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April 10, 2017 4:00 AM, EDT
Opinion: American Trucking Industry Depends on Drivers

This Opinion piece appears in the April 10 print edition of Transport Topics. Click here to subscribe today.

By Chris Spear

President and CEO

American Trucking Associations

The American trucking industry depends on drivers: a simple statement but one that bears repeating. As president of American Trucking Associations, I have the great privilege of representing 3.5 million professional truck drivers, working on their behalf in Washington to make our industry better, to make their jobs easier.

Spear

In March, with considerable help from truck drivers and their carriers, we took a tremendous step toward that goal and secured permanent relief from the restrictive changes the Obama administration made to the hours-of-service restart rules.

From the moment they were put forward, these restrictions were decried by drivers as burdensome, inflexible and unsafe. With drivers’ support, we convinced Congress to intervene. Last December, we reached a turning point — if a congressionally mandated study of the rules showed no clear safety or other benefit, then the restrictions would be undone.

That study was completed, reviewed by the Department of Transportation’s Inspector General and submitted to Congress in March. It showed — as we and our drivers knew — the restrictions did nothing to improve the safety of our highways and should be cast aside.

This was a major win for our drivers, and it would not have been possible without everyone in this industry working together.

That spirit of industry cooperation is important as we continue addressing the issues facing us and our drivers.

Looking ahead, the industry is facing a future that is getting more technologically advanced — a future the media tout as full of “driverless” trucks. Well, we know that’s not true — we have and will continue to depend on the professionalism and competence of America’s truck drivers.

At every opportunity, I tell lawmakers, policymakers, members of the administration, trucking executives, law enforcement officers, technicians and manufacturers that we are not looking at a future with driverless technology but rather driver-assist technology. These technologies can make our roads safer, make our vehicles and make drivers more efficient and can reduce congestion and fuel burn — all measurable outcomes.

It is a future that we all should want, but we need to be at the table. Drivers need to be educated about the tremendous promise these technologies have, but conversely, the engineering wizards who are building these marvels also must learn from drivers — those closest to the equipment — about the realities of the road.

We value our drivers. Quite literally, our industry could not move forward without them. But increasingly, we find it challenging to find the types of professionals America needs to move its goods.

It is not everywhere, at every fleet, but there is a shortage of truck drivers. Our best estimate is that we’re short nearly 50,000 drivers right now and, as our driver pool ages, we must bring in 890,000 new drivers over the next 10 years just to keep pace with growing freight demands.

This is a problem for our industry and our economy, and one we must all confront head-on. ATA has already taken some steps to address this looming issue.

We have spearheaded our industrywide image movement — Trucking Moves America Forward — hoping that by burnishing our industry’s public perception, we can make it a more attractive career option for those seeking employment.

We have reached out to our veterans through the Hiring Our Heroes initiative and worked with Congress to make it easier for our men and women in uniform to turn their military experience into a career behind the wheel.

We send our America’s Road Team captains, truck drivers who are ambassadors for our industry, into schools and the community to talk about not just safety but the importance of trucking as a way to encourage the next generation of Americans to become drivers.

These are small steps toward solving the problem, but we can and we must do more.

I believe ATA should be working with our leaders in the federal government — both at the Department of Transportation and Department of Labor — to make it easier for people seeking a chance at the middle-class standard of living to make career as a truck driver to obtain that goal.

We should break down barriers that keep carriers that want to recruit and train drivers from doing so across state lines. We should make it easier for individuals to get loans and grants for driver training. And we should use the full power of the federal government to point those in disadvantaged areas toward careers as truck drivers — careers they may not yet have considered.

We will need tens of thousands of new drivers in the coming years — and there are a million solutions to where to find them. And find them we must, because as an industry, we depend on them to move America’s goods and keep our economy flowing.

Whether they are in an old farm truck, like I used to ride in with my father, or a so-called autonomous truck with all the bells and whistles, we need safe, professional drivers to keep our industry moving.

American Trucking Associations, the largest national trade federation in the trucking industry, has headquarters in Arlington, Virginia, and affiliated associations in every state. ATA owns Transport Topics.