The Real Story on the Reduced Standards in Trucking

Executive Summary

  • Trucking has seen a continual degradation in standards since deregulation in the 1980s.


The trucking industry has seen a continual decline in standards since deregulation.

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The Decline of Standards in Trucking

One outcome of led to the general degradation and eventual elimination of trucking as a middle-class job in the US. This is explained in the following quotations.

 In the US, the median salary for the 1.9 million truck drivers stands at $45,260. Nearly 40% lack health-insurance coverage, compared to 17% of the working population.

Larry Heine doesn’t think the cost savings were worth it.

“There was this shift in power for laborers,” he said. “Deregulation got a hold of the nation to drive down the cost of everything. The cost didn’t go down much — the money just shifted from labor to the top 10%.”

The prominent labor economist Lawrence Mischel has said deregulation was never meant to help truckers.

“This was a conscious decision to make the trucking industry a dog-eat-dog industry,” Mishel, a fellow at the Economic Policy Institute, previously told Business Insider. “The prices of trucking got cheaper, but the ability to make a living evaporated.” – Business Insider

However, as so much of the business media is aligned with corporate interests, there are plenty of articles from biased sources that present this state of affairs as a resounding success and deny what happened to the unsustainability of trucker wages.

A thorough accounting reveals that trucker wages and living standards have climbed, while industry competition increased dramatically. A cursory glance of the wage figures over the past forty years supplied by the Bureau of Labor Statistics appears to back up Snyder. In real terms, yearly wages fell from around $78,000 in 1976 (prior to deregulation) to $41,000 in 2016. A thorough accounting reveals that trucker wages and living standards have climbed, while industry competition increased dramatically. But relying on this average wage fails to take into account the bifurcation of the industry post-deregulation. According to the latest (2015) estimate from the American Trucking Association (ATA), truckers in exclusive private arrangements make $73,000 a year. – Economics21

Leave it to a paid-off economist to deny a very obvious comparison of averages over time and try to spin it into a positive story on wages. What relevance is this wage — which is still lower than the adjusted wages in 1976 to truckers not involved in a private arrangement? Private arrangements mean driving for a private fleet — which could be the fleet of a big box retailer like Wal Mart or Best Buy, or working as a UPS driver. Also, what does the low average pay of $41,000 for truckers in 2016 tell us? It tells us few truckers are in private arrangements or for private fleets.

Some Notes On the Above Information Related to the Decline in Wages for Truck Drivers

Note #1: (This pay level is quoted in an article in Economics21 from 2017, another source places the average pay of truckers at $47,000 in 2021. Obviously pay increases over years due to just inflation).

Note #2: (There is a question as to the current pay level adjusted for inflation of a truck driver 40 years ago. Observe the following quotation.

In 1980, according to one industry analyst, the average trucker was, after adjusting for inflation, making the equivalent of more than $110,000 today. – The Atlantic

The source above is not reliable as it is a shill for the trucking industry. Therefore, the $110,000 number is more likely to be accurate. If so, it would mean that trucking jobs have declined far more than just 47% from the 1980s)

On the other hand, the New York Times had a lower estimate of the average wages of a truck driver in 1980 as can be found in the following quotation.

The 1980 census found that the average male driver — virtually all drivers at the time were men — earned roughly $17,400 in 1979, or about $55,500 in 2017 dollars.

Obviously, the variance between these various estimates is huge.

Note #3: (All of this decline in wages is not only due to deregulation. Trucking, as with other jobs has seen a steep decline in unionization.)

This next quote is also ridiculous.

It is hard to put a price on “going your own way,” especially when independent contractors have the potential to make more than $100,000 a year.

If that many truckers have the potential to make $100,000 per year, then why is the average trucker salary $41,000 per year. It seems as if this author needs some help with math. An average of $41,000 tells us that the number of truckers making $100,000 per year is exceedingly low.

The entire statement made by the author about missing the “bifurcation” of the industry is either an innumerate observation or deliberately deceptive. If the average is low ($41,000) and a small percentage of the jobs are at $73,000, then other jobs must be lower than $41,000. That is how one ends up with such a low average. The sources that have pointed out the degradation of wage levels in trucking are accurate, and it is the author of this article that is biased and providing inaccurate information. And that information is easily contradicted by observing that a low average cannot be made better by pointing out that some drivers are making more than the average. The average is still relevant. $78,000 – $41,000 = $37,000. $37,000/$78,000 = 47%. This is basically 50%. Under what scenario is a 50% decline in wages not a significant reduction in the condition of a job?

More on the reasons for the decline in wages for truck drivers is explained in the following quotation.

Without limits on competition, union trucking firms with good labor standards and respectable pay could no longer compete against non-union firms willing to cut corners and pay their employees less. The vicious competition it enabled would quickly see 188 trucking companies go bankrupt. It would decimate the ranks of the Teamsters, one of the largest and most powerful unions in the country, who had originally fought for trucking regulation in the 1930s. Altogether, deregulation drove down wages across the whole of the trucking industry. – Every Which Way but Regulated: The “Free Market” Trucking Industry

Even Worse Than Lower Significantly Lower Wages

What the source above leaves out is that the job of a truck driver has degraded even worse than the drop in wages. Every feature of the job of a truck driver has declined since deregulation.

This is explained in the following quotation.

Within two decades of deregulation conditions had deteriorated so much that Michael Belzer, a leading scholar of the industry, characterized over the road trucks as “sweatshops on wheels.” If we take into account the very long hours they work today, long haul truckers are producing twice the amount of measurable output, compared with the late 1970s, for wages that are 40 percent lower. – Steve Viscelli

This demonstrates that workers are not paid based on their productivity. Without bargaining leverage, companies take 100% of any productivity improvements and hand them over to their executives or take them in higher profits.

What the industry does not want the public or certainly drivers to know is that the turnover for truck drivers is roughly 300% per year.

Driver and Truck Safety

And the industry has eroded safety, and did so very quickly after the 1980 Motor Carriage Act. This required the following safety regulations to be passed as is explained in the following quotation.

Congress was forced to quickly pass numerous Motor Carrier Safety Acts in 1983 and 1984 to stem the tide of unsafe trucking practices by a less regulated trucking marketplace. -Every Which Way but Regulated: The “Free Market” Trucking Industry

Other Negatives of Truck Driving

  1. Truckers do not generally work 40 hours per week. Finding the average number of hours a trucker works per week seems made us arrive at 60 to 80. If we take the middle number of 70 (they are not driving all this time, some of this time is waiting — however, it is still on the job time), then allowing 2 weeks per year for vacation that means that a typical trucker has an hourly wage of $11.71. However, the more recent estimate of the average from a different article (as of 2021) is over $47,000. At 70 hours per week, this would translate to $13.42 per hour.
  2. Truck driving is not a job that convers any status to the worker.
  3. Truck driving is 10x more dangerous than a typical job. This makes sense as few jobs have the employee in nearly constant movement.
  4. Truck driving provides little social interaction and socially isolates the driver.
  5. Truck driving is an unhealthy job. Drivers are sitting for long periods of time and cannot get up and move around as in an office environment. Many truck drivers battle obesity.

Deregulation made the job of being a truck driver worse, as it led to the elimination of may hub and relay points, making a higher percentage of the drivers long haul. This is explained in the following quotation.

As a driver who left the industry in 1982 due to deregulation, I believe it is important to note how trucking got to where it is today. Prior to deregulation, most long-haul freight was relayed by companies operating a network of terminals. This allowed drivers to return home almost daily and usually work no more than a 10-hour day. Then came deregulation which lowered barriers to entry into trucking, eliminated geographical operating boundaries, and allowed for competitive pricing on rates. The result was an onslaught of individuals looking to capitalize on this new opportunity. Before long, companies that once operated a terminal network vanished in part because they were unable to support their operation in a competitive marketplace. The practice of relaying freight was replaced by new companies operating trucks with “sleeper berths” and rather than relay freight, drivers today often deliver freight directly from shipper to consignee. These “over-the-road” drivers are forced to live in their truck often for weeks at a time, work a 14-hour day every day, and work for free any time the truck is not moving.

If that’s not enough, local drivers who do return home daily and that are paid hourly often do not receive overtime. In my opinion, the fix for the industry is not just about money but being able to live a normal life. Only when companies return to relaying freight and stop demanding a grueling 70-hour workweek will driver retention be on the road to recovery. – Steven De Lisi (A comment on the New York Times Article)

All things considered, that is meager pay when considering the responsibilities that a truck driver has. That average pay includes the pay for long-distance drivers (long-distance drivers are paid more, local delivery are paid less). That means that a portion of the truck drivers, they have a job that requires them to travel and be away from their families essentially.

The quote continues.

These dreams are easily discounted as unrealistic for the vast majority of truck drivers, but the upward wage potential is a powerful motivator that exists more now than ever before.

This statement should be questioned. And yes, when the average pay of a profession is $41,000, it is quite easy to discount the “dream” of a $100,000 job. It seems that this author does not know what an average is. Every $100,000 job means there must be many jobs that pay less than $41,000 job.


$100,000 + $30,000 + $30,000 +$30,000 + $30,000 + $30,000 = $41,666


To maintain a roughly $41,666 average salary, for every one $100,000 job, there must be five $30,000 jobs in order to maintain a $41,000 average.

Why is it a powerful motivator if the percentage of truckers that make this is so low?

So a fake number of $100,000 per year can be used to deceive truck drivers into thinking that salary level is attainable? Is that the point of what this author is saying? Let us see how the promise of $100,000 per year is accepted by Baljinder Singh, who is covered in the following quotation.

Baljinder “Nick” Singh hustles out of his Burien basement apartment, fires up his Freightliner truck, and by 7 a.m. is in a Seattle freight yard, hurrying to hook up a 40-foot cargo container to his rig.

“If it takes more than five minutes you’re losing money,” Singh says.

He’ll drive without a break, running between the ports of Seattle and Tacoma and warehouses in the Kent Valley. Singh has hauled everything from Jet Skis to Angus beef.

“Every single thing that you use and see in the market is in these containers,” he says.

But by 4 p.m., there are no more loads. A promising day ends in frustration — a take of just $80, before taxes. That’s not enough for payments on the truck, or the repairs it needs after 598,000 miles. Not enough for rent and living expenses for his wife and 3-year-old daughter. – The Seattle Times

The much-reduced regulations on the trucking industry exist are flouted, and concurrently, freight was pulled off of trains and put onto trucks. This was incredibly bad for the environment, as rail transportation is second only to ocean transportation in energy efficiency. Trucking companies now market their jobs to new immigrants.

Almost half of the 147 drivers surveyed by Port Jobs spoke a language other than English at home, with 19 different languages listed. “After the trucking industry was deregulated [in the 1980s] we’ve seen a fundamental shift toward having more recent immigrants in our industry.  – The Seattle Times

The pressures of the job are now a better match for desperate immigrant workers rather than US citizens or really anyone who has more options. These are the workers whom Elon Musk might say are not “entitled.” Elon Musk, a well-known slave driver himself, also calls Chinese workers “not entitled,” distinguishing between US workers. The ultimate unentitled workers would be a slave. They have no entitlement whatsoever. (One wonders whether Elon, with a net worth in the billions, is entitled, or if only the US workers at Tesla fit Elon’s description of entitlement).

Somalian Innovative Additions to the US Trucking Industry

Due to the declining labor standards of trucking jobs, the jobs have become increasingly filled by desperate immigrants.

This is explained in the following quotation.

Missouri officials recently were preparing to send a letter to truck driver Hussein Osman, asking him to retake his commercial driver’s license test.

The reason: Missouri and federal agencies were investigating whether the driving school that Osman attended fraudulently helped provide licenses for several hundred truck drivers, many of them Somali and Bosnian immigrants.

But the 25-year-old Osman was dead before the letter went out.

He was killed in an Oct. 1 collision that also took the life of Oklahoma State Trooper William McClendon, 37. State police later said both the trucker’s and the trooper’s actions may have led to the crash.

Commercial driving license fraud has been a growing headache since the industry began to deregulate more than two decades ago. Since 1980, the number of interstate trucking firms has shot up to 564,000 from 20,000. Today there are more than 1.5 million truckers, up 200,000 from 2002, according to trucking industry estimates. – Chicago Tribune

Somalian truck drivers have come up with the innovative trick of cutting a hole through the floor of the seat of the driver’s side, so they can defecate without stopping.

Welcome to 21st-century transportation and logistics! Let it not be said that Somalians are not adding to the innovation in the US.

The Fantasy Land of Electric and Automated Trucks

While transportation and logistics have constantly been dropping their standards and behaviors, the media and investors have focused on the fantasy land of electric trucks.

Industry Publications Hide the Reasons for a Driver Shortage

With everything written up to this point, it would not be surprising if fewer people went into trucking as a profession as the job has become low paid and undesirable. However, leave it to industry publications to whitewash the decline of truck driving jobs and point to other factors. This is shown in the following quotation.

During the past 15 years, the trucking industry has struggled with a shortage of truck drivers. The shortfall was first documented in a 2005 report. At that time, the shortage was roughly 20,000. During the Great Recession that started in 2008, the driver shortage was erased, but only because industry volumes plummeted, resulting in fewer drivers needed. However, as industry volumes began to recover in 2011, the shortage slowly returned. There are many reasons for the current driver shortage, but one of the largest factors is the relatively high average age of the existing workforce. According to surveys by ATA, the average driver age in the for-hire over-the-road truckload industry is 46. – American Trucking Association

This is curious, because it presumes that the average age of a truck driver is immutable. People choose professions when they are young, and have high career switching costs. Therefore, if a job’s compensation and appeal decline, the average age of the person in that profession will tend to be high, as few younger people find the profession appealing. The opposite is true for a profession that becomes better compensated or otherwise more appealing. There is nothing stopping young people from getting into driving as a profession, and the barriers are not high to entry. However, the job is now not competitive. The ATA is funded by industry, so naturally, they are not going to point out how much the industry has degraded the appeal of working as a driver.

The quote continues.

Today, motor carriers4 struggle to find enough qualified drivers, which makes the impact of the shortage seem much worse than the numbers in this report. In 2018, the trucking industry was short roughly 60,800 drivers, which was up nearly 20% from 2017’s figure of 50,700. If current trends hold, the shortage could swell to over 160,000 by 2028.

Yes, few and fewer young workers are getting into truck driving as a profession. Therefore, as older drivers, who were lured into the profession when it was more appealing and are now playing out the string of their careers retire, the average age should continue to increase.

The quote continues.

Compounding an already challenging lifestyle, drivers often complain of mistreatment at shipping and receiving
facilities. – ATA

Yes, but trucking has always been a challenging lifestyle. But when the pay and treatement were better it was easy to find people to enter the profession. The industry has wrung out the benefits from the job since deregulation — hence the decline in interest in the job.

The quote continues.

Complaints range from restricting access to restrooms to having to wait extended periods of time before the trailer is loaded or unloaded. Improving the experience for drivers at drop-off and pickup locations would provide for a more attractive career choice. All companies in the supply chain, including trucking companies, shippers, and receivers, need to treat drivers with the respect that they deserve. When shippers and receivers reduce driver waiting times, they are increasing effective capacity. In other words, drivers, from less waiting, can drive more within the hours-of-service limits. As an example, if a driver can boost driving from 8,500 miles per month to 9,000 miles, that is an increase of 5.9%. If all drivers.

This is truly nibbling around the edges of the issue. Pay has dropped by 50% and driven protections have cratered. The issue listed above is only the most minor of the problems with driver pay and treatment.

In fact, the following quote calls out the whole claim of a “driver shortage.”

But beyond the ridiculousness of how journalists told the story, is there actually a “nationwide shortage” of truck drivers? The lobbying organization for the nation’s big trucking employers, the American Trucking Associations (ATA), has been making this argument since the 1980s, yet store shelves somehow remained stocked. In a capitalist system, where you can pay people to do basically anything, how is it even possible to have a worker shortage for multiple decades? Standard economics says if you don’t have enough workers, you raise wages and within a reasonable amount of time, presto, no more shortage. Is trucking somehow different? The big trucking companies want to secure a steady supply of cheap labor, and the ATA has spent years lobbying the federal government to loosen regulations in the industry. “It’s just simple math,” Spencer says. “If every year there are an excess of over 400,000 brand-new drivers created, how could there possibly be a shortage?” The real problem, Spencer says, is not a shortage but retention. According to the ATA’s own statistics, the average annual turnover rate for long-haul truckers at big trucking companies has been greater than 90% for decades. That means, for example, if a company has 10 truckers, nine will be gone within a year or, equivalently, three of their driver positions will have to each be refilled three times in a single year because so many new drivers leave within a few months. – NPR

Industry sources like to say that trucking is a demanding job, and that is why the turnover is so high. However, the turnover in trucking was not always high. The following quotation describes the very low level of turnover in the US in trucking prior to deregulation.

There were few, if any jobs that drew such workers away from the trucking industry, and this resulted in little need for companies to recruit and train new labor. – Steve Viscelli

This quote shows the dishonest of trucking industry sources. They are taking advantage of the lack of historical knowledge of their audience when they make it appear that turnover has been a long-term feature of the trucking industry.

And this video covers false claims made by trucking companies.

And the following quote describes the miserable condition of trucking jobs.

“We have millions of people who have been trained to be heavy-duty truck drivers who are currently not working as heavy-duty truck drivers because the entry-level jobs are terrible,” says Steve Viscelli, a sociologist at the University of Pennsylvania who studies the trucking industry. During a time when outsourcing and automation have eroded opportunities for blue-collar workers, millions of Americans have been enticed into giving driving a try. But, Viscelli says, the business practices of the big trucking companies burn them out fast. – NPR

This is of course something ATA and other industry sources do not want anyone to know.


Deregulation created a long-term decline in the standards of the trucking industry to the point where the job is poorly paid for the work involved and unappealing, causing a high degree of turnover of truck drivers. This has created what the industry calls a “driver shortage.” This is the cover story to prevent the public and potential and current truck drivers from understanding the full degree to which trucking companies and the industry overall has debased the job of truck driver. The industry employs economists and authors who produce content that gaslight the public into preventing the full extent of the decline of standards in the trucking industry from being known. This has also led the industry to call for a further reduction in standards to combat the “labor shortage.”

Note #4: (This article has focused on the US trucking market. However, deregulation and an influx of Eastern European drivers have led to similar declines in standards in the EU trucking market.)

Other Interesting Quotes on this Topic

In the early days of trucking, truckers often toiled long hours for low pay. But by the 1950s they had organized across much of the nation. Those collective efforts, along with the government regulation of the industry, which began during the New Deal, made trucking good, well compensated work. From the 1950s to the late 1970s, when the industry was deregulated, truckers were the best paid and most powerful segment of the US working class. – Steve Viscelli

Commenter on Elite Control Over Societies

The “free market” religion that the rich have converted many Americans into believing is centralizing wealth and power in the hands of a FEW THOUSAND PEOPLE that CONTROL more than half of the world’s wealth. Half of everything: money, land, machinery, 75% of stocks (to control decision making), etc. Again: HALF OF EVERYTHING!
The very people who keep telling us that centralizing control of the economy is evil have centralized the economy under their them. They own controlling shares all of global mass media, and have gotten the Supreme Court to make their corporations super citizens, and their money into speech. – McGloin, Commenter on New York Times article. 

On the Tiered Employment System

One of the villains in this piece is the rise of the independent contractor system. This is a scourge across a wide variety of industries. Big tech firms are huge abusers. Take Microsoft. They have tiers of employees, even down to which level of the Microsoft store you can shop at! The independent contractors have no benefits and limits to the months they can work before the job ends and they can’t be rehired (IF they are rehired) for 6 months. They shop on the 1st floor of the Microsoft Store. Regular employees, hard positions to get, can shop on the Second Floor of the Microsoft Store. VIP’s are the only ones who can shop on the Third Floor. Those with the super high wages get the super duper deals. This is how big business wants our country’s workers stratified. Those who support right wing legislators and judges – THIS is the system you have been enabling across all industries. Those of you confined to the First Floor of the American Store – stop voting for the GOP who wants to bar you from the 2nd Floor. – DB, Commenter on New York Times article. 

How Similar Problem Affect Canadian Raid Workers

The trucking sector is hardly unique in its exploitation of workers within the transportation industry. I am a locomotive engineer with a major Class I railway here in Canada. Like truckers, I’m paid on a per mile basis which means that I’m not remunerated unless the wheels are moving. This has many damaging implications. A 12 hour trip is paid the same as a 6 hour trip. Because of dead time spent at away from home terminals, round trips usually equate to around 36 hours, most of that time essentially unpaid. The company harangues workers to work, three 36 hour trips per week not being abnormal. Everyone operates on an on call basis with no structured or reliable schedule by which the worker can gauge when he or she will be required for duty. Most workers are subject to duty periods that run 24/7, time off only for mandated rest, vacation, or an “earned day off” accrued after 30 days of no absences, taken at the company’s discretion on days allotted to the worker. Fatigue becomes a major factor very quickly, and, over time, general health breaks down. In my terminal alone, over 80 employees of working age have fatally succumbed to illness over the past decade, a horrific rate of attrition. – Marcus Brandt, Commenter on New York Times article.