Are Truckers Overworked?

How to Decrease Sleeping Behind the Wheel

Research, studies, and anecdotal evidence indicate that truck drivers are overworked and underpaid. Trucking companies push truck drivers to work long hours despite federal limits. More and more truck drivers are driving while fatigued and sleep-deprived, which can reduce their alertness, slow their reaction time, and lead to a much higher chance of an accident.

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Alabama Truck Crash Map

Crashes involving 18-wheelers and other large trucks can happen virtually anywhere in Alabama. This interactive map shows some of the locations that are most prone to truck accidents.

View Truck Wrecks By Year

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Long-haul truck drivers work 50% more hours than typical workers and regularly violate federal regulations limiting how many hours they can drive for safety reasons, according to a survey by the U.S. National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. Truck accidents claim the lives of truck drivers and other roadway users, including car drivers, passengers, bicyclists, and pedestrians.

Why the Trucking Industry Is So Important

The trucking industry is a critical part of the economy in the United States and throughout the world. In the U.S. alone, trucks deliver more than 10 billion tons of commodities, accounting for over $700 billion worth of goods.

Nearly all industries need trucks to deliver goods to them so they can produce products or get products from other markets. In fact, the trucking industry carries more cargo than planes, trains, and ships. Seventy percent of all freight moved in the country is done by trucks. Any disruption or problems in the trucking industry can cause many economic disruptions throughout all sectors of the economy.

Fatal Truck Accidents

The Chart Below Shows Deadly Accidents Involving Large Trucks in Alabama Between 2004-2018

Tractor-trailers and other heavy trucks are involved in crashes on Alabama roads throughout the year. Due to their massive size and weight, 18-wheelers and other large trucks can easily cause fatalities when they collide with smaller vehicles. Data shows that fatal large truck crashes occur more often in Alabama during the warmer months, and are less frequent during cooler times of year.

June is the deadliest month, with 11 total deaths, according to a survey of deadly truck crashes in Alabama from 2004 to 2018. The second deadliest month is August, which has seen nine total fatalities in truck wrecks. The numbers generally decline through the fall and reach their lowest totals during the winter months of December, January, and February. Warmer weather and longer days bring an increase in fatal truck crashes in March.

By The Numbers

The Cause of Overworked and Tired Truckers: The Pay vs. Mileage Problem

$43,680

Average Trucker Salary

30-40¢

Cents Per Mile Earned

900,000

More Drivers Needed

For nearly a decade, the driver turnover rate has been at around 90%. Trucking companies are struggling to find and keep drivers. The industry is in need of nearly 900,000 more drivers to keep up with demand.

The fact that truck drivers are aging and retiring is among the main reasons for the shortage. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) estimates that the average age of a truck driver is 55 years old. The trucking industry is also heavily male. Only 6% of truck drivers are women, according to the American Trucking Association (ATA).

Another major problem is that trucking companies have kept an antiquated payment model. Truck drivers are overworked and underpaid, and it is time for a change.

Forty years ago, the average truck driver in the United States made more than $110,000 a year in today’s dollars. Now, truck drivers earn an average salary of $43,680, according to the BLS.

Truck drivers get paid by the mile. That means, if they are sitting in their truck but not moving, they are not getting paid. A driver could very well spend half their day stuck in gridlocked traffic, unable to drive due to bad weather, or stuck at a loading dock. They get paid only for the distance they were able to travel. A truck driver can expect to earn about 30 to 40 cents per mile. Trucking companies need to recognize that these unpaid hours are on-duty hours. But instead, they are encouraging truck drivers to log their time spent at loading docks as off-duty or sleeper hours.

Truck Image

What Truck Drivers Have To Say

The Washington Post recently published an article on the massive truck driver shortage. The item featured interviews with truck drivers from all over the country. Here’s what some of them had to say:
  • “I have been divorced two times because of truck driving,” Michael Dow, of Dallas, told the Post. Dow said the pay is far behind the curve. He said he makes less money now that he did two decades ago if adjusted for inflation. “I was making $14 or $15 an hour driving for the big carriers. People flipping hamburgers are demanding $15 an hour.”
  • “You just drive, sleep, drive, sleep. Companies don’t treat you like a human,” Penland said. “You are just a machine that makes money for them.”
  • “We work up to 14 hours daily.”
  • “Fatigue is another biggie. I’ve driven for many hours over the legally allowed and still been as alert as to when I started. I’ve also had to pull into a rest area and take a short siesta after two hours driving after a full eight hours of sleep. The point is, if the sleep monster starts creeping up on you, it’s time to react.”
  • “I can comfortably drive 12+ hours, on a good day, but I'm only allowed to drive 11. On other days I feel wore out after only a couple of hours (especially if driving in heavy urban traffic such as NY, LA, DFW).”
  • “You can go to a drug store and buy a bottle of ‘caffeine tablets’ that are about 200 mg per tablet. A bottle of 100 may cost about $27 or so. A pop has about 80 mg of caffeine in them. One tablet will ‘pick you up’ a good amount without making you ‘wired’ assuming you don’t take it after 4 pm. I don’t use my pills very often, but sometimes I am groggy, and will take one if I simply can’t become fully alert.”

Time for a 'Brake'

It takes a very long distance to stop a fully loaded tractor-trailer. That’s why it’s critical for truck drivers to remain alert behind the wheel at all times. Fatigue caused by lack of sleep slows reaction times. This could be lethal in certain situations. These video demonstrations show the difference reaction times make when it comes to braking before encountering a slow-moving motorcycle on the highway. As the simulation shows, an alert trucker who applies the brakes in time can safely bring the rig to a stop before hitting the motorcycle. The biker in front of a fatigued trucker would not be so lucky.

Health Concerns Related to Lack of Sleep

Driving while sleep-deprived is a public safety hazard. Fatigue and drowsiness can slow reaction time as much as drunk driving. Fatigue is a factor in 100,000 car crashes and 1,550 crash-related fatalities per year in the United States, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).
Chronic fatigue and sleep deprivation can lead to: Heart attack, Heart disease, Hypertension (high blood pressure), Heart failure, Stroke, Diabetes, Metabolic changes, Depression and anxiety, Obesity Studies show that a very high percentage of those with insomnia also have other health conditions.
Over a period, sleep deprivation can contribute to depression. According to a poll from Sleep in America in 2005, people who were diagnosed with depression were more likely to sleep less than six hours each night.
Sleep deprivation – whether for one night or over the course of months – has a notable effect on our ability to function. A lack of sleep negatively affects our ability to focus, our mood, and our ability to have high-level cognitive functions. Following a period of sleeplessness, there are marked changes in brain activity, as indicated by an electroencephalogram (EEG). These changes correlate with less alertness. Any period of wakefulness beyond the average 16 hours will typically lead to these measurable changes. A lack of sleep can also negatively impact memory.
Lack of sleep has been found to be related to an increase in appetite and obesity. People who get fewer than six hours of sleep each night were almost 30% more likely to become obese (defined as having a body mass index (BMI) of 30 or above) than those who slept seven to nine hours, according to one study.

Decision Making and Reaction Time

People who are sleep-deprived put themselves and others at risk when they have to make split-second decisions, according to a study. The study looked at looked sleep deprivation affected information-integration, a process that relies heavily on instantaneous decisions, of nearly 50 U.S. military cadets. Information-integration is often used in situations when soldiers have to make split-second decisions as to whether a potential target is an enemy soldier or one of their own. The ability to make these kinds of decisions is critical in a number of other high-pressure professions, including truck drivers.

During the study, the military cadets performed information-integration tasks twice – once when they had plenty of sleep and another time when they were sleep-deprived. The results demonstrated that sleep deprivation can cause an immediate loss of information-integration thought processes.

Accuracy on the information-integration tasks declined by 2.4% (73.1% to 70.7%) when cadets were sleep-deprived, and improved by 4.3% (74% to 78.3%) when they were well-rested, the study found.

Sleep deprivation has been found to impact reaction time as much as alcohol. A study from New Stanford found that the reaction times of people who were sleep-deprived were as poor as those who were drunk. The study compared the groups of sleep apnea subjects and drunk subjects on seven measures of reaction time. The study found a high level of impairment in sleep apnea patients. On all seven measures, their results were worse than the drinking group, and, on three measures, the apnea patients scored at least as poorly as those who were drunk.

Why Are Truck Accidents So Dangerous?

Truck accidents are incredibly dangerous due to a variety of reasons. One of the main issues has to do with the sheer size and weight of commercial trucks. Occupants of smaller vehicles on the road are extremely vulnerable in collisions with tractor-trailers and other heavy trucks. Large trucks typically weigh at least 20 times as much as passenger vehicles. Also, because trucks are more elevated from the ground, underride accidents can result during crashes with smaller vehicles.

A truck’s braking capability is another factor in crashes. The larger a truck is, the harder it is to stop once it is moving and has forward momentum. Loaded tractor-trailers can take 40% farther than passenger vehicles to stop. This difference is even greater when you factor in wet and slippery roads or a truck with poorly maintained brakes.

In addition to not having the ability to swerve to avoid an obstacle due their enormous size, a tractor-trailer’s sudden stop could cause the vehicle to “jackknife,” which occurs when the trailer skids and moves at an angle to the tractor, making a movement similar to that of a jackknife. This is a very dangerous situation not only for the truck driver, but for any vehicles or people in the truck’s path.

Truck driver fatigue also is major contributor to accidents. Truck drivers are allowed by federal regulations to drive up to 11 hours at a stretch. However, studies show that many truck drivers routinely violate these regulations and work longer than allowed. They are pushed by the flawed pay-by-the-mile system.


Truck drivers simply cannot avoid obstacles as quickly as car drivers can. A compact car requires a radius of about 25 feet to turn in a complete circle, whereas a tractor-trailer needs more than twice that distance to do the same turn.