Crisis on the Highway


LITTLE ROCK, Ark – Just in time for the holidays!  A nationwide shortage of truck drivers.  

As we speak, the demand is greater than the supply which means prices are going up and in some cases, deliveries are either sitting on docks… or arriving late.  According to the American Trucking Association, right now there’s a shortage of 51,000 truck drivers across the United States.  It’s also projecting that the driver gap will skyrocket even higher by 2021.

Truck drivers play a critical role in fueling the nation’s economy.  They deliver everyday household goods and products around the clock and across the nation.  According to the ATA, big rigs haul over 70% (10.77 billion tons) of all freight tonnage of consumer goods moved in the U.S.  And even though the economy is hitting on all cylinders, the trucking industry is facing a crisis that hasn’t been seen or felt in nearly 34 years.  Butch Rice is the President and CEO of Stallion Transportation Group in Beebe.  He says, “It’s in probably in the worst condition it has been since deregulation in 1984.”  What keeps him up at night along with other trucking company owners across the nation, is the lack of drivers.  “This year was a big mark for retirement and the reason why is because of the new hours of service rules, the new regulations that took place in March.”

What Rice is talking about is Electronic Logging Devices, or ELDs.  By December of next year, all carriers and drivers must have them up and running.  The device looks like a small computer and replaces the paper logs drivers are used to.  The device permanently tracks a driver’s time, rest periods and location among other things.  Safety features that Rice says he fully supports.  “You’re saying it’s a positive thing, but some drivers out there might disagree with you,” I say to him.  Rice nods his head immediately and tells me, “They took a 33% pay cut.”  I ask him, “Because of the ELDs?”  His response?  “Yes, because of the ELDs.”

The federal mandate also limits the amount of time a driver can be behind the wheel to 11 hours during a 14-hour day.  Once they hit that mark, they are required to take 10 hours off.  A safety feature some drivers don’t like.  “A typical driver here was running 33-hundred miles a week.  Today, it’s about 28-hundred a week and you’re paid by the mile,” says Rice.  As result, Rice believes the mandate and ELD’s forced many longtime drivers to hang up the keys for good or find other jobs.   

Shannon Newton is the President of the Arkansas Trucking Association.  She agrees with Rice and calls the current climate “alarming.”  She says, “The driver shortage, electronic logs and good economy are all contributing to product being delivered late or not meeting some deadlines… or costing more in order to get it there in the same timeline that a customer expected a year ago.”  As a result, the industry predicts it will need to hire nearly 900,000 new drivers nationwide over the coming decade.  Recruiting them; however, may be the biggest challenge.  “For somebody to tell them that you’re going to be away from family for 7 days or 14 days or whatever the company policy is… it’s a lot harder to attract people into that market,” says Rice.

So trucking companies across the state and the nation are now coming up with new and unique ways to lure drivers new and old back into the rig.  “We as owners have always looked at our trucks as obviously a cost.  But now we look at them as even more or a recruiting tool,” says Rice.  In fact, all of his 85 rigs are brand new.  Each one costs roughly $160,000 and is rotated out every 20 months.  Each one is fully automatic and equipped with state of the art amenities.  “In our trucks, there are Bose sound systems, TV’s, refrigerators and microwaves.  All of these are standard now,” says Rice.  Features that veteran driver Jerry Dawson believes will attract drivers of all ages.  “If you love to drive, this is the job for you and when you get up to go to work in the morning… you get up, take two steps and you’re at your job.”  Trucking companies are also changing routes so drivers can spend more time at home with family.  “Now trucking companies are doing what we call a relay.  So they have two drivers who leave. let’s say, Little Rock and San Diego… and they meet in the middle and then return home.  That makes it more desirable.  You get home more.  Your routes are more predictable. So that’s more attractive now to the demographic that we’re hiring,” says Newton.  One other attractive feature is the pay.  More and more trucking companies are upping the ante.  “Our driver pay last year… our average driver made $58,000.  This year, our average driver will make $72,000,” says Rice.  Other trucking companies are offering bonuses of $1,500 or higher.  And companies like Stallion are also picking up a big portion of driver’s health insurance premiums.  “We used to pay 50% of their health care.  Now we’re paying 68% of their health care and now we’re looking at going 100%,” says Rice.

If the current climate continues and demand remains strong, retail and grocery prices will continue to go up.  That’s because freight costs have increased by as much as 10% and could go even higher.  As a result, retailers are raising shelf prices.  And Most trucking companies can afford these extra costs right now, because the demand is so high.  But what happens down the road, or around the bend… remains to be seen.  One possibility involves legislation that is currently being considered in the House and Senate.  It would allow 18-year-olds who have a commercial driver’s license to drive semi’s out of state… something the current law does not allow.  One other possible solution is already in the works, thanks to Elon Musk.  His team is already working on an electric semi with semi-autonomous capabilities.  It offers a number of safety features including automatic braking, lane tracking, nuclear explosion-proof glass and has a range of 500 miles.  But is the trucking industry and the public ready for a 33-thousand pound missile to cruise down the freeway or highway on auto-pilot?  Click on the link below and cast your vote:

For more information click on the links below:

Stallion Transportation Group:

Arkansas Trucking Association:

American Trucking Association:

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