Trucking challenges in the US: Defining the problems and seeking solutions

Steve Bourne, VP Transportation at Keen Transport discusses trucking challenges in the US – and what needs to happen in the industry to improve transportation efficiency and service.

Keen Truck with Flag

Having worked in the transportation industry for more than 30 years, I’ve seen the trucking segment come up against its fair share of challenges. Existing problems compounded by the new challenges presented by Covid-19 are impacting shippers, OEMs, dealers and end customers, along with transportation providers. So what are the main issues – and, crucially, the possible solutions?

1. Worsening driver shortages

The American Trucking Association estimates that as of July 2019 there could be 100,000 unfilled driver positions within five years and over 160,000 by 2028. Although the driver shortage is impacted by many factors, such as an ageing driver demographic, increased consumer spending and competing job sectors, there’s also a widely-held perception that truck driving isn’t the easiest of careers, particularly when it involves being on the road for extended periods of time. Other factors that exacerbate the problem is the higher prioritisation of safety and professionalism criteria when hiring drivers.

Another factor contributing to driver shortages is that commercial driving licences (CDL) can only be applied for from the age of 21. So after graduating high school, there’s a three-year ‘gap’ where young adults looking for a job will end up moving into careers that don’t include trucking.

Plus, driving a big truck isn’t a straightforward undertaking: moving a large mining dump truck is far more complex than moving a few thousand boxes of consumer goods. While a typical 53’ van can be upwards of 36 tonnes, high and heavy moves can weigh up to 113 tonnes, sometimes more in extreme cases.

Along with concerns regarding weight, dimensions, dimensional accuracy, speed limit restrictions and increased braking distance, there’s also a very real pressure on heavy-haul drivers to be hyper-aware of their surroundings – and the vehicle’s limitations. They need to think strategically about routes to safely transport the load.

2. The impact of Covid-19

The pandemic, particularly in the initial months, dramatically altered our drivers’ lives – finding places to park and eat became a challenge and drivers experienced growing confusion over differing protocols across states and increased anxiety over being separated from family and friends. Add to that, many drivers nearing retirement chose to move their retirement date forward.

The impact of Covid-19 extended to consumer behaviour too. The crisis has drastically altered the demand for home delivery, which places greater risk of losing over-the-road drivers to local and parcel delivery. This shift also satisfies many drivers’ desire to be home more often, further impacting driver shortages.

3. Different regulations between states

From a regulatory standpoint, transportation providers deal with widely differing pilot car requirements, permit rules and gross and axel weight restrictions across different states in the US. A permit could cost 30 USD in one state and 1,500 USD in another. Driving time can be impacted by night-time travel restrictions and curfews (some states restrict the movement of larger machines from entering larger cities during the morning and afternoon rush hours). Such restrictions can add hundreds of miles and/or days to a driver’s route.

While efforts are underway to create synergy between neighbouring state regulations – and some states have made strides to loosen restrictions – this will continue to be an ongoing challenge when selecting equipment to use for transport, and the routes taken.

So what’s the solution?

As we all know, there isn’t an easy answer. In the heavy haul trucking segment, these are complex problems that require the continued efforts of state and federal legislation, along with the support and assistance of industry trade associations. Increased effort to recruit driving talent to the transportation field is important too.

Since the start of the pandemic, the use of technology and adjustment of prior processes has improved efficiency, allowing for contactless delivery and digital signatures, resulting in less paperwork handling and better social distancing. We must continue our efforts to adopt digital tools to deliver innovative and safe solutions for customers.

Collaboration is key to future success. By working closely with shippers and OEMs, we can ensure dimensions are accurate so as to avoid additional delays and transportation costs due to permit re-issuance, equipment re-planning or new routings. Such delays put strain on timelines for transport, particularly when meeting vessel departure schedules, which is something we’re mindful of when transferring import and export units to and from port.

Our commitment to service doesn’t end with moving a machine. It’s the interdependence and teamwork of shippers and transport providers that will truly drive success.

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