Q&A: Bolumole Discusses Transportation Research Board’s Vital Role in American Transportation Policy

March 2, 2023

The 103-year-old Transportation Research Board (TRB), a division of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, is charged with guiding the United States toward transportation improvements and innovation through research-driven, impartial findings that its members present to Congress. To pursue this research, TRB’s executive committee asks members to serve on work committees that address urgent issues related to the country’s transportation infrastructure.

Last November, Yemisi “Yem” Bolumole, Ryder Professor in Supply Chain Management in the University of Tennessee, Knoxville’s Haslam College of Business, was selected to join the TRB’s Committee on Impacts of Alternative Compensation Methods on Commercial Motor Vehicle Driver Retention and Safety Performance.

In a question-and-answer session, Bolumole explained more about the TRB and her committee’s mission.

How do you describe the Transportation Research Board?

It’s a group of dyed-in-the-wool transportation folks, which usually means pretty much every transportation topic is of interest, right? Participating in a TRB event can often feel like the dinner party nobody else wants to be invited to because they won’t understand half of what these people are talking about. The TRB has a commitment to transportation improvements and the will to advance innovation in transportation. Committee members are not rewarded for our work. We do it willingly for the sake of knowledge growth for ourselves and the community we serve and educate.

Transportation infrastructure issues and problems that the TRB works on are not only critical but can be controversial. So, you want a diversity of impartial perspectives and the willingness to work across partisan lines. The TRB thus represents a microcosm of the ability to provide objective, evidence-based, nonpartisan advice. The challenge is being able to speak to the partisan ears in Congress so that they can hear us outside the noise of politics.

Why is the TRB important to transportation in the U.S.?

When I teach students, I tell them the one thing that ties the soccer mom together with the business CEO is transportation infrastructure. The same road you drive on to take your kids to school is the same one their company uses to move its freight to market. We all share that infrastructure. So, we can all hope that government takes a critical look at how to ensure the continuity of this infrastructure’s capacity, the safety of its use and, when necessary, innovate to help improve it for everybody. This is what groups like the TRB are here to achieve and why its role is important to the nation.

What will be your role on the committee?

I don’t think you could say there is a distinct role that any one individual brings to the committee, except the chair. We all bring our unique expertise to the task. I’ve published research on truck driver payment structures, driver pay and driver turnover, so I bring that perspective to the group. I’ve also done quite a lot of policy-based research within and outside the transportation sector. In the first meeting, given the potential that this task would be informing Congress, I found myself asking: “What is the goal, from a policy perspective, for this task? What can we deliver, from a policy improvement perspective, to improve the trucking industry and truck drivers’ situation?”

The committee you’re serving on is a mouthful. Can you translate the committee’s purpose into plain language?

There has been this long-standing conversation regarding whether the driver compensation structure of the trucking industry is related to driver safety performance and/or to drivers leaving the industry. Several people, including those of us on the committee, have different perspectives on this problem and whether drivers are actually leaving the industry. Even if our findings face some disagreement, we want folks to know this: This committee is rigorously and inclusively researching to see if these relationships exist, as well as to determine the nature of such relationships.

How might the committee’s work affect American consumers and businesses?

To put it simply, if the research data supports the suggestion that one compensation method seems to drive safer behavior and retention, that should be the method that we legislatively encourage or incentivize more employers to implement. Driver retention affects what we pay for freight, but finding a solution is not as immediate or as simple as having to deal with the careening 18-wheeler while I take my kids to soccer practice simply because the driver is running late to their next drop-off or pickup location.

Why is it important for this work to be happening today?

The fact is that transportation is enjoying a renaissance. It has never been unimportant, but, as with most things, people tend to take transportation for granted when it is functioning appropriately. COVID-19 reminded us how critical transportation is and broke assumptions about our ability to reach people effectively. That crisis brought our transportation sector’s criticality to the congressional fore across party lines. Today, we can have these conversations that remind everybody – from the senior academic transportation researcher to the consumers who simply want to know where their stuff is – how important the nation’s transportation systems are. Now that we have this increased attention, let’s go solve some meaningful problems that will have a lasting impact. Can you tell yet that I am a total transportation and policy nerd?

About Haslam’s Department of Supply Chain Management

The Haslam College of Business has one of the most comprehensive, forward-thinking and highly regarded supply chain programs in the world. U.S. News & World Report and Gartner consistently rank it among the top five global programs. An advisory board of more than 40 industry professionals informs its curriculum, and students develop applied skills to help improve organizational performance through supply chain management.


Scott McNutt, business writer/publicist, rmcnutt4@utk.edu