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The year 2020 can unequivocally be described as the most chaotic and unpredictable time period in many decades. In the course of several months, the U.S. economy – the largest in the world – spiraled from new records in consumer sales growth, low unemployment, industry-favorable trade agreements, and a dramatically improved regulatory landscape… to a COVID-related economic slide paralleling the Great Depression, and all that comes with it.

Driven by “shelter-in-place” orders in all 50 states, this same year saw industry business models instantly recalibrated from onsite consumer sales to unparalleled e-commerce growth; huge food product shifts from restaurants to grocery stores; the newly created concept of “consumer hoarding,” and a temporary decline or elimination of several top industry issues from ATRI’s 2019 list.

In a number of states, fatal crash rates skyrocketed, while fatality crash numbers plummeted – due to limited automobile usage, a dearth of traffic congestion and long, unfettered stretches of roadway. That same operating environment however, allowed trucks to move essential goods to stores, hospitals and fulfillment centers in record time. In many instances, the trucking industry benefited from both temporary COVID-related regulatory exemptions as well as permanent changes to rules such as the hours-of-service.

To add to the complexity, many underlying issues continued to press forward in 2020, including highly automated vehicles, vehicle electrification, under-funded infrastructure, and perennial international trade issues.

Finally, 2020 experienced many political and societal upheavals whose impacts will be felt for many years.

Through it all, the trucking industry survived, and in limited instances thrived, as a foundational component of both the macro U.S. economy and consumer demand on a micro level. As a leading indicator, recent trends in truck activity suggest that the U.S. has turned the corner on the COVID recession, but it is still not clear what and when a “return to normalcy” will occur – if ever.

Perhaps now more than ever, it is imperative that industry stakeholders understand the interplay of diverse issues in the trucking industry. For the past 16 years, the trucking industry has relied on the American Transportation Research Institute’s (ATRI) annual survey to quantify the trucking industry’s most critical issues as well as to identify preferred strategies for addressing each issue. Organizations such as the American Trucking Associations (ATA) and its Federation partners in the State Trucking Associations (STA) have leveraged ATRI’s Top Industry Issues report to develop proactive industry-centric strategies and programs.

The Top 10 Trucking Industry Issues

1. Driver Shortage

For the fourth consecutive year, the Driver Shortage is the trucking industry’s top concern on the overall list. Despite the recession brought on by the pandemic in early 2020, freight demand is returning to pre-COVID levels and early indicators are showing that the shortage will soon return to the levels experienced in 2018 and 2019.

Exacerbating the driver supply challenges is the number of drivers who have left the industry due to the FMCSA Drug and Alcohol Clearinghouse as well as older drivers who retired or exited the industry over COVID-related health concerns.

Proposed Strategies (in rank order):

a) Advocate for Congress and federal agencies to develop an apprenticeship program to attract, train and retain safe 18 – 20 year old interstate drivers to the industry.
b) Quantify the impact of state Department of Motor Vehicle (DMV) delays on new driver credentialing for both Commercial Learner’s Permits (CLP) and Commercial Driver’s License (CDL) testing.
c) Identify unique requirements and issues associated with expanded driver recruitment of women and minorities. 

2. Driver Compensation

For the second year in a row, Driver Compensation is ranked as a Top 10 issue; this year rising one spot to the number two issue. In the latest Driver Compensation analysis from the American Trucking Associations, the average annual pay for a national truckload solo van driver was nearly $58,000 in 2019, representing a $6,000 increase over 2017. ATRI’s Operational Costs of Trucking analysis also documents increasing driver pay and benefits.

Despite these increases, many drivers believe the shortage and compensation are inextricably linked, and that the only solution to recruiting and retaining drivers is to increase pay or modify compensation models. And, while this is just the second year that Driver Compensation has appeared as a Top 10 issue in this survey, the very first Top Industry Issues Survey in 2005 identified increasing driver pay as the number one strategy for addressing the driver shortage.

Proposed Strategies (in rank order):

a) Analyze truck driver compensation in relation to other competing employment sectors (e.g. construction).
b) Research and assess the effectiveness of carrier retention programs that financially incentivize drivers for performance in the areas of safety, fuel economy, and trip productivity.
c) Quantify the relationship between driver compensation models and driver satisfaction and productivity. 

3. Truck Parking

Since first appearing on the survey in 2012, the lack of available truck parking has been a perennial Top 10 issue. This year Truck Parking ranks third overall, its highest rank yet. The pandemic clearly had an impact on the parking shortage in 2020 as a number of states shuttered their public rest areas, removing capacity from an already constrained system. In a joint ATRI and Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association (OOIDA) Foundation research initiative conducted earlier this year, 44 percent of respondents indicated that truck parking was “somewhat harder” or “much harder” to find during the pandemic. However, while some states were closing rest areas, other states were initiating projects to expand parking availability along key truck routes.

Proposed Strategies (in rank order):

a) Identify strategic locations on the National Freight Network for new or expanded truck parking due to increased traffic congestion, changing staging needs and industry / regulatory changes.
b) Create a new dedicated federal funding program designed to increase truck parking capacity at freight-critical locations.
c) Research the role and value of real-time truck parking information systems and truck parking reservation systems. 

4. Compliance, Safety, Accountability

Compliance, Safety, Accountability (CSA) made its first appearance in the Top Industry Issues Survey in 2010, debuting as the number two industry concern. It then spent another five years as a top five issue before dropping to number six in 2016 and dropping again to number eight in 2019. This year, CSA is back in the top five, ranking as the number four industry concern. In the 10 years since CSA was first implemented by FMCSA, its volatility in TII ranking points to the industry’s oftentimes challenging relationship with the safety measurement system.

To address the concerns with CSA, FMCSA has implemented multiple changes to the system over its 10-year history. However, carriers continue to report challenges with data quality, peer group assignments and challenges with the Crash Preventability Program. Additionally, there is concern over how the proposed “Item Response Theory” (IRT) methodology will impact carrier scores.

Proposed Strategies (in rank order):

a) Work with FMCSA to update its carrier prioritization methodology, improve its accuracy, and enhance transparency, as it moves to implement the Item Response Theory methodology into the current SMS.
b) Encourage FMCSA to regularly review and evaluate the list of crash types available for reclassification as non-preventable.
c) Evaluate the efficacy of the Pre-Employment Screening Program (PSP) reports relative to Motor Vehicle Records (MVR) for improving driver safety. 

5. Insurance Cost / Availability

Insurance Costs first appeared on the Top Industry Issues Survey in its inaugural year (2005) when it ranked number three overall. Now, 16 years later, Insurance Cost / Availability is back in the Top 10 as the number five issue overall. Rising insurance costs have been documented in several ATRI analyses, including the annual Operational Costs of Trucking that recently found insurance costs per mile increased 18.3 percent over the last five years. The costs are even more dramatic among smaller fleets, which experienced insurance premium costs per mile more than three times those of larger fleets. 

Rising insurance costs and availability have also been cited as a reason for multiple fleets going out of business.

Proposed Strategies (in rank order):

a) Quantify the impact of rising insurance costs on industry operations, safety investments, and driver training.
b) Examine the feasibility of an industry-wide insurance surcharge passed on to shippers.
c) Conduct cost-benefit analysis on raising minimum insurance levels. 

6. Driver Retention

Driver Retention held on to its sixth place ranking for the second year in a row. The increased freight demand coming out of the pandemic combined with the pandemic-induced backlog of new entrants into the workforce make it more important than ever that fleets retain their best drivers. The pandemic also had an impact on driver turnover in the first half of the year as reported by the American Trucking Associations, “the turnover rate at truckload carriers with more than $30 million in annual revenue fell 12 percentage points to 82% – the lowest level since the end of 2018.” However, it is expected that turnover, and the need to retain drivers, will continue to ramp up as freight demand returns to pre-COVID levels.

Proposed Strategies (in rank order):

a) Research and prioritize retention strategies, based on driver feedback and driver tenure data.
b) Evaluate the impact of truck driver benefits, including health insurance and retirement benefits, on driver retention.
c) Quantify the relationship between safety technology deployment (e.g. cameras, speed limiters, active braking systems) and driver satisfaction and retention. 

7. Tort Reform

Tort Reform is back on the Top 10 list after dropping off in 2012. The return of Tort Reform as the seventh ranked issue is reflective of the growing attention and concern over truck crash litigation, nuclear verdicts and criminal activity involving staged crashes. ATRI’s nuclear verdicts research found that from 2010 to 2018, the size of verdict awards grew 51.7 percent annually at the same time that traditional inflation grew just 1.7 percent and healthcare costs grew 2.9 percent.

Proposed Strategies (in rank order):

a) Advocate for reasonable limits on non-economic damages.
b) Advocate for elimination of “phantom” damages.
c) Research conceptual verdict reductions if negligence and financial liability were equitable in tort law. 

8. Economy

The pandemic created economic fallout not seen in the U.S. since the Great Depression. With businesses shuttered, millions of Americans unemployed, and the nation’s GDP hitting new lows in the second quarter of 2020, the economic gains of the previous five years were essentially eliminated. While the third quarter saw business – and the economy – begin to rebound, concern over how, and when the U.S. economy will return to pre-pandemic levels led to the Economy rising two spots in this year’s survey to eighth overall.

Proposed Strategies (in rank order):

a) Continue to advocate for trade and economic policies that will further stimulate the economy.
b) Promote reforming/repealing ineffective and burdensome regulations that add to industry costs without providing benefits.
c) Advocate for a repeal of the Federal Excise Tax (FET) on new truck purchases to stimulate modernization of the nation’s truck fleet. 

9. Detention / Delay at Customer Facilities

Detention/Delay at Customer Facilities is on the Top 10 list for a second year, although it has dropped five spots to number nine overall in 2020, likely due to COVID-related economic impacts. The impacts of excessive customer detention are numerous and have a direct nexus to many of the other issues among the Top 10 including Driver Compensation, Truck Parking and the Hours-of-Service rules. In ATRI’s joint research with the OOIDA Foundation, 34 percent of survey respondents indicated that detention times were worse during the pandemic – possibly the result of reduced staffing at shipper/receiver facilities with employees affected by the virus. This impact was even more pronounced among smaller fleets; 73 percent of those who reported increased detention times during the pandemic were from fleets of 50 or fewer trucks.

Proposed Strategies (in rank order):

a) Identify best practices, technologies, and strategies that reduce or eliminate driver detention at shipper/receiver facilities.
b) Quantify impacts on detention times that may have occurred since the ELD mandate.
c) Examine the potential for creation of a “Shipper of Choice” database to reduce detention times for carriers and drivers. 

10. Hours-of-Service (HOS)

The HOS rules experienced the biggest drop in this year’s Top 10 list, from second overall in 2019 to tenth overall this year. The June 2020 final HOS rule, which went into effect Sept. 29, 2020, addressed many of the issues identified by industry stakeholders as problematic in previous years’ surveys. The final rule changed four specific provisions in the HOS rules including: the short-haul exception, the adverse driving conditions exception, the 30-minute rest break, and the sleeper berth provision.

Proposed Strategies (in rank order):

a) Research the safety impacts from additional sleeper berth flexibility in the June 2020 final HOS rules.
b) Analyze how HOS rules might be modified for highly automated trucks, and identify what research and data would be necessary to justify future rule changes.
c) Assess industry impacts from the June 2020 final HOS rule expanding the short haul exception to the 150 airmile radius and extended duty day. 

This article is a summary of a report produced by the American Transportation Research Institute (ATRI). The full report is available on the ATRI website at

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  • Transportation Safety