Economy tops ATRI list of key trucking industry concerns

Nov. 1, 2010
TOP ISSUES of concern to the trucking industry include the struggling economy, CSA 2010, government regulation, hours of service, driver shortage, fuel

TOP ISSUES of concern to the trucking industry include the struggling economy, CSA 2010, government regulation, hours of service, driver shortage, fuel issues, transportation funding/infrastructure, onboard technology, environmental issues, and truck size and weight.

The top 10 list was presented by the American Transportation Research Institute (ATRI) during the American Trucking Associations' 2010 Management Conference held October 16-19 in Phoenix AZ.

As was the case in 2009, the state of the nation's economy was the top concern for the truck fleets that participated in this year's ATRI survey. Approximately 35% of respondents ranked this as the number one issue in 2010, but that was a significant decrease from 51.6% in 2009. This decrease likely reflects improvements experienced in the US economy over the past year and the impact rising freight volumes are having on fleets, according to ATRI officials.

ATA economists noted that truck volumes are beginning to rebound, capacity oversupply is diminishing, and driver availability is tightening. These indicators point to an emerging economic recovery.

Survey respondents want ATA to advocate for government policies that will stimulate economic recovery and benefit the industry through increased freight demand. ATA should analyze the role of the trucking industry as an employment generator in relation to other transport modes and industry sectors. The association should support and pursue increased federal funding for transportation and infrastructure to increase the nation's competitiveness.

First appearance

CSA 2010 made its first appearance in the ATRI survey. With over a quarter of respondents ranking this as the top issue, CSA 2010 earned its spot due to the expansive nature of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration's (FMCSA's) new regulatory framework but also due to the uncertain impact CSA 2010 will have on carriers and drivers.

ATA needs to make sure major industry concerns are addressed as final details of CSA 2010 are worked out. It's also important to continue developing programs to inform drivers and carriers of potential impacts resulting from full CSA 2010 deployment. Finally, carriers must be ensured access to the CSA 2010 database for expedited resolution of data deficiencies and errors.

Government regulation overall dropped from second to third place in the 2010 survey. This continued high ranking of government regulation is in large part due to legislative activities, at both the national and local levels, that trucking industry stakeholders perceive as detrimental to industry operations and finance, according to ATRI.

Lawmakers and regulators that have trucking oversight responsibilities must be educated on the realities of the business environment and the practical impact of various regulatory controls on trucking. Regulators — and the public in general — must understand the costs and benefits of certain policies on the trucking industry and the broader supply chain.

Rules regulating truck driver hours of service (HOS) climbed one spot into fourth. HOS peaked as the number one issue in 2007 shortly after a court order put the rules in jeopardy. Concern about possible changes in the rules later this year put the issue back in the top half of the survey. Nearly 40% of respondents ranked HOS as the first, second, or third most important issue.

Part of the strategy for addressing the ongoing HOS debate is to educate policymakers on the safety record of the trucking industry operating under the current HOS system. Recent statistics from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration showed that truck-involved fatalities dropped 20% from 2008 to 2009, to their lowest level ever recorded.

Driver shortage

The driver shortage is back, and it landed at number five on the list. This is yet another indicator that the economy is recovering, and it may also reflect new safe-driver hiring challenges related to CSA 2010 and other new federal regulations.

During the recession, carriers scaled back or eliminated entry-level driver training and/or hiring. Decreased freight demand was also viewed by some carriers as an opportunity to thin the driver ranks by eliminating those with marginal safety records.

With cargo volumes picking up, carriers are once again concerned about the driver supply. They said they want ATA to evaluate the competitiveness of driver pay and benefits, and they want to address quality-of-life concerns by developing programs that address work/life balance, healthy lifestyles, and family relationships. Respondents called for high-profile marketing and recruiting efforts to draw more people to the trucking industry.

Fuel price volatility has meant wide variation in the way the issue is ranked each year in ATRI's survey. It was the top issue in 2005 and 2008, but fell to third in 2009 and plunged another three spots in this year's survey. With the global recession reducing overall demand for fuel, prices remain relatively low, but respondents remain concerned about fuel as a long-term issue.

Respondents said it is important to encourage the development of less price-volatile sources of oil, including increased domestic production. They also said it is important to rein in the potential for financial speculation on energy sources resulting in large price fluctuations. Carrier executives also said they support efforts to cut fuel usage and want to promote renewable fuels that are economically feasible.

Infrastructure funding

Ranked at seven, transportation funding/infrastructure was a hybrid issue this year, combining elements of highway congestion, infrastructure, and transportation funding. Ongoing congestion impacts, deteriorating highway infrastructure, and a lack of movement on highway reauthorization by Congress combined to keep this issue in the Top 10.

More research is needed on the cost of bottlenecks and the indirect cost of not improving transportation infrastructure. Survey respondents expressed disappointment that the US infrastructure remains underfunded despite Obama Administration claims that billions of dollars in federal stimulus funds were targeted at infrastructure improvements. Carriers also are calling for research that would support higher fuel taxes and alternative funding schemes.

After first surfacing in 2007 as a Top 10 issue and remaining in the 10th spot each year since, onboard truck technology climbed two spots this year to number eight. The primary driving force seems to be the focus by both the US and Canadian governments on mandated use of electronic onboard recorders (EOBRs) for HOS compliance and speed limiters/governors for speed management.

Survey respondents called on ATA to advocate for tax incentives to offset the cost of onboard safety systems. They want the association to document the full costs and benefits of EOBRs, as well as carrier-level adoption issues and approaches. They want ATA to promote EOBRs for hours-of-service compliance.

Environmental issues dropped two spots to ninth this year, attaining the lowest rank since 2007. More pressing issues, such as the economy and CSA 2010, simply trumped environmental concerns. ATRI officials say they believe environmental issues will return to the forefront as regulations are proposed to reduce greenhouse gases and other engine emissions.

It is critical to ensure that new environmental regulations are based on factually correct cost-benefit analyses and sound scientific evidence. Carriers want the association to pursue government incentives to mitigate the costs of implementing new industry regulations.

For only the second time, size-and-weight ranked as a Top 10 issue. More fleets are looking at bigger vehicles as a means of addressing highway congestion, environmental challenges, and the growing driver shortage.

Existing size and weight restrictions must be changed to maximize productivity and minimize traffic congestion. In addition to higher productivity vehicles, dedicated truck lanes are needed on the highways.