America has a trucking problem: the demand is sky high, but the supply is far behind leading to questions about safety on the road.
And crash statistics paint a grim picture.
From 2009 through 2017, the most recent available from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, Illinois saw a 69 percent jump in fatal wrecks involving large trucks.
In Peoria County 11 people killed over that 8 year span.
In McLean County, 26 lives were lost to accidents involving large trucks.
Tazewell and Woodford counties saw 7 and 5 deaths, respectively.
Yet, at the national level, total driving fatalities are down 1.8 percent.
But NHTSA stats reveal a jump in deadly truck accidents – one of the only categories to see an increase – up 9 percent from 2016 to 2017, the most recent data available.
Those fatal wrecks in America involving large trucks are 40 percent higher than they were in 2009.
But the need for drivers is growing and you can get the necessary license in Illinois under a month.
That’s why, five days a week, the wheels are turning at Illinois Central College.
“It’s not enough to know how to shift and do a little backing, You’ve got to develop common sense,” said instructor Bill Thompson, a driver himself for 24 years, logging an estimated 1.4 million miles.
Thompson has now been an instructor at ICC for over five years.
He believes changes within the industry have made the roadways safe.
“Back when I got my license, you kicked the tires and if the lights worked, you were good to go. Now they’ve got to know components under the truck, they’ve got to know where the water pump is. They’ve got to know things like the air compressor, if it’s belt driven, gear driven. The pretrip inspection and just the skills have gotten a lot, lot harder,” Thompson said.
He agrees that salaries and signing bonuses are larger than ever. But he cites new, required health screenings that can quickly end a driver’s career now. And to start, the learning curve – even in just 22 class days – is jam packed.
“This is training wheels that gets them their license, now they have a chance to go to a company and get better trained and get that job. Once they’re at a company, their training is 6,8,10 weeks,” Thompson said.
While the American Trucking Associations estimates the U.S. needs 90,000 new drivers each year for the next decade, Thompson is encouraged by the fresh faces he sees in class.
“Yes, younger, better educated and healthier,” Thompson said.
One of the issues involved in the driver shortage is age, the Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that the average age of a commercial truck driver in the U.S. is 55 years old. And, as of January, 2018 only 6 percent of commercial truck drivers were women, again according to the ATA.
The same group also highlights the enticing offers now available.
According to their most recent study, the median salary for a truck driver was over $53,000 – a $7,000 increase of 15% from 2013.
A private fleet driver saw pay rise to more than $86,000 from $73,000, a gain of nearly 18 percent.
In mid-January, ICC’s trucking school had four students in class, almost ready to start collecting job offers from shipping companies that come to the East Peoria campus to recruit, often offering a signing bonus, perhaps as high as $15,000,
Reece Watters took a long route to ICC.
After 7 years in the Army and 15 months in Iraq, she decided a short stay in school might be best for a future on the road.
“I love to travel. I love to drive. Meeting new people and going to new places,” Watters said. “I feel pretty confident when I get out of here that I will be successful, I hope so. But I feel it’s kind of less stressful than going to a two or four year college and doing the prerequisites and everything. You know, some people, it’s just not for them.”
And some current drivers say the race to find new staffers is going too fast.
“There are so many variables involved in driving an 18 wheeler,” said Bubba Emlen, a 23 year driver who says windy days and an empty trailer can be a bad combination for the uninitiated.
“You cannot learn that. It has to be on the job training, as far as driving different road conditions. I think it should take at least six months.”
Like many, his days and work weeks are long,
He expects to be gone six days a week, away from his daughter and grand daughter.
Bubba delivers Wisconsin cheese to pizza stores in Texas and Iowa cattle to Rock Island, Illinois, driving at least 3,200 miles per week.
He sees inexperience on the roads now.
“I’d probably say 3-5 a day, close calls,” Emlen said. “It takes about three football fields to stop a semi.”
He says, oftentimes those close calls are the result of another driver in a smaller vehicle doing so while on their smartphone, expecting heavy rigs to make quick, sudden moves they can’t make.
His advice to new truck driver? “Don’t be following that GPS. Look at your map. call, get directions. All of those situations need to be accounted for. The problem is, with truck driving, it’s hard to come across something that drivers want to do non-stop,” Emlen said. “Without trucking, America stops.”
Bubba has no plans to stop driving for himself, and his family.
Nor do the instructors and the students at ICC, who pay just over $4,000 for the 22 day course.
WalMart alone plans to hire 900 drivers this year.
ATA estimates the industry as a whole needs 90,000 new drivers each year for a decade just to keep pace and keep America’s goods moving.