More than a year after the U.S. was forced into lockdown by the pandemic, Americans are taking to the road again, whether returning to work or taking long-delayed vacations — but travel plans could be disrupted in the months ahead due to the possibility of gasoline shortages.
Unlike the twin oil shocks of the 1970s, petroleum today is in abundant supply. What has become scarce are the drivers needed to get fuel from refineries to service stations. According to one trade group, almost one-quarter of the country’s tanker trucks are currently idled because there’s no one to put behind the wheel.
“Trucking’s driver shortage already exceeds 50,000 drivers,” wrote National Tank Truck Carriers, an industry trade group, in a recent report. That’s only part of the problem, the NTTC adds.
“The trucking industry’s workforce shortage is not confined to drivers alone,” the group said. “Trucking companies also require dispatchers and back office staff. Trained mechanics are also in short supply. Tank truck operations face further critical shortages of registered inspectors and design-certified engineers who can inspect and repair cargo tank truck trailers.”
When the pandemic hit, America went into lockdown. Millions lost their jobs and many more started working from home. The travel industry took a big hit while traffic in major markets like Los Angeles, Chicago and New York fell by as much as 80 percent through the spring, according to tracking service TomTom.
For those who were still on the road, the good news was that fuel prices dropped to as little as $1 a gallon in some parts of the country. But prices have been on the rise as more and more Americans have begun driving again. More Americans traveled by car over the Easter and Passover holidays than during any holiday since the pandemic began. On Wednesday, AAA reported that the average motorist is now paying $2.88 for a gallon of unleaded regular. And experts forecast the upward trend will continue.
There have already been spot shortages in Florida, Arizona and Missouri due to a lack of tank truck drivers — and what is more concerning is that it could become harder to find fuel, especially over the upcoming summer holidays.
Truck drivers, in general, have been in increasingly short supply in recent years. Older drivers are retiring and, facing long hours and relatively low pay, it has been difficult to recruit new ones, said the American Trucking Associations, an industry trade group. The ATA has warned of a “significant tightening of the driver market” that shows sign of only growing worse.
Turnover is a rising challenge for the industry, the ATA said. It rose to 94 percent for large truck carriers during the first quarter of this year, up 20 percentage points from the first quarter of 2017. The rate varies from one company to another and depending upon the type of cargo drivers handle, but data shows that about 70 percent of tanker drivers quit the business or changed jobs during the pandemic.
Complicating matters is the fact that not everyone licensed to haul an 18-wheeler can operate a tank truck. Beyond the basic commercial license, a driver needs to get additional certification considering the dangerous loads they’ll be hauling.
Then, early last year, a new federal registry debuted. It identified drivers who have had issues with alcohol or drugs. As many as 60,000 of them are no longer available as a result.
With so many tanker trucks sitting idle, experts warn that the situation could get worse as summer sets in and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention loosens travel guidelines as more Americans get vaccinated. It wouldn’t be the first time motorists have found pumps running dry, but unlike the 1970s, there’s a plentiful supply of petroleum — just no way to get it to service stations.