Stephen Burks is a professor of economics and management in the Division of Social Science at the University of Minnesota Morris (UMM). One of Burks’s research interests is in the economics, especially the personnel economics, of the U. S. trucking industry. Most recently, his work in this area has explored the relationship between the health status of truckers and their crash risk, turnover, productivity, and medical costs.

Burks’s research interests grew out of his personal experience in the trucking industry. “I studied philosophy as a graduate student, but dropped out of a doctoral program to drive the big rigs,” Burks says. He hauled steel, handled freight, and conducted city and roadwork with tractor-trailers for 10 years.

During his time as a truck driver, the trucking industry was economically deregulated, radically transforming the industry. When Burks decided it was time to return to school, he studied economics and wrote his dissertation on how deregulation changed U.S. trucking, he says. This led to his current work on the economics of motor freight, trucking labor markets, and trucking safety.


Burks during his time as a big rig driver, Cleveland, Ohio

Though the rate of truck-involved crashes per mile traveled has decreased over the last decade, truck crashes are still a significant safety problem. Crashes involving large trucks kill about 3,500 people every year and injure about 100,000, Burks says. “[And] as economic activity continues to grow we have more trucks and motorists on the road,” he adds.

In a project sponsored by the Roadway Safety Institute, “Exploring Links between Medical Conditions and Safety Performance in Tractor Trailer Drivers,” Burks and his colleagues and students will be extending the research done in the UMM’s “Truckers & Turnover Project.” The new project will explore the relationship between obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) and trucker medical costs through the analysis of data from a large motor carrier that instituted the industry’s first large-scale program to screen, diagnose, and treat its employee drivers for OSA.

Burks believes that better safety regulations and managerial policies for motor carriers can help prevent injuries and deaths resulting from truck-involved crashes, and that his research will make a positive impact on this key component of highway safety. “The health and safety of the folks who move our nation’s freight matters to all of us,” says Burks. “Identifying medical conditions associated with crash risk among commercial truckers and improving both screening for and effective delivery of treatment for these conditions are important areas in which more can be done.”

In addition to his work with the Roadway Safety Institute, as a behavioral and experimental microeconomist, Burks is affiliated with the Institute for the Study of Labor (IZA) in Bonn, Germany, and the Centre for Decision Research and Experimental Economics at the University of Nottingham, United Kingdom. He is chair of the standing technical Committee on Trucking Industry Research at the Transportation Research Board, and he received the University of Minnesota Morris Faculty Distinguished Research award in 2014. Burks holds a B.A. in philosophy from Reed College, an M.A. in philosophy from Indiana University, and a Ph.D. in economics from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

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