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Behind the Wheel: Underpaid, Overworked Truck Drivers Causing More Road Accidents in the U.S.

Overworked Truck Drivers Causing More Road Accidents

Imagine a massive semi truck hauling a 53-foot trailer down the highway, with a tired and frustrated trucker at the wheel. He then discovered he's short on his mortgage payment due in three days after checking his bank account. 

While inflation has driven up the costs of goods and services globally, truck drivers haven't seen a comparable rise in their paychecks. The big question looms: Will these disgruntled truckers unleash havoc on our nation's highways in the years ahead?

When drivers struggle financially, the pressure to clock in long hours without breaks intensifies, and some may even seek ways to bend the rules governing the industry. This struggle often results in fatigue, reducing their alertness and increasing the risk of accidents on the road.

Furthermore, the financial hurdles faced by drivers often translate to delayed or inadequate maintenance for their trucks. When these vehicles aren't properly cared for, breakdowns become more likely, leading to hazardous situations on the road.

Low Compensation Fuels Safety Issues Within the U.S. Trucking Industry

A recent study by Smith (2015) exposes low compensation as a central factor fueling safety issues within the U.S. trucking industry. 

In 2012, a shocking 756 truck drivers met their demise due to work-related injuries, while more than 65,000 private sector truck drivers grappled with occupational injuries resulting in work loss. 

fatal occupational injuries to truck drivers graph
Photo Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

Smith emphasizes in the study that truck drivers face over seven times the likelihood of fatal occupational injuries compared to the average U.S. worker, with a substantial portion of these tragedies stemming from transportation incidents, especially highway crashes. 

In addition, Smith cited that numerous safety studies, including those by Rodríguez et al. (2004, 2003, 2006), Williams and Monaco (2001), and Nafukho et al. (2007), have delved into the determinants of truck drivers' safety, unveiling a crucial link: the undeniable impact of low compensation

Economic theory supports this assertion, suggesting that higher compensation not only deters shirking but also attracts more skilled and productive applicants. 

Moreover, the study asserts that inadequate compensation, including a lack of employment benefits, significantly influences truck driver safety. By using moving violations as a safety proxy, the study establishes that truck drivers with employment-based health insurance are less likely to commit moving violations, drawing on data from the National Survey of Long-Haul Truck Drivers—the most recent national survey dataset on occupational safety and health in the trucking industry.

Furthermore, in a study published by the Cambridge University Press, titled Compensation and crash incidence: Evidence from the National Survey of Driver Wages,” it was revealed that Truck driving is driving is a notoriously low-paying and dangerous job.

Low-paid occupations commonly exhibit workplace safety deficits, as indicated by empirical evidence (Anelli & Koenig, 2021). Health disparities, cost-shifting behavior, and increased reliance on social safety nets are associated with unsafe work environments (Braveman et al., 2011; Lipscomb et al., 2006; Siqueira et al., 2014; Zabin et al., 2004). Occupational safety in public spaces, such as trucking, also holds significance for the public.

Government Response

To address the root causes of truck-related crashes, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) actively prioritizes preventive measures, seeking to reduce incidents that may not be included in standard reports. 

At the Midwest Commercial Vehicle Safety Summit on Nov. 29, FMCSA Administrator Robin Hutcheson emphasized the need to actively delve into the deep-seated issues contributing to unsafe practices among truck drivers. One of the critical factors identified by Hutcheson is the compensation structure for truck drivers.

Hutcheson emphasized the urgency of scrutinizing compensation practices, stating, "We have to dig pretty deep, and that means looking at compensation – how drivers are compensated." 

The FMCSA acknowledges the necessity to examine how drivers are compensated and the impact of extended detention times on their behavior. For example, if drivers are not compensated for detention time, they may rush to their next destination, increasing the risk of accidents. 

“Like all hard-working Americans, drivers want to receive fair compensation for the work they do,” OOIDA wrote in comments signed by President and CEO Todd Spencer. “For decades, driver pay has been stagnant, making careers in trucking less appealing to new entrants and less sustainable for experienced truckers.

“Generally, if the truck’s wheels are not moving, drivers are not getting paid. As a result, many drivers spend countless unpaid on-duty hours being detained by shippers and receivers because Congress and the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration have failed to address excessive detention time.”

Various safety studies, including those examining the connection between truck drivers' compensation and safety, have emphasized the link between compensation and safety.

The study involves independent experts working closely with a Transportation Research Board (TRB) committee. It's crucial to highlight that the study is sponsored by the FMCSA, with no access to draft materials or committee discussions. All communications between the FMCSA and committee members are openly documented in the public record. Importantly, the FMCSA has no sway over the nomination process for TRB committee members.

Stagnant Pay Woes: A Perspective on Truck Driver Compensation

Researchers actively explored economic theories proposing that higher compensation can incentivize safer driving practices. For instance, the efficiency wage theory posits that well-compensated workers are more motivated and less likely to engage in unsafe behaviors. 

On the flip side, inadequate compensation may result in the recruitment of lower-quality drivers, contributing to safety risks.

“Greater compensation attracts more productive job applicants,” Takahiko Kudo and Michael H. Belzer revealed in their research titled, “The association between truck driver compensation and safety performance published in Safety Science.

“If drivers’ compensation is not high enough, drivers with higher human capital may choose other jobs with similar qualifications in trucking and in other occupations or industries. As a result, only low quality workers may apply for truck driver jobs and professional drivers may switch companies frequently, imposing additional safety risk. Higher compensation prevents this situation by encouraging better job candidates to seek and maintain careers in trucking,” the researchers added.

To comprehensively address these concerns, the FMCSA has initiated the driver compensation study, mandated by Congress as part of the 2021 infrastructure law, and is set to be released in July 2024. 

“What we’ve heard from Congress is that the rationale for this study is really to look at ways to address potentially unsafe working conditions for the industry or unfair working conditions in the industry,” said Nicole Michel, FMCSA mathematical statistician. 

Michel also highlighted the distinctive nature of the driver-compensation study, describing it as "unique to some of our other studies that we’ve conducted. 

Examining Compensation Structures

The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) has conducted a thorough analysis of truck-related accidents, revealing the pivotal role that low compensation plays in the alarming increase in incidents. This ongoing study on driver compensation, distinguished as a unique effort by the FMCSA, underscores the independent expertise of the Transportation Research Board (TRB) committee overseeing it. 

While FMCSA sponsors the study, it maintains a commitment to transparency, refraining from influencing committee nominations and having no access to confidential deliberations. 

The study, however, highlights the crucial link between inadequate compensation and heightened safety risks for truck drivers. By addressing the fundamental issue of low compensation, there exists a tangible opportunity to improve driver well-being, alleviate stressors contributing to unsafe practices, and ultimately create a safer environment on American roads.


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