March 1, 2024

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US economy tops trucking industry’s list of challenges

US economy tops trucking industry’s list of challenges

AUSTIN, Texas — The unsteady U.S. economy topped the list of trucking industry issues, the highest ranking since the Great Recession in 2008, according to the American Transportation Research Institute’s annual survey of top-of-mind concerns for carriers and commercial drivers.

Economic jitters replaced fuel prices at the top of the report revealed Saturday at the American Truck Associations Management Conference and Exhibition. Fuel prices, on the rise for much of the year except for a brief respite from March top June, fell to third. Truck parking availability finished second, its highest finish since first making the list in 2012.

Zero-emission vehicles appeared on the list for the first time, occupying the No. 10 position.

“It’s been a ride for the past year. It’s been tough,” said Cari Baylor, president of Baylor Trucking, an Indiana-based 75-year-old company operating 200 trucks, 980 trailers and two terminals in the eastern and southern U.S. Baylor was acquired by Werner Enterprises in October 2022.

Rising interest rates, higher diesel and maintenance costs, increasing pay for truckers and rising insurance premiums drove the operating cost of a truck to $2.25 per mile in 2022. That’s the first time it has exceeded $2 in history, according to ATRI’s analysis in a downloadable separate report.

Truck parking a hardy perennial

Truck parking, which has been a Top 5 issue since 2015, came in at No. 2. ATRI has been studying truck parking since 1993. A congressionally directed study to look at the issue began the same year, ATRI President Rebecca Brewster said.

US economy tops trucking industry’s list of challenges
Rebecca Brewster, president of the American Transportation Research Institute, reveals the trucking industry’s top issues. (Photo: Alan Adler/FreightWaves)

According to ATRI, truck drivers spend an average of 56 minutes a day looking for parking. It found there is just one spot for every 11 truck drivers. The parking problem has worsened since full enforcement of the electronic logging device mandate in 2018. That requires truck drivers to do all their driving within a 14-hour window. 

Rather than engaging in the dangerous practice of parking near freeway off-ramps or squatting in retail parking lots, Baylor authorizes its long-haul drivers to pay for overnight parking if needed. Technology like highway signage with near real-time alerts of open spaces at upcoming rest stops helps, but it hasn’t solved the issue.

Driver shortage falls to lowest position since Great Recession

After fuel prices at No. 3, the rest of the Top 10 issues were:

4. Driver shortage. It was No. 1 for five consecutive years from 2017-2021. The issue shows up annually. The driver shortage, especially for over-the-road jobs, is less of an issue during slower economic times. The issue was No. 6 during the Great Recession in 2009.

5. Driver compensation. ATRI’s operations study showed the all-in cost of driver pay and benefits was 90 cents a mile in 2022, or 40% of total operating costs. The issue fell one spot from No. 4 a year ago.

6. Lawsuit abuse reform. It first cracked the Top 10 in 2005. ATRI studies on nuclear verdicts against trucking companies helped illuminate the issue. Trial lawyers spend $1 million a month nationwide seeking truck crash lawsuits to pursue, Baylor said.

7. Driver distraction. The issue made it to No. 7 in 2018 but then dropped until the latest study. “We see it every day, eating, reading papers, reading books,” said Dean Key, a driver with Ruan Transportation. Distraction topped the list among law enforcement, which made up about 5% of the 4,000 trucking industry stakeholders who participated in the survey. 

8. Driver retention. The issue dropped from No. 7 a year ago and fell two places on the manufacturers’ list.

9. Driver detention. Delays in loading and unloading and access to restrooms and other amenities at shipper facilities ranked No. 5 among commercial drivers but did not make the carriers’ list.

10. Zero-emission vehicles. The first-timer reflects the growing awareness of regulations in California and from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency forcing fleets to adopt battery- or fuel cell-electric vehicles. In a December study on the costs of trucking electrification, ATRI found that having electric chargers at all 313,000 truck parking spots would cost $35 billion.

Little agreement between carriers and drivers on top issues

Carriers and drivers agreed on just three of 10 issues — the economy, truck parking and fuel prices. They ranked them differently. Carriers place the economy first. Drivers listed it No. 7. Truck parking was No. 2 for drivers and No. 8 for carriers. Fuel prices were No. 3 for drivers and No. 5 for carriers, the closest to a matching priority.Motor carriers and commercial drivers agreed on just three of 10 critical issues facing the trucking industry. (Photo: Alan Adler/FreightWaves)

Motor carriers and commercial drivers agreed on just three of 10 critical issues facing the trucking industry. (Photo: Alan Adler/FreightWaves)

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Click for more FreightWaves articles by Alan Adler.