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Who pays when a truck driver dies on the road?

While recruiters are always searching for skilled truck drivers and using sign-on bonuses and paying incentives to attract drivers to come work for their trucking companies, there’s little mention of what happens to the expenses — and who pays for them — if the driver suffers a medical emergency or dies in a fatal crash while under a load. 

That’s because there’s no federal mandate by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration requiring trucking companies to pay the expenses when a driver — who is often thousands of miles from home — dies on the road for any reason unless there’s a contractual agreement in place.

Although owner-operators say they know all too well of the financial hardship that a death on the road could cause their families, some independent contractors leased to large fleets and company drivers say they wrongly assumed the carriers would pay their expenses if they died on the road.

Robert Palm, a 43-year trucking veteran and founder of Truckers Final Mile, says he’s heard just about every excuse in the book why some executives of small carriers and mega fleets can’t — or won’t — pay the costs to help bring a deceased driver home.

And with today’s freight environment, some owner-operators and small to midsize fleets are operating on razor-thin margins, which puts an additional strain on nonprofits like Palm’s organization to pay the expenses to get a deceased truck driver home to their grieving family.

While some trucking companies are quick to retrieve their equipment and freight, Palm said, the carriers often send grieving families to Truckers Final Mile, which relies solely on donations, to deal with the logistical arrangements and expenses of these tragedies.

Palm — who runs the charity from the cab of his truck — counts on other volunteers from the trucking industry who are passionate about the mission they embarked on nearly nine years ago. 

Over the past few years, nonprofit organizations like Truckers Final Mile have struggled to stay afloat — first, it was the pandemic-related cancellation of in-person trucking events in 2020 and 2021, and now it’s falling freight rates and economic uncertainties in the industry — because some donors have had to rethink their budgets. 

“I interact with CEOs of companies that make hundreds of thousands of dollars a year, operate brand-new equipment, but can’t or won’t fork over $2,500 to bring their deceased drivers home,” Palm said in a previous interview with FreightWaves. “But then these same CEOs will turn around and spend thousands on recruiting ads and photo ops to show how well they treat their drivers. It’s unacceptable.”

While he never names the carriers, Palm doesn’t mince words when he and other members of his group chip in funds from their own pockets to pay transportation expenses for deceased drivers of some of the mega fleets in North America that posted billions of dollars in revenue last year. 

“I had a company owner tell me one time that his deceased driver was his best driver and he thought of this driver like a son,” Palm told FreightWaves. 

He noted that the owner’s fleet had the newest trucks on the market, and they “were decked out to the max” in chrome and chicken lights. 

“If this driver was like a son to the owner, I thought, ‘Why are you calling Truckers Final Mile to pay the expenses to get him home?’” Palm said. “If you send a driver out on the road to work but you can’t afford to get the driver home if something happens — or to help his family that sacrificed everything to help you build your successful business — you shouldn’t be in my industry.”  

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics website states that professional truck drivers have one of the highest rates of injuries and illnesses of all occupations because of the potential for traffic crashes on highways. Truck drivers also have one of the highest rates of fatalities of all occupations.

In 2022, Palm’s charity, a 501(c)(3), helped the families of about 90 drivers, including many military veterans who went into the trucking industry after serving their country.

The past few years have taken a toll on Palm and his small group of volunteers who work behind the scenes with medical examiners’ offices to get death certificates, coordinate arrangements with funeral homes and speak with grief-stricken families. 

Palm said his group often makes 14 or more phone calls to arrange transportation and navigate government red tape. In some cases, it can drag the process out for weeks or even months for all the toxicology and other reports to be completed so a medical examiner can issue a death certificate.

“These families often can’t access funds or insurance policies without the driver’s death certificate so we know how important our assistance is to help them,” he said. “If we are called to help, we don’t ask about insurance policies or if a GoFundMe has been set up to help cover costs. We don’t care. Good on them if people are willing to help them financially. They’ve just suffered a huge loss.”

Some carriers have internal programs that work to get their deceased drivers home. However, Palm said those drivers must enroll and agree to have weekly deductions taken out of their pay to cover those “just-in-case” transportation costs that they will hopefully never need.

However, driver orientation with a new carrier can be overwhelming, Palm said, and sometimes those critical boxes go unchecked or families assume the trucking companies are responsible to get their loved ones home if tragedy strikes on the road.

Palm said he would like to see the industry come together and treat its deceased truck drivers like the military provides for its soldiers. He would like industry stakeholders to create a policy so there’s no gap in coverage if you leave a company and immediately sign on with another carrier.

One situation stands out to Palm, a veteran who served in the 101st Airborne Division of the U.S. Army from 1975 to 1980.

“A driver who served two tours in Afghanistan decided to become a truck driver,” Palm said. “After spending several years hauling dry freight, this driver decided he wanted to pull tankers and haul hazardous materials but the company he was with for six or seven years didn’t have tankers.”

To advance his career and boost his pay to provide for his family, he signed on with a new tanker company.

“The driver was told at orientation that his benefits would kick in after 90 days,” Palm said. “This two-tour military veteran died on his 82nd day in his truck. I called his old company and his new company. Both said he didn’t qualify for any benefits so we helped get this man home to his family. This shouldn’t happen in an $800 billion industry.”

Death on the road: Families often struggle to get truckers home
Trucker charity helps bring deceased drivers home