With truck accidents at the forefront of many traffic safety concerns, truck crash attorneys Fred Pritzker and Eric Hageman are raising tough questions about the growing U.S. trucker shortage and whether safety is compromised by a quality versus quantity issue.
If the current trend continues, the shortage of over-the-road truck drivers could soar to almost 175,000 by 2024, the American Trucking Associations (ATA) has reported. The factors include increased freight volumes, a growing number of retirements in the current workforce, high turnover rates among younger drivers and overall disinterest in a profession that demands long hours away from home, long hours behind the wheel and high pressure to keep pace with delivery deadlines. Despite those expectations, the industry offers pay averaging just $20 an hour, or $41,000 a year in total. In a relatively few number of states, trucking jobs pay a little more, or as much as $53,000, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Truck Lawsuit Counter-Balance
“It’s inevitable that some trucking companies will lower their hiring standards,’’ said Fred Pritzker, a personal injury lawyer who represents victims of truck crashes, including clients who have lost family members in truck accident wrongful deaths. “Holding them accountable is an essential counter-balance.’’
Pritzker and Hageman already have seen a rise in their practice in the number of commercial truck accident cases caused by at-fault semi drivers. In the past five years they have settled a number of truck injury lawsuits, each worth millions of dollars. In one recent case, a jury sided with the two attorneys in their handling of a truck wrongful death lawsuit on behalf of a Minnesota man whose wife was run over while riding her bicycle. The verdict in that truck-bicycle lawsuit was $2.4 million.
“The long-term cost to society will be more fatal truck accidents and more truck crashes that cause serious injury to everyday people,’’ said attorney Eric Hageman.
Even if most trucking lines stick to high standards in hiring new drivers, the pool of quality job-holders will be put under more strain to meet the increasing U.S. hauling demand, Hageman said.
“There’s an erroneous perception out there that you can’t keep up unless you’re cutting corners,’’ the attorney said. “The result is that safety won’t come first 100 percent of the time.’’
Semi Truck Injury Equation
American highways host a universal supply of 1.8 to 2 million tractor-trailers. Most long-haul semi trucks roll with a combined gross vehicle weight of 40 tons. Full-sized carriers can be 70 feet long including the cab and sleeper. They outweigh passenger cars and trucks by a mass ratio of 20 to 1 and they require far more braking distance to come to a complete stop. According to the federal government, about 98 percent of all semi accidents result in at least one fatality.
Those physical safety imbalances could be magnified by a shortage of top-notch drivers, Hageman said.
Working as a long-haul truck driver is a demanding occupation that once paid well. In the 1970s, truckers earned the modern-day equivalent of $110,000 a year – one of the best blue-collar jobs around. But wages and working conditions have deteriorated to the point where high turnover is the norm. According to Forbes magazine, the current shortfall of drivers is estimated around 50,000 and trending to get significantly worse in the next five to ten years.
Steve Viscelli is a sociologist who went to work as a long-haul truck driver to gain insights into the profession. He said in a recent magazine article for the Atlantic that the shortage is the product of an industry labor model that relies heavily on inexperienced drivers and independent contractors.
Companies entice drivers with “be your own boss’’ recruiting pitches. They become “owner operators’’ of their rigs under lease deals that lock them into their jobs even after they realize the work is grueling and low paid. The upshot is that they only get paid for the miles they drive, not time waiting to load and unload their rigs or sitting in traffic.
So, as Viscelli has written, the real-world situation is one where “independent’’ truck drivers are incentivized to go faster and cut corners – sometimes literally – to make up for the fact that they are getting paid by the mile.
At the same time, bigger and more sophisticated shippers are demanding that freight move farther and faster.
“It’s a recipe for disaster on our highways,’’ attorney Pritzker said. “More motorists will suffer the fate of traveling side by side with weary, less dependable truck drivers.’’