An Epidemic of Unsafe Truck Drivers

As we mentioned briefly in a previous blog post, the trucking industry has a critical problem which is damaging its business, its reputation and, sadly, the safety of the motoring public: an epidemic of unsafe, unqualified drivers. A leading driver recruitment service for the industry describes the difficulties in terms which are, frankly, frightening:

■ Demand for shipment of products by tractor-trailers and other commercial vehicles has exploded over the last ten years, but the employment pool of safe, qualified drivers has not grown proportionately.
■ As a result, there is a major shortage of qualified drivers, to the extent that the industry is not growing as fast as it could be if there were a sufficient number of qualified drivers.
■ Because qualified truck drivers are increasingly hard to find, as many as 200,000 additional drivers are needed to meet the demand of trucking company employers.
■ Despite the huge demand for commercial truck driver services, the employment turnover rate for larger motor carriers is up to 120% annually.

The upshot of all of this, according to driver recruiting service MTS, is that “[t]rucking companies are recruiting from a shrinking pool of commercial truck drivers. A truly qualified driver is becoming increasingly difficult to find.”

Now think about that. Shippage of goods by tractor-trailer, log truck, flatbed and tanker is rapidly rising, but the companies who profit from this increasing commerce are falling further and further behind in terms of keeping a safe, qualified, responsible driver workforce on hand. This is not a positive development for the public.

It has to be difficult for the trucking industry–as it would be fore any business–to turn away loads, customers and ultimately profit, due to what is an undoubtedly frustrating inability to find good, safety conscious drivers to fill its workforce. The difficult choice is between maintaining proper corporate safety standards (which requires turning away business and profit) on the one hand, and ratcheting down your safety standards (but accepting that business!) on the other.

In all seriousness: we do not envy the industry these difficult choices. Put yourself in the position of a hypothetical trucking company’s terminal manager, tasked with the responsibility of maintaining a good, safe fleet of trucks and drivers. In January 2012 you have 100 power units (industry shorthand for a tractor, minus the trailer) and 100 good safe drivers, and with that crew you haul 500 loads per week.

But as is true for so many motor carriers, your business is booming. By January 2013 you’ve got customers banging down your door, and it is clear that if you can staff the business you could carry 800 loads per week. To meet this demand–which is to say, to cash in all that potential profit–you need 160 total drivers. You need sixty new drivers, you need them pronto, but you know there’s no way in Hades’ that you’re going to find 60 good, safe drivers in time to capture the profit that comes with ramping up to 800 loads per week. Now you’ve got a dilemma. Your job as the terminal manager is to grow the business. Your advancement in the company, your livelihood, depends on growing the business, taking on those new loads, capturing that profit.

The tough truth is that, in order to do it, you have to water down that nice pool of 100 safe, responsible drivers you already have, with a bunch of guys you would not even have brought in for an interview when you were only carrying 500 loads per week. Back then, you’d have looked at a new applicant’s ten-year DMV record, seen his four speeding violations, seen his three wrecks, seen that one was with a serious injury, and you’d move on to the next employment application, having concluded without laying eyes on the guy that he’s not fit to drive a truck with your company’s placards on the cab. But now you have a need- an urgent need. So maybe now you say to yourself “Hey anyone can have a run of bad luck out there on the road”, or “I don’t love his resume but I’ll bring him in for an interview and have an in-person look”, or “He hasn’t played it safe elsewhere but we’ll keep a close eye on him and set him straight.” Just like that, you’ve lowered your safety standards, and increased the threat that your fleet poses to the motoring public.

Back when you only had to staff the terminal to handle 500 loads per week, you’d have seen a new driver employment application, seen the DUI, seen the multiple disorderly conduct charges (one of them at a truck stop, while he was on duty), seen the marijuana possession charge, and thrown that application in the wastebasket. But now you have an urgent need; you’ve got 800 loads to staff all of a sudden. So maybe you give the guy a look, maybe you figure he’s paid his debt to society, maybe you figure your company’s tough drug testing policy will scare him away from drugs and alcohol…at least when he’s behind the wheel. Boom: you’ve once again increased the risk to the unsuspecting public.

You get the picture: we all can sympathize, up to a point, with the predicament in which these companies find themselves.But at the end of the day the safety of the public–men, women, children, mothers, fathers, brothers and sisters–has to come first for businesses who profit from putting employees at the wheel of 80,000 pound trucks. Market conditions do not come first. Global supply chains do not come first. Profits sure do not come first. Sadly, tragedies are happening every day because irresponsible actors in this major industry are putting these cynical considerations first, before the safety of the public who is frankly at their mercy.

When this happens, it is critical that the person who suffers injuries in a trucking wreck, or the family of the person who is killed, retain a lawyer, like Traywick & Traywick partner Ben Traywick, who understands the way that the industry works, a lawyer who has sat in on trucking industry safety meetings, a lawyer who knows how trucking companies think and operate. Tractor trailer wrecks, and the legal considerations that attend the lawsuits that follow, are more complicated, more expensive and flat out different from a standard car accident, in a host of ways. Make sure to hire a legal team with the experience to handle these issues effectively.


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