Among the most frustrating occurrences that can happen while trucking is one that can almost never be planned for: traffic jams and congestion.

But what are the causes of traffic congestion? How can drivers prevent or avoid them? We know that along with the frustration comes the stress and safety concerns caused by traffic congestion. But did you know that traffic jams also cost the United States economy over $179 billion annually due to delays and supply chain disruptions?

So what can fleet managers do to ensure their drivers are equipped and prepared if they find themselves stuck in traffic? It comes down to understanding why these jams happen in the first place and how to avoid them. We’ll be covering the impacts and preventative measures you can take to ease the pain that comes with traffic jams and congestion.

What causes traffic congestion?

Depending on location and causes, there are two types of congestion. The first is recurring, which refers to roads that don’t have the capacity to accommodate traffic at specific times of day, namely rush hours. The other is non-recurring, which refers to congestion caused by weather, accidents, or human-caused incidents. In either scenario, traffic jams can impact your trucking operations and your bottom line by creating delays, supply chain disruptions, potential loss of revenue, and unhappy customers.

Environmental issues

One major cause of traffic jams is weather events that directly affect the commute. According to the Department of Transportation (DOT), about 15% of traffic congestion cases are the result of bad weather.

Oftentimes, lane submersion caused by flooding or snow accumulation and windblown debris cause major reductions in traffic capacity. Additionally, roadway accessibility can also be impacted by closures and restrictions due to hazardous conditions, such as large trucks attempting to travel in high winds.

Another result of environmental issues is poor traffic flow. The DOT also states that on wet pavement, reductions in speed can range from 10-25% and from 30-40% on snowy pavement. These can lead to a reduction in arterial mobility and generally cause severe delays.

Snow, ice, and fog create an estimated 23% of non-recurrent highway delays across the nation. That amounts to about 544 million vehicle hours of delay annually. Freeways also see their fair share of delays, with environmental issues causing average speed to decline anywhere from 3-40% as a result of rain, snow, and low visibility.

Vehicle breakdowns

Vehicular events, such as crashes, breakdowns, and debris on the road are the leading cause of traffic congestion. Primarily, these incidents cause traffic lanes to be blocked physically; however, these events also lead to distracted driving, which negatively impacts overall traffic flow. Even breakdowns off the roadway can cause rubbernecking that decreases the flow of traffic.

According to Agero Insights, an estimated 150 million people sit in traffic caused by breakdowns annually (at about 120 million hours). Additionally, the cost of congestion delays is right around $2 billion.

Human interference

This brings us to human interference, which is too common a cause of traffic jams. Dangerous scenarios can include drunk driving, drowsy driving, speeding, or being distracted while driving, like using a cell phone.

A 2016 study by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) showed that on a daily basis, 21% of fatal collisions were a result of drunk driving, while speed-related incidents accounted for 27% of fatalities.

Additionally, distracted driving can also lead to abrupt or reactive braking, which triggers a ripple effect. One brake tap can cause that lane, and surrounding lanes, to experience slow traffic for hours. This is called a “phantom traffic jam” because there’s absolutely nothing that actually caused the congestion outside of the random, unnecessary brake tap.

The phantom traffic jam goes from being silly to serious, however, when the last-minute braking causes a fender bender. Now we’re experiencing the pain of vehicular breakdowns and human interference all at once.

Infrastructure failures

From potholes to bottlenecks in overpopulated roadways, infrastructure failures also cause major traffic congestion, which wastes delivery time and fuel for trucking businesses.

Insufficient infrastructure can be the result of roads that are too small to accommodate heavy traffic, construction to repair overused roads, and wear and tear on said roads that cause potholes. These potholes, in turn, cause heavy traffic and bottlenecks as people brake to avoid them. According to the DOT, a whopping 40% of traffic congestion is caused by bottlenecks.

The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) has given the grade of a C-minus to the United States’ general infrastructure, citing that many of the nation’s roads, dams, levees, and other water systems are in poor to mediocre condition. An outstanding concern is the country’s aging bridges. In the U.S., 42% of bridges are over 50 years old, and over 46,000 of them have been deemed “structurally deficient.”

In general, the ASCE has stated that the U.S. is spending half of what’s necessary to create effective, long-term improvements to our infrastructure; as a result, this will cause a loss upwards of $10 trillion in economic growth.

It’s estimated that it costs every American household over $3,000 due to lost time and increased fuel consumption as a result of sitting in traffic, and having to repair vehicles victim to poor road conditions.

However, there’s hope with regard to the U.S. infrastructure. In November 2021, the U.S. passed a $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill to improve the country’s roads, bridges, pipes, and ports, meaning poor infrastructure across the U.S. will be repaired in the years to come.

How does traffic congestion impact trucking and the transportation industry?

While getting stuck in traffic is an inconvenience, the financial impact is more serious. It’s estimated that traffic congestion increases the cost of conducting business by billions of dollars annually. Time is money; so for every hour lost in traffic, that’s a direct impact on the bottom line for fleet owners and drivers. In 2016, that time amounted to about 425,000 drivers parked consistently for the entire year (a total of 1.2 billion hours of delay).

For example, delayed deliveries force overtime pay, cause a spike in operating costs, and of course, lead to drops in productivity. Additionally, the growth of traffic congestion directly impacts the supply chain by adding to the total transport costs for delivered goods, causing businesses to completely reimagine location, shipment size, and other factors that affect revenue. Finally, driver fatigue is no myth. Traffic jams and congestion lead to drowsy driving, which according to NHTSA, costs society a whopping $109 billion annually excluding property damage.

Unfortunately, there’s not much light at the end of the tunnel. In just four years, the number of vehicles on the road increased by almost 9%.

So if traffic isn’t going away, what’s there to do about it?

Tips for avoiding congested areas

Despite the woes of traffic congestion, modern technology has made it possible to provide drivers with alternate routes to avoid these snarls via dynamic routing.

Dynamic routing can also help fleet managers relay instructions regarding the best trucking routes to their drivers, to improve delivery times and efficiency. Additionally, dynamic routing also stores reference data regarding common bottlenecks to inform future route decisions.

In some cases, investing in 24/7 traffic monitoring services may be beneficial as they can provide instant updates on time and weather. This type of information can help drivers avoid accidents and risky weather conditions.

Finally, global positioning system (GPS) technology provides the most efficient method of real-time planning. GPS tracking allows drivers to see the current position of their vehicle as it relates to surrounding traffic, and to avoid any jams ahead. GPS tracking also allows drivers to take the best possible route to their final destination while avoiding any obstructions along the way.

How to use Motive to avoid traffic jams and congestion

Motive’s fleet management software provides visibility and can reduce travel times with our real-time GPS tracking, along with proactive maintenance, fuel optimization, driver safety, efficient workflows, and compliance all in one place.

Our best-in-class GPS solution accounts for many of the unique complexities faced by drivers every day. For example, our Fleet View provides breakthrough tools to dispatch faster with optimized routes, weather details, and traffic information; with Motive, reduce out-of-route miles and get to the final destination with more cost-efficiency.

See, access, and track your fleet while maximizing trucking productivity with instant alerts and automated reports. With our Live Location Sharing tool, Motive provides exceptional customer experiences by allowing dispatchers to communicate live location, accurate ETAs, and real-time alerts.

Request a free demo today to learn more about how the Motive can help your fleet avoid traffic jams and congestion.