clearly a need for more drivers, but the safety of the motoring public must remain a principal interest as we test ways to address the driver shortfall.



Thanks to our friends and contributors from Davis & Brusca, LLP for their insight into trucking accident cases.