It’s no secret that the trucking industry is currently weathering a dearth of capable drivers.

The American Trucking Association reiterated as much last year when it announced a shortage of 30,000 qualified drivers — a shortage forecast to rise to 200,000 over the next 10 years. Between factors like attrition to other trades to decreasing wages to tighter CDL regulations, it’s a tide the industry has been fighting for years.

We started to see turnover increase early in 2011, and it has been a challenge since then,” Steve Gordon, CEO of Gordon Trucking, told the Business Examiner last year, not long after the Pacific-based company was acquired by Iowa’s Heartland Express. “Really, driver turnover has been a huge challenge for the industry, except for 2008 to 2010 when the economy was most challenged.”

A year later, that challenge is being compounded by more federal government regulations, this time designed to tighten medical screening for drivers. 

“New regulations went into effect last May,” explained Mike Southards, safety director at the Federal Way-based Washington Trucking Association. “Now, for a doctor to be able to conduct a DOT (Department of Transportation) physical, he has to go through training. Once he completes the training, he receives a medical registry number, and that number has to be on all medical forms that he completes. Before, you could go to your own private doctor and get a physical, but that’s not the case any longer.”

That training program includes guidelines for, among other things, sleep apnea, the respiratory disorder in which breathing repeatedly pauses or slows during sleep. Congress mandated sleep apnea testing for commercial drivers in the early 90s, Southards said, though enforcement of the rule has often been lacking.

“Well, after that medical registry training, every one of those doctors is now looking for potential warning signs for sleep apnea, when in the past, a lot of doctors didn’t even touch on it,” Southards said.

There was very little opposition to the medical registry when it first came up, according to Southards; in fact, he said, there was initial concern that there wouldn’t be enough doctors signed up in the state. But now, the added hassle and fear of a sleep apnea diagnosis is keeping drivers from renewing their credentials.

“All of our drivers have to have a medical (exam) every two years, and more and more drivers are going to be eliminated because of the new requirements. Some of them don’t want to deal with it anymore,” said Stan Vander Pol, president of Federal Way’s Peninsula Truck Lines. 

The company employs 200 drivers and has been gradually working its way back to its pre-recession revenue numbers since 2010, according to Vander Pol.

And with another slight growth year projected in 2015, the driver shortage is weighing on Vander Pol’s mind.

“Now what’s happening is, if a doctor goes in, gives you a physical and says you meet these five requirements as a high risk for sleep apnea, you’re going to have to have a test,” he explained. “And if that test finds that you have sleep apnea, you’re going to have to wear and use a CPAP (continuous positive airway pressure) machine while you sleep at night. And there’s a little card that you’ll have to download information from so they can verify that you’re using it.

“Well, if a driver says, ‘I don’t want to use that thing,’ the doctor will say, ‘I’m not going to qualify you to drive.’ We’re clipping the top of our older drivers (demographic), since sleep apnea and other things they regulate like blood pressure are more a problem for them. That’s going to reduce the amount of people that are able to drive.” 

“I’m sure there’s probably some drivers that have decided to quit driving because of all of the new regulations,” added Southards. “They’re tired of it. It’s change. Our industry doesn’t like change.”

Asked if the concern over testing is warranted, Southards pointed to statistics and probabilities.

“It depends on whose numbers you believe,” Southards said. “(National trucking company) Schneider National did a study years ago, and they figured 28 percent of their drivers had sleep apnea.

“Is it prevalent? Yes, I think it is, but I can’t give you a number for sure. If you think about it, if you snore, if you smoke, if you’re overweight, if you’re neck size is bigger than seven inches or if you have a body mass of more than 35, there’s a chance you have sleep apnea. 

“Well,” Southards laughed wryly. “How many truck drivers have you seen lately?”

He added that, on the whole, he does believe that having a trained, registered roster of doctors watching over the driver pool is a positive development.

“The medical registry is really a good thing, because it will give a lot more consistency to the drivers’ physicals,” said Southards. “I think that it will help, not just the driving part, but also drivers’ quality of life if they find out they have sleep apnea or anything else. But it is an added hassle, and for some people, it’s enough.

“And it’s a valid concern for trucking companies, absolutely. With the shortage the way it is, they don’t want to lose anybody. It’s not just the sleep apnea — there’s other regulations coming in … But it’s making a difference, and while the regulations are, in general, good, I think they’re still impacting the shortage in a negative way.”

Unfortunately, according to Southards, there doesn’t appear to be swift resolution.

“I think it’s going to be an ongoing concern,” he said. “Our workforce is getting older, and we’re not really seeing younger people get into it. So anything that’s adding to the driver shortage, well, I think that’s something we need to keep watching.”