Panel: Challenges for small carriers numerous, but not life-threatening

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By Todd Dills

Despite significant regulatory and competitive challenges from the federal government and big trucking companies, small carriers are here to stay, two industry representatives told attendees of the CCJ Spring Symposium in Tuscaloosa, Ala., on Tuesday, June 5.

“We have 400 entities a week applying for authority,” said Dave Owen, president of the National Association of Small Trucking Companies. Owen was joined in a panel discussion — moderated by CCJ editorial director Avery Vise — by Jeff Wilmarth, president of Silver Arrow Express of Rockford, Ill.

Wilmarth stressed the small trucking company’s ability to attract and retain drivers at a local level, offering a family atmosphere and personal connection. “They want to be able to come in the door and you know them by name,” Wilmarth said.

It’s that relationship that is traditionally a significant advantage for small trucking companies, but Owen said he sees that advantage as increasingly under attack. He cited as prime evidence the speed-governor petitions currently before the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Those petitions are sponsored by the American Trucking Associations and Road Safe America, in league with nine large motor carriers.

“That proposal comes from a group that supports very large carriers, who have found it economically feasible to govern trucks,” Owen said. “The tradeoff of that is they can’t find drivers who want to drive a governed truck.” Wilmarth agreed, citing numerous rear-end collisions in Silver Arrow’s home state of Illinois resulting from split 55/65 mph speed limits on many interstates.

Among other challenges to small carriers discussed were:

  • Hours-of-service rules, particularly with regard to the expiration of the split-rest period for solo and team-driver situations, to which reaction was mixed. Wilmarth cited an improved safety record in his fleet since implementation of the new rules, but Owen said that safety eventually would be found to have been compromised by the split-rest expiration, with drivers pushed to the limit of the 14-hour window.
  • Congestion and highway privatization. Owen proposed that, rather than lease roads and impose tolls or raise the diesel tax, the federal government should take an active role in reducing the “pork, waste and corruption” in the system. “That’s at the state and federal level. The bridge to nowhere, the big hole in Boston — it’s ridiculous how much money is wasted. Very little of it, in my opinion, gets to the highways.”
  • Electronic onboard recorders, which Owen called “a bone the industry has thrown to the regulators to let them feel like they’ve won something or have gotten a little more control.”
  • Competition from private fleets and less-than-truckload carriers for drivers. Wilmarth spoke of the rapid aging of the driver population among LTL and private carriers that have been luring drivers away from his fleet. “As the economy’s upturned and rates have increased dramatically,” private carriers have been “rethinking things because of the rate increases,” said Wilmarth, who described a new hire he thought was happy but who left Silver Arrow after only three months to join a private fleet, citing a better benefits package as the chief lure.