One-size-fits-all rules and regulations can be disastrous for the trucking industry – or at least for those companies whose operations or business situations don’t quite fit the model a particular policy was designed to address.
So keeping lawmakers and regulators up to speed on the many, many types of business that fall under the “trucking” umbrella is a full-time job for organizations such as the American Trucking Associations and the Owner-Operators Independent Drivers Association, for example – to say nothing of the groups representing specialized truck services, equipment suppliers, truck dealers, driving schools, enforcement agencies, etc.
And even trade journalists can have a hard time keeping up, or at least considering every possible angle.
Writing for CCJ, I tend to look at trucking from the perspective of medium and large fleets – but there’s certainly a lot more to the industry than the companies whose trailers and logos are so familiar to anyone who travels the major freight lanes.
A half-hour visit to any truck stop, certainly, reminds me not to assume anything about what “drivers” think – and when I write for Overdrive, CCJ’s sister publication aimed at truck drivers and owner-ops, I devote a good portion of any story to that wide range of opinion on the issues.
Even here on CCJ, I’m guilty of painting with too broad a brush more often than I’d like to admit. Sometimes I’ll use “trucking” or “the industry” a little too loosely – and, truth be told, to even hint at an industry consensus on much of anything is a risky assumption on my part.
The good thing about having been around for a few years, however, is that I’ve gotten to know plenty of people who don’t hesitate to drop me a line when I might have overlooked an alternative take.
Ryan Bowley, OOIDA’s man on Capitol Hill, is someone whose calls I don’t dread returning: He’s invariably patient, reasonable and pleasant – although he prefaces every conversation by pointing out that single-truck companies make up half of the nation’s commercial fleet. So the industry’s “little guy” is actually a big player. (I imagine he has to start every professional conversation with that little reminder, and I might suggest he can skip it with me – except his calling me typically means I wrote something that shows I don’t give his membership their due.)
A recent example: the Obama administration’s announcement of another round of truck fuel efficiency standards. I used the president’s own words in the headline, “win-win-win,” referring to some expected across-the-board benefits to truckers (in terms of lower fuel bills), to the environment and to reducing U.S. dependence on foreign oil.
OOIDA, however, questions my suggestion that trucking has “a seat at the table” in working with EPA and NHTSA to craft the next standards. After all, by my thinking, truck makers and ATA helped put together the standards that went into effect this year, and they’ll have input this next time around as well.
But, as Bowley points out, truck OEMs “don’t have to live with that truck or pay for the cost of that truck,” and big fleets – with significant credit lines – are the target customers.
“EPA does not have a very good history of estimating the cost of technology related to trucks,” he says. “A few rounding errors by EPA gets the cost of a new truck up above $200,000 pretty quick.”
And, based on the industry’s experience with EPA’s “overly ambitious” NOx reduction goals from the 2000s, trucking should be concerned with any new “technology-forcing” regulations, especially if the rules mean putting unproven equipment on the road.
“The truck and engine manufacturers had to meet those goals, and they put truckers in a situation where they were the guinea pigs – truckers were beta-testing some of the technology and that led to breakdowns,” he says. “Whether you’re a large carrier or a small carrier, you should be looking at the new proposal with a healthy, healthy dose of skepticism. And that’s putting it mildly.”
Even if repairs are covered under warranty, no one benefits from truck downtime – but single-truck companies are especially challenged when that truck is in the shop, he adds.
He also criticizes EPA for not understanding trucking, and he rejects the argument that the agency is regulating the manufacturers, not carriers. Bowley hopes that truck drivers and small fleets will have more of a say in the development of the next standards.
“Especially for our members, they need to make sure there’s a vehicle that’s going to be flexible and reliable enough to meet the varied business models of an owner-operator,” Bowley says. “We don’t to need get into a situation where something that is being proffered by the agencies as a benefit to the trucking community turns out to be a hindrance.”
Also on OOIDA’s agenda, Bowley details several objections to proposed increases in federal truck size and weight limits. Termed “more productive vehicles” by ATA, Bowley says it’s obvious why shippers would like changes – but “the savings are not savings that the trucking industry is going to see.”
Again, with limited resources, owner-ops and small trucking companies will be at a disadvantage in terms the ability to invest in new equipment and to pay higher costs for fuel, maintenance, insurance and permits – all just to keep customers they’ve long served.
“This doesn’t translate to higher rates,” Bowley says. “There’s not a cost savings. It’s simply shifting costs away and on to somebody else: the trucker.”
On the other hand, OOIDA and ATA do share some common ground on the coming highway reauthorization.
OOIDA supports a fuel tax increase as the best way to shore up the highway trust fund, and opposes new tolls on existing Interstates for being unfair and inefficient – though possibly politically appealing to lawmakers afraid of imposing a fuel tax increase.
Bowley also applauded MAP-21, the current federal funding package, for the “significant amount of good” it did in reducing diversion of fuel tax money from the trust fund, and refocusing it on highways with a clear federal interest.
“Highway funding is a prime example of a significant amount of agreement between large carriers and small carriers,” Bowley says. “The more the industry can stand together and work together, the better off we’ll be.”