Improved Safety Key to Getting Women Drivers

Improved Safety Key to Getting Women Drivers

Trucking industry officials have been concerned for years about the driver shortage. But one possible solution — recruiting more women drivers — can’t happen without help from Congress, one industry official said.

The American Trucking Associations estimates that there is a shortage of 80,000 drivers nationwide. That gap could hit 160,000 by 2030.

The industry has proposed a number of solutions, including raising driver pay, letting 18- to 21-year-olds drive and making it easier for military veterans to get licensed. Autonomous trucks are another idea to help ease the burden of finding drivers.

Another clear avenue for addressing the shortage: recruiting more women to become truck drivers. Between 8% and 10% of truck drivers today are women, obviously a much lower percentage than women’s 51% makeup of the general population.

Desiree Wood, the founder of Real Women in Trucking of Lake Worth, Florida, said women have shown growing interest in becoming truck drivers but many are driven out of the industry in the early stages because of sexual harassment and assault. She said women are especially vulnerable during the training phase of driving, when trainees are often paired with an experienced driver-mentor.

A separate organization, the Women in Trucking Association of Plover, Wisconsin, conducted a survey in 2021 examining safety and harassment. The results showed that 42% of respondents had either been harassed or knew someone who had been harassed by a trainer of the opposite gender. 

Two-thirds of the respondents were women and about 75% were long-haul drivers. Long-haul drivers would be ones most vulnerable to harassment away from home when trips can be days or even weeks long.

The Women in Trucking Association survey showed that among women respondents safety and family time were the top issues to address in order to bring more women into the workforce. 

“While industry stakeholders’ principal goal should be to minimize workplace inequities by changing the dynamics of their institutional cultures, they must also crack down on the top areas where gender bias and harassment are perpetuated,” WIT said in its report. “Implementing same-gender training represents an ideal place to start. Driver training often requires spending long periods with a member of the opposite gender alone, including sleeping in the truck cab.”

Wood founded Real Women in Trucking in 2010 to combat sexual harassment and assault against women in the trucking industry. She wants the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration to be more forceful in holding trucking companies accountable.

“We delivered a petition to FMCSA to take immediate action on this in 2019,” Wood said. “That led us to being able to get a meeting in Washington, D.C., on this. Unfortunately we learned that they don’t do anything unless Congress tells them to do something. That is where we are trying to get some legislation now. 

“Unfortunately, we are working with a dysfunctional Congress. All we can do is keep trying. If we can raise this issue enough … people can start understanding it better.”

Wood said the issue gets “convoluted” because of mixed messaging by other lobbying groups. The idea that women are at risk when they are on the road at a truck stop or overnight hotel is misleading, Wood said, because the biggest threat can be the predatory trainer in the cab with the novice driver.

“You’re considered a prey,” Wood said. “You’re like fresh meat. There is a lot of retaliation once you report it. It is a big problem. If it’s a company that has hundreds of complaints and lawsuits, then we all need to take a look at it.”

The U.S. Department of Labor hosted a Day of Action event in April to combat sexual harassment and assault in the industry. The Biden administration called on the industry to improve its response to and prevention of sexual harassment and assault.

Trainees are especially vulnerable because the trainer driver has enormous influence over their job status, whether they get a full-time job or a good route.

“There were hardly any trucking companies that attended,” Wood said. “We unfortunately didn’t get down to the very specific issue that this is happening in the early days and early weeks of training. You have a lot of people coming in who within the first four months are gone. They are their most vulnerable. 

“The isolation is a big thing. They are totally reliant on this one person who is going to take them 2,000 miles from anything that is familiar.”