(CBS) — America’s trucking industry is facing a severe driver shortage. One estimate says about 48,000 drivers are needed to move 70 percent of the nation’s goods.
Companies are aggressively recruiting retirees. Drivers more than 65 years old make up about 10 percent of commercial vehicle operators in the U.S. A five month investigation by CBS News looks at how the increase in older drivers translates to potential danger on the nation’s highways.
This trend is a result of the recent downturn in the economy, reports CBS News correspondent Kris Van Cleave. Individuals are working well past the retirement age of 65. But as the industry has changed, the rules of the roads have not kept up with the times — raising the question: Is more screening needed for commercial drivers?
It was supposed to be a celebration for the Hooks family, driving from Oklahoma City to St. Louis in the summer of 2009 to see Ronnie become an elder at his church. But on I-44 near the state line, traffic slowed to a crawl.
“I was on the phone with them when it happened on that day, and the phone just went dead,” Ronnie said.
The semi driven by 76-year-old Donald Creed rolled on top of three cars, killing 10, including Hooks’ parents and two brothers.
On Aug. 19 in Newark, New Jersey, a bus was T-boned by another N.J. Transit bus driven by a 70-year-old. Two people died.
Days later, on Aug. 25, a truck hauling stones driven by a 74-year-old slammed into traffic in a construction zone in Binghamton, New York. Ten were hurt.
A CBS News analysis of crash data reveals a 19 percent increase in accidents involving commercial truck and bus drivers in their 70s, 80s and even 90s, in just the last three years. From 2013 to 2015, there were more than 6,636 involving elderly drivers in 12 states alone.
Oklahoma Highway Patrol Lt. James Loftis investigated the collision that tore apart the Hooks family. As head of the accident investigation unit, he’s noticed an increasing number of crashes involving older commercial drivers.
“The industry is looking for truck drivers. There’s a shortage in truck drivers. So they’re not going to self-regulate. The only way that that could be done is on the federal level,” Loftis said.
Rose McMurray was senior executive at the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration in the ‘90s. That’s when the agency, recognizing reaction time and stamina become compromised with age, considered implementing regular skills tests for older commercial drivers.
“It clearly can result in a lot of political backlash… so state governments have grappled with this, the federal government has grappled with this…because the age discrimination laws really intervene,” McMurray said.
The initiative was shelved because of the labor shortage and a lack of age restrictions. Trucking schools are now actively recruiting seniors, promising good benefits and money to supplement retirement.
We hired a 70-year-old former Texas state trooper and sent him with a hidden camera to Roadmaster, a school recruiting retirees.
“Is there an age limit or anything on this?” he asked the recruiter.
“There is not,” the recruiter said.
“Trucking is just — it’s a different kind of industry and environment. They like women any age, men of any age. As long as you are physically able to get behind that wheel and drive that truck,” the recruiter added. “We had two ladies, they were probably in their 80s.”
The company defended its policy. Dusty Cushard is the director of their Pennsylvania school. He says FMCSA, the agency regulating the trucking industry, does not prohibit training older drivers, and it’s against federal law to discriminate based on age.
“I follow the FMCSA guidelines… There’s no age on it. They pass the physical and everything, and they want to drive,” Cushard said.
FMCSA deputy administrator Daphne Jefferson acknowledges the increase in older commercial drivers. Her agency is now studying the trend.
“We are not quite at the point yet where we are ready to say one way or another if there needs to be a change in driver rules for, say, drivers over 65,” Jefferson said.
But Washington’s deliberations come too late for the Hooks family.
“We have all had to learn how to deal with it and deal with the recurring memories and the pain of not having them,” Ronnie said.
The driver of the truck that killed the Hooks family was charged with negligent homicide.
The aviation industry is also facing a shortage of pilots, but it has a mandatory retirement age of 65.
An association representing independent truck drivers said, while there are more commercial drivers over 70, “the greater majority of truck-related crashes are not caused by truckers, but are instead caused by other drivers.”