Is a trucker’s life expectancy really 61?
For years, there's been a statistic tossed about the trucking industry that the average trucker can expect to die at the extraordinarily young age of 61. That statistic is supposedly based on "fact" and supported by "current research" and
actual studies." Here's how that statistic was born, then generalized and mislabeled, and why giving it too much credibility is wrong.

By Sandi Soendker, editor-in-chief

Trucking is a hard job. It’s stressful and it’s dangerous. Could a hefty list of risks related to the job result in early health problems for truckers? Or even worse, early death? If so, does anyone know how early?

OOIDA has long been interested in how job risk relates to truckers’ health. A former employee of OOIDA’s research arm did some digging back in 2003 and found scores of active members who died at an early age. The problem was, the Association’s records were based on only several hundred members of the Association, and those numbers were gathered on data from people still actively trucking when they died.

Health risks and early death concerns also caught the interest of the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health, or NIOSH, which is part of the Centers for Disease Control. In 2000, Dr. Michael Belzer wrote a book called “Sweatshop on Wheels” exposing deplorable and dangerous working conditions for truckers. Belzer hosted a conference in 2003 on truck driver safety and health and co-authored a NIOSH report in 2007, pointing out that truckers must deal with a wide array of occupational dangers resulting in high morbidity and mortality rates.

Where did the ‘61’ come from?
A journal called Environmental Health Perspectives published a study in August 2007. Harvard Medical School’s Francine Laden, Jaime E. Hart, Thomas J. Smith, Mary E. Davis and Eric Garshick used records from four national trucking companies to identify about 54,000 male employees employed in 1985. It’s critical to note that trucks are much cleaner than they were when this study began in 1985 and concluded in 2000.

The study looked at drivers whose average year of hire was 1974. About 34 percent of them started working in 1966, and as many as 16 percent of them started trucking before then.

Truckers in this study likely began trucking in the mid-’60s, when diesel trucks were filthy and more drivers smoked tobacco. Hours for LTL drivers were irregular. Most drivers with regular hours worked a night shift as well, which research has shown contributes to significant health risks.

The study examined rates of cause-specific mortality compared to the general U.S. population and found elevated rates for lung cancer and ischemic heart disease among these LTL unionized workers. The “age 61” statistic likely first stemmed from this report.

The Harvard study stated the average age of death of this group was 61.9 years. It did not establish the life expectancy.

Every researcher I’ve talked to has been adamant about the confusion in use of the terms “median (or average) age of death” – which is routinely reported – and “life expectancy.” These two terms are not the same and one does not imply the other.

Fuel to the fire
The “age 61” stat might have become just one more moment in transportation research history if not for a huge mistake that perpetuated the “truckers die early” theory.

A March 2008 edition of The Roemer Report, a trucking insurance industry journal, published an article that despite being wildly inaccurate was given instant credibility.

The report discussed the results of a “new study by Toronto researcher,” Dr. Martin Moore-Ede. Dr. Moore-Ede was reported to have found that truck drivers have a 10- to 15-year lower life expectancy than the average American male who lives to age 76. The Roemer Report suggested that the study may serve as a “wake-up call for truckers whose lifestyle, with its stressful conditions, meals on the go, and lack of exercise, contributes to the lower life expectancy.”

It gave fuel to the fire in a big way, but was thoroughly inaccurate. We don’t know how The Roemer Report got that wrong, but Dr. Moore-Ede did no such study.

Dr. Moore-Ede flatly says the article was incorrect. He said Internet users had perpetuated the error for more than 10 years. He told a couple of reporters – including me – that he had never done such a study and was not, in fact, a Toronto researcher. Dr. Moore-Ede is on the staff at Harvard Medical School. Still, the info continued to be passed along like a fruitcake at Christmas.

Other incidents that perpetuate the statistic include one that happened in November 2010 at a conference on driver health held in Baltimore. FMCSA Administrator Anne Ferro quoted that misconstrued 61 statistic, citing the CDC as the source. She’s not the only fed to use it. In the same year, DOT Secretary Ray LaHood cited the CDC as saying the life expectancy for a truck driver is 61.

In all likelihood, those who use this “61 life expectancy” are tossing out a reference to the one Harvard study (Laden et al), even though the sample is drawn from an earlier generation, comes from LTL drivers and didn’t establish life expectancy at all.

So what is the real average life expectancy of a trucker?
No one really knows. No study has been large enough or specific enough to reveal a reliable life expectancy for truck drivers. And remember, all truckers are not alike.

In fact, owner-operators may have less risk of schedule-related stress because many of them control their schedules better than company drivers are able to do and spend less time on the docks. Yet they were not included in the Harvard study. Until 2010, owner-operators had never been studied at all.

Epidemiologists – the people who study health trends in specific groups – found them a hard group to isolate or study because so many factors may be at work. While there seems to be a lot of info out there that appears to say truck drivers are at increased risk for specific diseases and road accidents, no one knows if owner-operators have the same risk as employed drivers.

In 2010, a CDC/NIOSH study was published by the American Association of Occupational Health Nurses Journal titled “Mortality Among Members of a Truck Driver Trade Association.” This study by CDC/NIOSH used some stats gleaned from OOIDA records on deceased members.

It’s notable that this study identified the leading causes of death of owner-operator truckers as heart disease and lung cancer – similar to the Harvard study’s finding. However, it found that the risk of them dying from heart disease appeared not to be significantly greater than the general population – despite the sedentary life style and stressful work conditions. The study found that the risk of lung cancer was the same as in the general population.

It did find that owner-operator truckers were more likely to die on the job than normal workers. No surprise there.

One researcher recently said to me, “It makes sense that the conditions of the job might contribute to a diminished life expectancy; we just don’t know what it is.”

No solid study has measured it in a way that can be generalized across the entire commercial driver population. Researchers tell me this would require a large study (following the people until death) collecting information on truck drivers’ age-specific death rates and would result in tables similar to those used to determine life expectancy for insurance purposes, etc. 

So until we know more, let’s stop giving absolute credibility to this “death at age 61.”

It’s a claim that unfortunately serves only to justify all the health requirements raining down on truckers. Perpetuating it as “fact” is sensationalist and can’t be all that reassuring to the next generation of trucking professionals.

We know that truckers still work too many hours and face too many health challenges. But let’s quit scaring everyone with that death threat and, instead, renew our focus on whittling away at that list of stressors that put truckers at risk. LL

Acknowledgments: Thanks to OOIDA research assistant Andrew King and the staff of the OOIDA Foundation for assisting me in my research. Thanks, also, to Dr. Karl Sieber of NIOSH; Dr. Michael Belzer, associate professor in the economics department at Wayne State University; Dr. Martin Moore-Ede of the Harvard Medical School; and a number of other researchers who provided various leads and insights.