ORLANDO, Fla. — If there is a shortage of commercial truck drivers in America, that’s probably news to the official in charge of regulating them.
Speaking Tuesday at the Transport & Logistics Council’s annual conference, Jack Van Steenburg, executive director and chief safety officer of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, said the agency recorded 112,000 new applications for motor carrier authority in 2021, up from 45,000 new entrants in 2019.
Van Steenburg said he couldn’t pinpoint one factor behind the surge in applications. He said, though he said it could be chalked up to company drivers striking out on their own to capitalize on rising demand and elevated spot markets due to the pandemic, or more Americans deciding to enter the truck driving world for the first time.
According to a widely reported estimate from the American Trucking Associations, the industry is short 80,000 drivers. However, industry experts said the problem isn’t attracting drivers, but retaining them. Many drivers leave the business after becoming disillusioned with long periods away from home and limits to their earning power due to major delays at shipper and consignee docks. FMCSA data found that drivers actually put in about six to seven hours behind the wheel, even though federal hours-of-service regulations allow them to drive for 11 consecutive hours providing they take a 30-minute rest break after driving for eight cumulative hours.
Truckload carriers, which deal with high driver turnover on a regular basis, have boosted driver pay repeatedly to keep seats occupied.
The FMCSA currently regulates about 750,000 trucking firms, up from 600,000 a year ago. It also regulates about 29,000 freight brokers.
Van Steenburg lauded the efforts of the agency’s Drug and Alcohol Clearinghouse, which since its launch in January 2020 has kept 83,000 commercial drivers with histories of substance abuse off the road. The clearinghouse database tracks CDL holders who have tested positive for prohibited drug or alcohol use, as well as refusals to take required drug tests, and other drug and alcohol violations. Prior to 2020, motor carriers were unable to effectively identify an applicant’s substance abuse history during the hiring process.
Van Steenburg said that 831 truck drivers died in road accidents during 2020, citing data from . the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. At least one-third were not wearing seat belts at the time of the incidents, he noted. According to NHTSA statistics, there were 38,824 road fatalities in 2020. Of those, 4,965 were involved in truck-related crashes. He did not have 2021 crash data available.
Van Steenburg said he found it incomprehensible that professional drivers would take the undue risk of not being belted in. “I don’t know if they thought they were invincible,” he wondered aloud.
Van Steenburg was very complimentary toward Transportation Secrertary Pete Buttigieg, calling him brilliant, articulate and a strong advocate of the trucking industry. In what could be the highest of praise, Van Steenburg, who is anything but a neophyte, said of Buttigieg, “I think he will be president one day.”