Fuel prices cited as burning trucking issue in ATRI survey

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Soaring fuel prices have emerged as the leading concern in the American Transportation Research Institute’s (ATRI) annual ranking of top trucking issues – bumping longstanding worries about a truck driver shortage out of the top spot.

The last time fuel prices appeared in the ranking was 2013. Even then, it ranked eighth.

“When did fuel prices start going up? When this spot market started coming down,” said Cargo Transporters president Dennis Dellinger, referring to the “double-negative” impact on some trucking operations. “The guy relying on the load boards day in and day out, they’re suffering.”

But while pain at the pumps is shared by owner-operators and trucking executives alike, there was a disconnect between those behind the wheel and in fleet offices.

ATRI panel
Panelists present results of an annual survey of trucking concerns, in an event referred to as the “big reveal”. (Photo: John G. Smith)

Truck parking shortage

Truck drivers, representing 47% of the underlying survey’s 4,200 respondents, ranked truck parking as their Number 1 concern for the third year, but the issue dropped to third place in overall results. Motor carriers placed this issue in the 10th spot and continued to rank a driver shortage as their top concern – pushing that up to second place in the overall results.

“Are we as trucking leaders out of touch with our drivers in this respect?” Dellinger asked, noting solutions will involve more than federal funding alone. “Are we doing everything we need to?”

“We’ve got to take care of our people. We’ve got to find a way to create ways for our drivers to be safely parked at night,” said Dee Sova, a driver and driver-trainer with Prime Inc.

She knows what it’s like to search for space in a Walmart parking lot after covering 625 miles on the road. And now truck stops are charging $18 to $20 for the few remaining spaces. “What if I don’t want to pay that? What if I work for a company that doesn’t want to reimburse me?” she asked. That leads to the search for spaces on highway ramps, which can sometimes lead to a ticket.

Survey participants were asked to pick their top three issues among 28 available options. And results were presented during an opening session at the American Trucking Associations’ management conference and exhibition.

Idelic founder Hayden Cardiff admitted there’s no “silver bullet” to solving the driver shortage that remains, but he sees opportunities in reaching out to drivers outside the country. “I have family members who are truck drivers down in Brazil trying as hard as they can to come to the U.S.,” he said. But they can’t find a streamlined way to do that.

Compensation concerns

Driver compensation, which first appeared in the ranking as a write-in option in 2019, ranked fourth in the latest survey. “We’re seeing the increased driver wages in our operational costs of trucking,” added ATRI president Rebecca Brewster, citing increases of 9.8% over the previous year. “Pay is an important motivator.”

“We’ve got to pay people,” Sova said. The job helped lift her out of a cycle on welfare, and offered an opportunity to care for her children when their father was on drugs. A local job that paid $50,000 per year evolved into work as a lease operator paying a six-figure income.

“Trucking changed my life,” she said. “Trucking took me out of poverty.”

“Pay is more important than what it was in the days when we were coming up,” Dellinger said, noting driver pay at his fleet has increased 22.4% over the past two years. He credits the fleet’s focus on ensuring it’s competitive for a 32.5% turnover rate. It added a week of vacation time this year as well, while especially productive drivers can bank “accrual hours” for additional vacation.

Driver retention dropped to 7th place from last year’s second-place rankings. But there have been recent gains in compensation plans. Average retention bonuses, for example, have increased 57% over the previous year, Brewster said. “Fleets are acknowledging how important it is to retain their driver workforce.”

Economic conditions

Concerns about economic conditions pushed into fifth place, compared to eighth spot during 2020, reflecting challenges including inflation, equipment shortages, and fuel prices themselves.

“A year ago I never would have believed our equipment was going to be allocated [to other buyers], and those allocations would have come in with various pieces missing from the truck,” Dellinger said. When it was suggested that existing trucks be parked on the fence and cannibalized for parts, he thought the idea was absurd. But it’s helped. “It still exists today,” he said of the shortages.

Equipment shortages are not affecting fleets alone. For Sova, it has limited the number of trainees her fleet will bring in. “I get paid incentives to train people, so it’s touching every aspect of the trucking industry.”

“The pain is all over the board,” Brewster said.

Detention and delays at customer facilities ranked sixth, holding a spot in the Top 10 for four consecutive years.

“It’s hard to recruit and retain drivers when they know part of their job is sitting waiting, waiting, waiting,” Brewster said.

Detention-related issues are a bigger problem for regional and over-the-road drivers, Sova said, noting that detention pay is often not triggered until two or more hours have passed. “I’ve only got so many hours a day.”

Cargo Transporters has seen detention issues drop – and it’s paying drivers 70% of receipts collected for such delays. “If we detain our drivers we pay them,” Dellinger said.

Compliance, Safety, Accountability (CSA) scores ranked in the 8th position, and as high as 4th place among surveyed carriers. Recommendations issued in 2017 to improve the safety ratings have yet to be deployed by the U.S. Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, Brewster observed.

One of the challenges with CSA is the limited data and the lack of understanding about how the scores are calculated, Cardiff said, advising fleets to use broader pools of their own data to address underlying issues.

Speed limiters

Concerns about speed limiters cracked into the Top 10 for the first time, ranking in 9th spot, reflecting recent moves by regulators to mandate the technology in the U.S.

Sova isn’t a fan of the devices, citing concerns about speed differentials – especially in rural areas. “Why is it that trucks have to go slower than the general traffic?” she asked. “They [drivers] understand where they need to slow down and speed up.”

Cargo Transporters sees speed limiters as a safety issue rather than an economic issue, Dellinger said, noting that an announcement about the regulation is expected next July. “A car out there is much smaller and much easier to stop than a large truck.”

Rounding out the Top 10 issues was lawsuit abuse reform, reflecting concerns about so-called “nuclear” jury verdicts, and how they continue to drive insurance costs higher.

“We do everything in our power to settle a case,” Dellinger said. But legal teams are taking advantage of the current environment. In one case, lawyers pushed for higher payments because a truck was traveling 2 mph over the posted speed limit.

“They’re putting the fleet on trial,” Cardiff said of general trends in courtrooms. “We’re seeing it with large verdicts. We’re seeing it with smaller verdicts.”

2022 Top Industry issues

The following are the top industry issues for 2022. (Previous rankings in parenthesis.)

  1. Fuel prices (8 in 2013)
  2. Driver shortage (1)
  3. Truck parking (5)
  4. Driver compensation (3)
  5. Economy (8 in 2020)
  6. Detention/delay at customer facilities (7)
  7. Driver retention (2)
  8. Compliance, Safety, Accountability (6)
  9. Speed limiters
  10. Lawsuit abuse reform (4)

Top commercial driver concerns

  1. Truck parking
  2. Fuel prices
  3. Driver compensation
  4. Detention/delay at customer facilities
  5. Speed limiters
  6. Economy
  7. Hours of Service rules
  8. ELD mandate
  9. Driver training standards
  10. Transportation infrastructure/ congestion/ funding

Top motor carrier concerns

  1. Driver shortage
  2. Driver retention
  3. Fuel prices
  4. Compliance, Safety, Accountability
  5. Economy
  6. Lawsuit abuse reform
  7. Insurance cost/ availability
  8. Diesel technician shortage
  9. Detention/delay at customer facilities
  10. Truck parking
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John G. Smith is Newcom Media's vice-president - editorial, and the editorial director of its trucking publications -- including Today's Trucking, trucknews.com, and Transport Routier. The award-winning journalist has covered the trucking industry since 1995.

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  • Among smaller trucking companies Insurance is the number 1 problem
    The second problem is safe parking. Higher fuel costs can be passed on as can higher labor costs and paid sick days. A big problem is that a number of drivers and smaller trucking companies have been getting huge bills for emergency care in the U S and towing bills that are out of line. We need to level the playing field by requiring all trucking companies to have a min freight and wage rates posted and set by gov and allow all drivers to driver for 1 hr to find safe parking and get a hotel room if no parking with a electric plugs are available if they use medical equipment that requires hydro or disabled