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Coronavirus Reminds America that Truck Drivers are Essential Every Day

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Coronavirus Reminds America that Truck Drivers are Essential Every Day

Life on the road feels a little more lonely these days. Just ask Harold Simmons.

A truck driver for LS Wilson Trucking out of Utah, Simmons is afraid to go home because he doesn’t want to risk bringing the coronavirus with him. His wife has had pneumonia, and he wants to protect her.

At truck stops, he is eating alone more often because of social distancing practices in force at restaurants. No more small talk with a driver sitting next to him at the counter.

So it was a nice change of pace when he recently pulled into a rest area off the highway, and a group of strangers were in the parking lot handing out free food to truck drivers. “People, in general, are showing us their appreciation,” Simmons said. “Even shippers and receivers are finally treating us like human beings again.”

In our newfound appreciation for essential workers in the global pandemic, it’s heartening to see the support for our truck drivers. Social media is filled with posts marked with the #ThankATrucker hashtag.

Truck drivers have always been essential employees, hauling freight across the country, away from their families and the comforts of home. They have been easy to ignore because they toil behind the scenes. Most Americans never interact with them, unlike our doctors, nurses, pharmacists, supermarket cashiers and restaurant delivery drivers.

But what’s left of our economy would not be standing without the tireless dedication of professional drivers. They are the essential link in our supply chain. Despite health risks, they are hauling consumer goods to ensure retailers can keep their shelves stocked. They are delivering personal protective equipment and other supplies to hospitals when they often don’t have their own PPE. They are driving into hot zones when others are fleeing.

Truckers are providing critical services even when their own economic well being is at risk. In the early days of the crisis, freight volumes rose as supermarkets restocked their shelves and other essential businesses built inventory to protect against supply chain disruption. However, as shelter in place orders have expanded to cover most of the population, industrial production has contracted, and freight volume has declined sharply.

The reduction in freight volume has squeezed revenues for trucking companies. One widely followed financial measure is the dry van spot rate, which is the amount of money a driver is paid per mile to haul freight within about a day of the shipment. This rate has fallen 20% since the end of March, according to DAT Solutions. There’s no clear sign when rates might rebound, as some states have extended stay-at-home orders until the end of May.

Trucking companies say they are concerned about having enough revenue in the coming months to meet their two biggest sources of fixed costs: insurance and loan or lease payments for trucks and trailers.

This is a big concern because many trucking companies are small businesses, just like the florist or the neighborhood restaurant or the hair salon. Most drivers work in fleets that contain 20 or fewer trucks, according to the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association.

OOIDA has been lobbying Congress and the Trump Administration to do more for the trucking industry during the pandemic, including providing PPE and testing to truck drivers and targeted economic and regulatory relief for trucking companies.

“They’re facing a real economic crisis to be able to continue to operate, not to mention the fact that they actually are on the front line in the battle against coronavirus,” Todd Spencer, president and chief executive officer of OOIDA, recently said on CNBC.

Preserving our nation’s trucking capacity is critical to our economic recovery post-COVID-19. It is essential that when industrial production rebounds, trucking capacity is not constrained. We cannot allow America’s trucking companies to fail or we jeopardize the broader recovery.

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Daniel Burrows is the founder and CEO of XStream Trucking, a design and engineering company for connected hardware for the long-haul trucking industry.

DRIVER SHORTAGE & TRUCKING-CAPACITY: WHY THEY’RE NOT GOING AWAY

In the busy and demanding world of trucking, industry players are inevitably reminded of two significant challenges that show no signs of lessening now and in the near future: trucking capacity and the driver shortage. Neither issue will solve itself with current approaches. Companies are now faced with the reality that change must be embraced through improving training standards and the utilization of advanced technology solutions. 

This might not come as a surprise to some, but for others still operating with outdated practices, reality presents its own set of challenges. To look at the numbers the industry is dealing with, a report released by Insurance Journal confirmed the driver shortage figure has reached 51,000–up from 36,000 in 2016.

Some industry leaders, such as Advanced Training Systems CEO John Kearney, are confronting these issues at every angle–from a legislative, cultural, educational, and technological positions. 

“The issue is that the existing workforce is aging,” Kearney maintains. “The truck is a different piece of equipment from what it was a few years ago–it’s very sophisticated. The technology advances are significant and the regulations are outdated. Simulators are really emerging as a major change to the training field. A lot of companies are now going to simulators because there are some things they can do that are not possible to train any other way.”

Advanced Training Systems (ATS) has spent more than a decade developing cost-effective training simulators and preparing aspiring truck drivers across the United States through many of the training schools in the country. These driver training schools offer students unmatched training experiences that have propelled ATS in a leading position in the driver training field. 

“In 2008 we started the process of developing simulators because we know they are an excellent part of the training process,” Kearney says. “Today, we have simulators in a number of places around the U.S. and Mexico with operations in California where we do manufacturing and technology development while our corporate offices are in Florida.”

Among the scenarios truckers are faced with at a moment’s notice that traditional training methods can’t address include sudden road obstructions, aggressive drivers, inclement weather and truck malfunctions. These unavoidable situations present some of the most challenges in preparing the next generation of truck drivers

“Let’s take the example of a front tire blowout,” Kearney suggests. “If someone does that in a real truck, they could kill someone. There’s also the risk of something coming out on the road all of sudden and if the driver swerves, they could create an accident. These types of scenarios can be taught in a simulator.” 

He continues, “Ice is another example. If a driver is sliding on ice, what do they do? They don’t want to slide in a real truck, so what we do is have simulators that train properly so drivers know how to react if that happens. The reaction time is improved through the process of repetitive proper actions needed to teach muscle memory in the training process.”

Earlier this year, 28 vehicles were involved in a devastating truck collision in Lakewood, Colorado, that claimed the lives of four people. Since then, conversations surrounding improved training methods have taken priority among industry players, with simulators leading the position of potential solutions. 

“Technology is a big part of the answer,” Kearney maintains. “If we use technology, we use better methods of training and we’re not sending someone to sit in a classroom for too long. Change in technology expands on the number of people who can become interested in the field. The methodology of training using simulation and various other training methods available today—such as virtual reality—will provide the industry with better drivers and more people interested in a career in the field.”

Beyond technology, Kearney urges legislators to consider how current age restrictions limit the industry’s growth. Current laws only permit young adults over the age of 21 to drive a truck over state lines, limiting both driver populations and proactive education efforts. The desire to learn is there, but current laws restrict motivated and qualified students to begin training, leaving high schools with little reason to further pursue efforts in education. 

“High schools are not teaching students to drive in a truck. What’s beginning to happen is we are realizing young people are very qualified, they’re very used to working with things like simulation, and we need to allow the young driver to enter into the profession from the time they leave high school, between ages 18-21 once properly trained.”

The trucking industry is sometimes generalized as an exhaustive, demanding and less-than-glamorous profession. It’s time for a refresh of trucking culture to mirror what a career in the industry really looks like, beyond long hours and demanding schedules, according to Kearney. 

“The other part of the issue is we must educate young people to think about truck drivers differently. A truck driver today has much more involvement than just being a truck driver. The industry needs to change the name of what truck drivers are to something that better indicates what they do and what they are. The current trucking condo is actually a very nice place to live and travel around the country.”

The first step in creating reliable and effective solutions for the trucking industry begins with expanded training for existing and future drivers and elevation to a professional level. The technology available in today’s markets enable companies across the nation to improve operations and prepare the next generation of drivers for fulfilling careers. The reality is, trucking is not what it used to be both operationally and professionally. 

“The driver of today has become a manager of multimillion dollars’ worth of freight, managing the technology with careful compliance to the delivery schedule, serious regulations and changes in the method of operating a $100,000-plus vehicle and the method of driving as it develops. The driver of today can move up in the company they work for. Many drivers will be moving up in the industry from driving a truck.”

Opportunities now exist that weren’t fathomable in previous decades. The challenge now is to overcome antiquated mindsets and operation patterns to boost productivity, driver satisfaction and safety. It’s up to industry leaders to step up and initiate change.