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American Trucking Association President Pushing Aggressive Agenda

As he enters his third year as chief executive of the American Trucking Associations (“ATA”), Chris Spear is focused on the top issues facing the trucking industry. Spear pinpoints five main issues that face the trucking industry: driver shortage, productivity, infrastructure, safety technology, and tariffs. 

To address driver shortage, Spear proposes changing federal regulations to allow interstate truck driving by those aged 18 years or older. Spear says he was influenced by a trip to the aircraft carrier, the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln that was being driven by an 18-year-old sailor. His thought: if an 18 year old can drive a $4-billion warship, why can he or she not drive a truck across state lines?

Under current law, forty-eight (48) states allow persons 18 or older to drive trucks, but they cannot cross state lines. The ATA’s proposal would require these younger drivers to submit to 400 hours of training, far more than states require to be issued a commercial drivers license. Recruiting younger drivers is a top priority for Spear, and he sees it as good way to cut down on a driver shortage of 63,000 and growing. It is his goal to pursue non-college bound young people to help a workforce that averages age 49.

Recently, a pilot program was approved that would allow military veterans under 21 to drive across state lines. Full bills have also been introduced in both the House and Senate, and Spear hopes to see a bill passed in 2019 allowing this expansion of the driver pool.

Another issue of interest is productivity and efficiency. In addition to a driver shortage, there is also a shortage of trucks and technicians to fix them. Despite the current boom in the trucking industry, what Spear calls perhaps “the best conditions trucking has ever experienced,” it risks losing business to other forms of transportation.

Spear believes that a potential area of growth involves addressing productivity laws, specifically laws governing length and weight that have not changed since 1982. “Equipment and laws are not keeping pace with the growth of the economy. Something’s got to give,” Spear says, adding that hours of service rules need to be modified. He states that issues arise with shippers who pay attention to detention time and realize that three, four, or five hours waiting for a load affects driving hours. As a consequence, they may look to other options for their shipping and/or transportation needs.

Another important subject for Spear is spending to rebuild and repair our national infrastructure. He is hopeful that the $1-trillion federal infrastructure spending plan proposed by President Trump will pass in 2019. He says that a fuel tax increase of 20 cents per gallon over the next four years will also be included. This would raise $340 billion in revenue. “The fuel tax continues to be the most conservative, immediate and efficient way to fund infrastructure,” Spear says. “Less than one penny on the dollar goes to administration.” Toll roads, by contrast, can cost up to 35 cents on the dollar collected to administer, he said.

Currently, the Highway Trust Fund foots most of the bill for the interstate highway system. Trucking pays half the tab for this fund, but Spear says that, without an influx of new money, the Fund could run dry in 2020.

Another significant goal for Spear is to have the trucking industry work with the auto industry on incorporating some of the safety technology that is now common for passenger vehicles. “I think there are solutions out there with our partners in the auto industry that could solve a lot of problems,” he says. “This is a driver-assist environment, and I’m not willing to concede that space to the passenger vehicle industry. We need to be hand in glove with them, and they want that too.”

One example is connected vehicle technology that allows cars to talk with other cars and roadway infrastructure to avoid potential crashes and congestion. The federal government earmarked seven bands of a radio frequency for use by connected vehicles. Currently, trucks do not have access to these frequencies, but Spear is looking to get those bands opened up to trucks in the near future. Peloton Technologies is experimenting with a concept known as truck platooning — a technology that allows trucks to drive closely together to reduce drag and save fuel. This technology uses the radio signals to allow two trucks to travel within 40 feet of each other.

More generally, Spear believes that automated driving assist and autonomous driving technologies that are being incorporated into many passenger vehicles could help truck drivers be safer, more efficient, more productive and less fatigued. “If you’re a trucker and you can get two more hours of drive time by having driver-assist technology, you could accelerate adoption of this technology through our industry,” he said.

He does not believe that autonomous driving technology jeopardizes truck driver jobs or the role of truck drivers. In fact, he spent eight years at Honeywell, which makes autopilot technology for airplanes, and he learned “those planes could take off, fly and land on their own. But we still have pilots up there.”

Next up for Spear is tariffs – there has been much talk of tariffs and trade lately on a national scale, and the ATA is playing a key role in this discussion. Trucks account for most of the border crossings into Mexico and Canada, so Spear follows developments with the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) very closely. In fact, the ATA has been involved in all of the NAFTA discussions to date. “You look at the totality of trade policy and the role trucking plays to move that freight. We cannot afford not to be in this discussion,” he says.

However, recent tariffs on imported aluminum and steel have caused truck and trailer manufacturers to build in surcharges to offset these tariffs, and that has been raising costs. Spear hopes this is only temporary and is being used as a negotiation tactic. Despite these increases, Spear states that many of his members are willing to deal with this increase if it could result in more long-term benefits.

On a national level, the ATA leadership is looking for ways to push to the trucking industry into the future and deal with the top issues it faces. If you would like to get involved in the future of the trucking industry, please contact your local trucking association through VTA President & CEO Dale Bennett at 804-355-5371 or dbennett@vatrucking.org. If you have any questions regarding the legal developments proposed, contact Steve Setliff at 804-377-1260 or ssetliff@setlifflaw.com.