Let’s get a handle on the realities of driver turnover

July 27, 2021

John Bendel

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Driver turnover and the constant flow of new drivers into the truckload industry is a public health risk. We know new drivers crash more often than veteran drivers, but that’s all. We don’t know nearly enough about driver turnover, how it relates to safety at the carrier level, or about the well-being of all the people it affects.

Is it possible as many as 250,000 people – a quarter of a million – pass through the truckload industry’s massive driver-recruiting machine each year?

I came up with that number by adding the number of company-owned tractors listed for the individual truckload fleets on Transport Topics’ Top 100 For-Hire Carriers list for 2021, published in June. Leaving out owner-operators and companies that failed to provide the size of their fleets, I came up with 128,957. I doubled that number to account for all the truckload carriers not among the TT’s Top 100. Given the vast number of small carriers, that should be a conservative guess but still a guess.

Is the real number lower? Higher? The truckload industry should be providing actual numbers.

It’s not just numbers, you see. Real flesh-and-blood people comprise the 90% turnover. A portion are experienced drivers jumping from carrier to carrier for an incremental pay increase, more miles, or just a better boss. I assume for the most part, these folks are professional drivers, industry stalwarts who are all but born for the job. Most are professionals who don’t care to do anything else – the heart and backbone of the truckload industry. What proportion of any carrier’s turnover do they represent?

Then what about the other working folks attracted by the prospect of touring the country and earning more than they could at McDonald’s? Many attend CDL training schools, some at their own expense. Carriers (who often own the schools) pay for others in exchange for a pledge to work for that carrier at least one year. For those who quickly discover driving truckload is more stressful than they imagined, it’s the longest year of their life. How many does this happen to?

How many others simply can’t handle the realities of the job for a year? What starts out as a dream job quickly becomes a nightmare of overwork, 24-hour responsibility, and finally a net loss for the family budget. For some, it ends with a bill for their CDL training and calls from a collection agency. But how many?

How widespread is this grim experience? The truckload industry – particularly the big carriers who gather mountains of data – must know. Is it 50,000 people a year? One hundred thousand? Two hundred thousand?

Is the number negligible or does it comprise a significant chunk of driver turnover?

Considering the pain turnover means for real families, we should know these numbers. Driver turnover should be a concern for public health, as already noted.

Breakdowns of real numbers from the truckload industry would help assess the public risk baked into driver turnover percentages. Just as it knows the exact number of fatal truck crashes and lots of other stats, the FMCSA should know the human and statistical impacts of driver turnover at the carrier level.

Does the driver turnover at individual fleets affect their overall safety experience? Should turnover be part of any safety rating system for carriers? Should we be seeking ways to reduce turnover rather than feeding it by adding younger drivers – also statistically less safe – to the mix?

We’re not even asking such obvious questions, never mind finding answers. LL

John Bendel is Land Line’s contributing editor-at-large. A former trucker, former editor at National Lampoon and two trucking magazines, John is an author, photographer, and freelancer. His work has appeared in the New York Times, The Washington Post, and many U.S. newspapers.