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ATRI: Driver shortage again tops trucking industry’s critical issues

Motor carriers and drivers agree on just three issues in 16th annual survey

The driver shortage is the top issue for the fourth consecutive year in the American Transportation Research Institute's Top Industry Issues. (Photo: Jim Allen/FreightWaves)

For the fourth consecutive year, a shortage of drivers topped the Critical Issues in the Trucking Industry survey conducted by the American Transportation Research Institute (ATRI). 

The driver shortage is dismissed by some as a function of low and irregular pay for demanding work that requires days and weeks away from home. Now, the shortage is made worse by older drivers leaving the business because of the pandemic. 

Another factor is that 26,000 drivers who failed drug testing mandated by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration Drug and Alcohol Clearinghouse have yet to apply for reinstatement.

Training of new drivers curtailed by the pandemic is another issue. Twenty-five percent of driving schools are shut down. Those that are open accommodate half as many students because of social distancing and other COVID-related precautions.

“We’re off 30-40% despite there being more than 12½ million people on unemployment,” Bob Costello, ATA chief economist, said in an online chat hosted by the American Trucking Associations’ virtual Management Convention and Exhibition on Tuesday. “That’s more than double where we were a year ago. There is no one silver bullet solution to this issue.”

Driver exodus

“More than 40,000 drivers have come out of the market in just the last six months,” said Eric Fuller, CEO of U.S. Xpress based in Chattanooga, Tennessee. “What we’re building is a big deficit that I don’t know can be filled in a short period of time.

“We’ve always had tightness and situations where we didn’t have enough drivers at a given time,” he said. “I think we’re likely to see this market stay tighter longer because of this.”

A surge in per-mile freight rates is driven by demand for consumer goods, a shift away from supplying service-oriented businesses like restaurants to keeping grocery store shelves stocked.

Driver pay is rising and likely to go higher, Fuller said.

“I think you’re going to have another layer of 10-12% within the next two quarters,” he said. “You’re going to have a 20% increase within a three-quarters time frame for most of the industry.

Pay increase insufficient to attract new drivers

Driver compensation ranked No. 2 in the ATRI survey of more than 3,100 trucking industry stakeholders including carriers, commercial drivers, suppliers, trainers and law enforcement. It is inseparable from the driver shortage, according to Costello.

“There’s no easy solution,” he said. “I think the driver shortage went away in April and May. Now it’s back. And it is as bad as ever and it’s not going to go away anytime soon.”

Fuller said the current pay increases are not attracting new drivers.

“I don’t think that does anything but reshuffle the deck,” Fuller said. “A compelling driver compensation increase that really brings a new influx of new drivers has to be closer to 50%. And that isn’t in the cards. It’s such a cyclical market that at some point you’re going to give it back.”

Little agreement on issues

Survey responses from commercial drivers and motor carriers found just three issues that made the Top 10 on both lists: Drivers ranked detention/delay at customer facilities as their No. 3 issue. Carriers voted it ninth. 

“We need to do a better job of managing our time,” said Danny Smith, a driver for Shelbyville, Tennessee-based Big G Express who participated in the online discussion. “Even the driver needs to take some responsibility for that.”

The other common areas: Hours of service ranked No. 4 for drivers and No. 10 for carriers. Compliance, safety and accountability (CSA) ranked fourth for carriers and seventh for drivers.

Insurance availability and cost made the overall list at No. 5, its first appearance since ATRI began the survey in 2005. Tort reform ranked No. 7, its first inclusion since 2011.

“Earlier this year, ATRI quantified the growth in nuclear verdicts in the trucking industry, but even without that critical research, the fact that tort reform and insurance issues have resurfaced in the survey are a clear sign the industry is being impacted by rising costs related to litigation and insurance,” ATRI President Rebecca Brewster said in a press release.

The survey

The ATRI’s 2020 Top Industry Issues were based on responses gathered between Sept. 8 and Oct. 16. Respondents selected their top three choices from a list of 29 critical issues. The Top 10 uses a formula that assigns three points to a first choice, two points to a second choice and one point to a third choice. Point totals determine the top issue. The 2020 list:

  1. Driver shortage
  2. Driver compensation
  3. Truck parking
  4. Compliance, Safety, Accountability
  5. Insurance availability/cost
  6. Driver retention
  7. Tort reform
  8. Economy
  9. Detention/Delay at customer facilities
  10. Hours of service

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Click for more FreightWaves articles by Alan Adler.


  1. Adam

    I see the company’s top 10 list doesn’t line up with the drivers top ten concerns when those 2 start lining up to be closer to what drivers would like it will cut down on the shortage, 1 major reason good drivers don’t want to work for big companies is because they are so worried about their bottom line that home time bad and micro management is rampant, veteran drivers don’t need to be babysat by a big company who more concerned about insurance and did it get delivered? Good drivers are quitting or going to smaller companies who care more about you than your driver id number. You want to learn how to make trucking better ask those who are out here not those who fly a desk for a living.

  2. Niko

    Pay Drivers properly for all time on duty and in the truck hourly pay with a mileage bonus get them home regularly there will no shortage of drivers pretty simple! Another factor no one talks about is unfortunately with Trump’s tax law drivers can longer take per diem and work related deductions cost me about $7000 a year tax return shame on Trump one of the only perks of being a truck driver.

  3. Abrahan

    We the driver , work harder than a journalist, but we make less money. Construction worker can be drunk at work Monday morning but we need to be alcohol free all that time. But the construction worker makes over 100k per year . We need to know all las of 48 states. We have to present are self’s in from of a officer everyday and proof ,show how we are not made mistakes for the last week .that includes from clerical error at the office that we need to provide evidence that we are right all that time ……

  4. Barney Valenzuela

    Hours of service is #1 you friggin creeps. 11 hrs drive time and 8 hrs in the sleeper any way you want to divide it, be it 5 and 5 or 6 and 4 or what ever just as long as you show 8 hours in the sleeper in a 24 hours period. Plus there should be an hours of service exemption for drivers with 10+ years experience. Wake up sheeple Truck Drivers…wake up. Stop letting these mafia bozos scam you with their organized crime.
    The log book main function is to run you like a slave…you know it…I know it. And most shamefully the DOT that enforces the bogus violations is the biggest shameful scam inflicted on the American Truck Driver.

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Alan Adler

Alan Adler is an award-winning journalist who worked for The Associated Press and the Detroit Free Press. He also spent two decades in domestic and international media relations and executive communications with General Motors.