ATA chair urges fleet executives to act

Solving the industry’s current and future problems requires more action from fleets, the American Trucking Associations chairman told nearly 400 executives attending the Randall Trucking Spring Symposium in Tuscaloosa, Ala.

“Very smart people have underestimated the challenge that this nation and this industry will face over the next 20 years,” said Steve Williams, president of Maverick Transportation.

One of the biggest challenges is a shrinking labor pool, Williams said. The economy is growing annually at more than 3 percent, but the population from which carriers hire drivers is almost stagnant, growing annually at only half a percent.

The industry also needs to support the building of more highways, Williams said.

“We have been very effective saying no to taxes and tolls but poor in offering other alternatives,” he said. “We have been hostage to indecision for years. It has forced us to play defense, but we will be better served to have an offense and to serve our own agenda.”

A pressing issue for the ATA is a new federal highway reauthorization bill, Williams said. Differing versions of the spending plan have been passed by the U.S. House and U.S. Senate. The current highway bill expires May 31 but is likely to be extended, Williams said. The House passed a 30-day extension on May 25.

The recently passed Senate version, Williams noted, includes several provisions supported by the ATA, including limits on imposing tolls on existing interstates and a $20 million truck driver training program. Other measures opposed by the ATA are left out of the Senate version, including the creation of federal trailer length limits, the extension of current federal weight limits to an additional 100,000 miles of state and local roads, and a mandatory fuel surcharge.

The differing bills are now in conference, where the ATA is pushing for many more changes, including getting the current hours of service written into law, Williams said.

Williams said Annette Sandberg, head of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, recently told him the current hours rule likely will be changed through further litigation unless it is written into law. Congress is giving FMCSA only until Sept. 30 to comply with a court order to issue a new hours rule. As it stands, provisions in the current hours rule, such as the 34-hour restart and 11-hour driving time, are in jeopardy as opponents of the rule continue to press for changes, Williams said.

“We have got to get the hours of service codified,” said Williams, who added that fleet owners should not look to ATA to do all the lobbying needed to get it done. “Pick up the phone and send e-mails to your congressional delegations. It’s going to take all of us together. If we fail to get the hours of service codified, the court battle will remain.”

One reason the rule was taken to court was because the FMCSA had not addressed the use of electronic onboard recorders. FMCSA has since commissioned a working group to address this issue.

Most people in the industry feel the recorders are inevitable, Williams said. “Electronic onboard recorders level the playing field.”

The recorders will not be mandatory, but “the change that is going to be required to get people to participate in it is one that we can easily defend,” Williams said.

Another ATA lobbying effort is to get incentives for fleets to buy new emission-compliant engines in 2007. ATA wants a 10 percent investment tax credit; at this point, fleets are likely to get 10 percent the first year and 5 percent the next year, Williams said.

ATA also has proposed incentives to encourage fleets to invest in safety technology.

The industry must have a comprehensive plan for truck size and weight restrictions, infrastructure expansion and regulatory compliance, Williams said. The most critical need is to improve the industry’s image.

“Whether we as an industry choose to take advantage of this opportunity to improve our image is strictly up to us,” Williams said. “If we fail to act, it will be difficult to blame someone else this time.”

A change in image will attract new drivers to the industry and bring back those who left, Williams said.

“We must change the driving job to bring the people back who had the good sense to leave this industry,” he said. “We must raise, not lower, the expectations of the quality of people we hire and the work they perform.”

In these times of tight capacity and driver shortages, fleets are tempted to compromise standards to create additional capacity, Williams said. He called that approach a “path to disaster that needs to be avoided at all costs.”

“That will not happen on my watch,” he said. “We are all better served by raising standards and compensating people handsomely for a job well served.”

The Randall Trucking Spring Symposium is presented by CCJ magazine and Randall Publishing, parent company of, CCJ, Overdrive and Truckers News.