Fuel prices were unsurprisingly the top trucking issue in this year’s Top Industry Issues survey by the American Transportation Research Institute, but for the first time, speed limiters made it onto the top 10 list.
It was the 18th such report from ATRI, the not-for-profit research organization arm of the American Trucking Associations. In an Oct. 22 “Great Reveal” session during the ATA’s Management Conference and Exhibition in San Diego, a panel discussed these issues and others.
“ATRI’s list is a true reflection of what it was like to be a trucker this year,” said ATA Chairman Harold A. Sumerford Jr. “High fuel prices and finding drivers were two of our industry’s biggest challenges – challenges made more difficult by the economy and the continued lack of truck parking. Thankfully, ATRI doesn’t just tell us what the issues are, it provides a number of possible solutions that decision makers can use to address them.”
In a year that saw record-high fuel costs, fuel prices were ranked as the top industry concern, replacing the driver shortage, which had been the number one issue for five years in a row.
With the release earlier this year of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration’s Notice of Intent to enter into a speed limiter rulemaking in 2023, speed limiters ranked in the top 10 this year for the first time, coming in ninth overall and fifth among commercial driver respondents.
More than 47% of the survey respondents were professional truck drivers and 39% were motor carrier executives. “Some of the write-ins were very colorful,” said ATRI President and COO Rebecca Brewster, indicating the strong feelings shared by many respondents
Among driver respondents, the top three concerns were:
- Truck parking
- Fuel prices
- Driver compensation
For motor carriers, the top three concerns were:
- Driver shortage
- Driver retention
- Fuel Prices
More than 4,200 trucking industry stakeholders participated in this year’s survey, including motor carriers, truck drivers, industry suppliers, driver trainers, law enforcement, and others.
“This year’s survey had the highest number of responses to date, showing how committed our industry is to identifying the most critical concerns and more importantly, figuring out how we collectively deal with each issue,” Brewster said.
1. Fuel Prices
The last time fuel prices were on ATRI’s critical-issues list was in 2013 at number 8.
“From 2020-21, we saw about a 15% increase, then about a 63% increase from 21-22, so I’m not surprised it shows up at number one, especially when you have a lot of independent drivers taking the survey,” said Dennis Dellinger, president and CEO of Cargo Transporters Inc., on the panel discussion. He noted that larger carriers are able to help keep fuel costs down through purchasing bulk fuel and running a good fuel surcharge program, which are things owner-operators and smaller fleets can’t.
Respondents by a narrow margin chose as the top possible strategy for the industry to advocate for federal actions that help stabilize the supply of fuel and minimize price volatility, followed by researching potential factors that may be affecting fuel availability and pricing volatility.
2. Driver Shortage
“After five years as number one, the driver shortage is down one spot,” Brewster said, “but I don’t think this means the shortage has gotten any less bad.”
According to the American Trucking Associations, the industry’s current shortage of over 80,000 truck drivers could grow to over 160,000 by 2030.
Dellinger pointed out that it’s hardly a new issue; he remembers a meeting in the late ‘80s where executives were asking why they spent so much time talking about drivers. “My whole career has been talking about the driver shortage and how it affects our ability to grow,” he said.
The top strategy to address this as an industry was to support outreach initiatives targeting high school students and young adults. Data from the U.S. Census Bureau shows that 30% of the industry’s driver workforce is over 55 years of age. Faced with this aging workforce and the accompanying pace of driver retirements, 39% of respondents believe the industry’s best strategy for reducing the driver shortage is to focus recruitment efforts on younger adults.
3. Truck Parking
“A perennial top 5 issue since 2015, this is the third year it’s the number one concern for professional truck drivers,” Brewster said. But it was the number 10 issue for motor carriers.
“It makes me wonder, are we as trucking leaders out of touch with our drivers?” Dellinger asked. “Are we doing everything we need to be? If not, we need to grab ahold of it and run with this.”
Brewster noted “truck parking hasn’t even been on the top 10 list for several years, so I was glad to see it in the list. You’d better care about what drivers say their top issues are.”
The lack of available parking has been tied to driver recruitment and retention issues as well as efforts to attract more women to the profession. The truck parking issue is now gaining traction with federal leaders, including a recent announcement from the U.S. Department of Transportation awarding nearly $40 million in grants to Florida and Tennessee to expand truck parking capacity. The top proposed strategy was to encourage local and regional governments to reduce the regulatory burdens limiting the construction and expansion of truck parking facilities.
4. Driver Compensation
Since first appearing on the Top 10 list in 2019 in the number three spot, driver compensation has remained in the top five. Driven by post-pandemic freight demand and the growing driver shortage, fleets have increasingly turned to pay increases as a way to recruit and retain the best drivers. Data from ATRI’s 2022 Operational Costs of Trucking research showed that driver wages increased 9.8% over the previous year, with the driver wage figure ($0.809 per mile) achieving a record high since the Operational Costs research first launched in 2008.
The most popular proposed strategy was to analyze truck driver compensation in relation to other competing employment sectors, such as construction.
5. The Economy
In 2008, in the midst of the Great Recession, fuel costs and the economy were the top two industry concerns. The economy continued as the number one concern for three more years, after which it started to drop in ranking and eventually fell out of the top 10 in 2017. This year, with skyrocketing inflation, equipment and parts shortages, record-high diesel prices, and continued wage pressures, the economy is back as the fifth ranked industry concern.
The top proposed strategy was to promote reforming / repealing ineffective and burdensome regulations that add to industry costs without providing benefits.
6. Detention / Delay at Customer Facilities
Now in its fourth year as a Top 10 industry concern, detention is up one spot to number six overall. Like many of the issues on the Top 10 list, Detention / Delay intersects with many other issues. It is challenging to recruit and retain truck drivers when they know that detention will reduce their pay due to lost hours spent waiting at customer facilities. Often truck drivers do not have access to important amenities like drinking water or restrooms. They may expect safe parking at the customer’s facility due to the delay, only to be told to leave and look for parking elsewhere. It is not surprising, then, that this issue consistently ranks as a top concern among drivers.
The top strategy identified was to identify best practices, technologies, and strategies that reduce or eliminate driver detention at shipper / receiver facilities.
7. Driver Retention
Driver retention dropped from a second place ranking in 2021.
"Many in the industry believe that the driver shortage, driver compensation, and driver retention are all inextricably linked and therefore challenging to separate into individual rankings,” ATRI said in its report. “However, the ATRI Top Industry Issues Survey keeps these as three separate issues because the strategies for addressing each are distinct.
The top strategy was to research and prioritize retention strategies, based on driver feedback and driver tenure data.
8: Compliance, Safety, Accountability (CSA)
CSA, FMCSA’s safety measurement system continues as a perennial Top 10 concern.
The 2015 Fixing America’s Surface Transportation (FAST) Act included a requirement for a National Academies’ review of CSA. The resulting report was issued in 2017 and included a number of recommendations for improving CSA scoring to better reflect a carrier’s risk profile. However, five years later, FMCSA has yet to implement the recommended Item Response Theory (IRT) approach, ATRI noted, and carrier frustration with how their safety performance is evaluated by CSA persists.
So it’s unsurprising that the most popular proposed strategy was to work with FMCSA to update its carrier prioritization methodology, improve its accuracy, and enhance transparency in CSA. ATRI noted that the FMCSA now has a Senate-confirmed Administrator for the first time in three years, and this may provide an opportunity for the industry to work with FMCSA to update its carrier prioritization methodology, using IRT or some other method.
9. Speed limiters
This is the first time the issue of speed limiters has been in the overall top 10 list, but it has been in the drivers’ top 10 for several years, Brewster said.
Earlier this year, FMCSA issued a Notice of Intent to move forward with a speed limiter rulemaking in 2023, which generated more than 14,500 comments to the Federal Register notice,
Among drivers, speed limiters were their fifth overall top concern.
The top suggested strategy was to quantify the impact of car-truck speed differentials on industry safety and productivity. A plurality of respondents (40.8%) believes that understanding the impact of car-truck speed differentials is a critical strategy in addressing a potential speed limiter rulemaking. Joint research by ATRI and a University of Arkansas professor documented that speed differentials can increase vehicle interactions and lead to greater potential for crashes. Comments to the NOI highlight the fact that speed differentials continue to be a big concern for motor carriers and drivers, and that the lack of current research on speed differential impacts is a major roadblock in implementing any future rulemaking.
10. Lawsuit Abuse Reform
For the third year in a row, Lawsuit Abuse Reform, previously termed “Tort Reform,” is a Top 10 issue However, it dropped six places this year to rank tenth overall.
ATRI research has quantified the negative impact of excessive litigation on the industry’s insurance costs, and this year motor carrier respondents ranked Lawsuit Abuse Reform and Insurance Cost / Availability as their sixth and seventh top concerns, respectively, Continued state-level advocacy is resulting in legislative wins for the trucking industry, according to ATRI.
The top suggested strategy was to advocate for elimination of “phantom” damages. Phantom damages are the delta between medical costs that a defendant is billed for versus the actual medical costs paid. These inflated amounts can create a non-compensatory windfall for the plaintiff and plaintiff’s attorney.
Emerging Issues in the Trucking Industry
As part of its analysis of critical industry issues, ATRI also tracks the emerging topics that generate significant industry interest but fall just outside of the Top 10 concerns. Those were:
- Insurance cost and availability (which nearly tied with lawsuit abuse reform)
- Hours-of-service rules
- Driver training standards.
The complete report can be downloaded at ATRI’s website.