Retaining experienced drivers will solve many trucking woes

July 17, 2020

Tyson Fisher


Burdensome regulations under the guise of safety plague the trucking industry, causing some of the safest drivers to leave. If safety advocates really want safety, keeping experienced drivers in the seat is key. How do we do that? Smarter regulations and better pay.

This idea discussed during a Motor Carrier Safety Advisory Committee meeting on July 14 after Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association President Todd Spencer suggested an end to pay-by-mile as one of a series of solutions to the problem of driver retention. A lot of that conversation derived from a study that was published earlier this year.

In April, the National Surface Transportation Safety Center for Excellence published a study titled “Commercial Motor Vehicle Driver Risk Based on Age and Driving Experience.” There is a lot to digest within the 50-page report, but here’s the key takeaway: driving experience has the greatest impact on crash rates, crash involvement and moving violations.

It’s worth noting that one could try to use this study to justify lowering the minimum age for interstate driving from 21 to 18. However, that only works under the assumption that there is a driver shortage. Considering upward of hundreds of thousands of new interstate CDLs are issued each year, that argument is null and void. We have a retention problem.

Therefore, what safety advocates, industry stakeholders and policymakers should be focusing on is how to keep drivers.

Experienced drivers and safety

According to the study, driving experience has a greater impact than age. In other words, a 55-year-old driver with less than one year of experience is much more likely to crash than a 35-year-old trucker with 10 years of experience.

Even the study itself highlights the importance of keeping experienced drivers:

“It would be beneficial for fleet managers to focus on retaining older, more-experienced drivers and engage them in driver mentoring programs before they retire so inexperienced drivers can benefit from their knowledge.”

Overall, regardless of age, truckers with more than five years of experience driving had lower moving violation rates than drivers with less experience. The same holds true for crash rates as well.

Clearly, the road to safety is full of experienced drivers. So how do we achieve this?

Smarter regulations

Regulations are needed in all industries. Some argue there are too many regulations in trucking. Others argue that there are not enough. The question should not be how many regulations are there. Rather, how efficient is any given regulation, active or proposed?

If the goal is safety, then regulations need to keep experienced drivers on the road. However, too many burdensome rules are forcing some of the best drivers out of the industry. Spencer said as much during the MCSAC meeting.

“We need a system that rewards professionalism,” Spencer said. “Enforcing regulations on safe drivers is a stupid way to spend tax dollars. If you’re not crashing, you’re not the problem. Focus on where the problems are.”

Certain hours-of-service provisions, ELDs and an attempt to raise insurance minimums from $750,000 to $2 million are among the regulations that essentially penalize safe, experienced drivers. Each time the federal government expands on those regulations, experienced drivers get vocal about how they are leaving as soon as they can.

If experienced drivers leave because of regulations, it would turn this so-called driver shortage into a self-fulfilled prophecy. As a result, we will need to replace these drivers with inexperienced drivers. Consequently, the roads will become much more dangerous. Essentially, these “safety” regulations are actually counterproductive.

As Spencer pointed out on July 14, the goal should be to remove bad actors while at the same retaining safe drivers. Punish the unsafe drivers. Reward the good drivers.

Better compensation

Smarter regulations alone will not keep experienced drivers behind the wheel. A positive environment doesn’t mean much if you can barely make a living. Smarter and better compensation is the way to go.

Hourly pay rather than the standard pay-by-the-mile model is the better option. Detention time and unforeseen circumstances cut into a trucker’s pay rate significantly at no fault of their own. Furthermore, paying by the mile incentivizes unsafe driving practices like speeding, driving while fatigued and driving in unsafe conditions.

Smarter and better compensation as a way to retain experienced drivers is not some urban legend. Last year, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics debunked the myth of the so-called driver shortage. The bureau concluded that the evidence does not support the theory of a labor shortage within the trucking industry and that increasing wages could alleviate any issues with recruitment and retention.

At the MCSAC meeting, a safety advocate showed his support for paying drivers for all of the hours they work.

“Paying by the mile puts a lot of pressure on drivers,” said Stephen Owings, founder and president of Road Safe America. “They shouldn’t have that as an obstacle to overcome. We firmly believe that if truck drivers were paid for every hour they work that there would be less turnover. We absolutely believe that it would be a game-changer in the industry.”

The evidence is clear. Experienced drivers are the key to safety. Smarter and better regulations and pay are the key to retaining experienced drivers. If everyone focuses on these factors, several issues brought up by safety advocates can possibly go away or at least become less of a problem.