ATA's Chris Spear speaks to members during the virtual version of its annual Management...

ATA's Chris Spear speaks to members during the virtual version of its annual Management Conference and Exhibition.

Photo: Screen shot of virtual event

What started as a year of so much promise for the trucking industry has gone off the rails, but the industry now enjoys greater appreciation and recognition than in the past.

Chris Spear, president and CEO of the American Trucking Associations, gave his keynote address virtually this year, praising the trucking industry for how it has responded to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We began this year with tremendous optimism,” Spear said in an Oct. 26. “The passage of the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement and over half of a new agreement with China secured, these trade deals gave us confidence that 2020 would feel more like 2018. Two months later, those hopes were dashed, replaced by a global pandemic that brought swift responses from all levels of government.”

The ATA moved quickly to have trucking deemed an essential service, allowing truckers to continue serving their customers, Spear recalled.

“We got loud,” he added, “taking our story about the vital importance of trucking to the national airwaves, drawing the attention and respect of our nation’s elected officials.”

Truckers received unprecedented recognition for the work they did supporting the economy from the front lines.

“America is paying attention to trucking,” Spear said. He cited a long list of appearances on national news stations, as well as a growing social media audience. The ATA’s total impressions surged from 1.9 million to 8.2 million as its messages were retweeted by the likes of President Trump and other high-ranking government officials.

"Our association is not only strong, it's now battle-hardened," Spear said, from meeting the many challenges of COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting economic fallout.

Fighting Nuclear Verdicts

Meanwhile, ATA continues to wage several legal battles in support of the industry. One is fighting back against nuclear verdicts, with tort and legal reform becoming one of the association’s top priorities last year. Spear said ATA has enjoyed legal victories on this front in several states.

“Trial attorneys are now paying attention, some even claiming that they’re the defenders of safety. Really? Where were they when ELDs, cameras and technology entered our trucks? I don’t recall seeing one trial attorney walking the halls of Congress when that was up for vote,” Spear said.

“Where are they as we advocate for more tools to combat the nation’s war on opioid use and the widespread legalization of recreational marijuana…tools like federal hair testing authority, expanding FMCSA’s drug clearinghouse or fixing the CSA program? The truth is, they haven’t lifted a finger for safety. Instead, they hide behind frivolous lawsuits aimed at destroying companies, jobs and families. But thanks to you, we’re takin’ 'em to the woodshed.”

Spear said the associaiton is well positioned and prepared for 2021 and beyond, including working toward a comprehensive infrastructure bill no matter who is elected. When it comes to how to pay for it, the association remains adamantly against tolls.

Another top priority for the association is battling plans in Rhode Island to toll commercial trucks. Spear called the battle a “must-win” for the industry, even for those who don’t run trucks in Rhode Island.

“Other states are watching, salivating over the notion of tolling our trucks,” Spear said, encouraging donations to a litigation fund the ATA has set up to cover the cost of the court battle.

As the economy strengthens, he said, the issue of the driver and technician shortage will reutrn to the fore. Spear cited continuing efforts to hire more veterans and existing service men and women, as well as allowing 18- to 20-year-olds to drive interstate.

"2020 opened our eyes to the importance of diversity, and the trucking industry is no exception," Spear said. To that end, ATA has established a diversity working group in direct support of the Workforce Development Policy Committee. "This group will shine a brighter light on our efforts to expand urban hiring, including people of color and women, and look at initiatives that increase the number of minorities in our executive rangs, including partnerships with historically black colleges and universities."

'Get Used to Different'

Spear ended his speech circling back to how 2020 has impacted the industry, including getting a little choked up as he shared some personal details and pride in how the industry has responded.

"In 2020, we've all had to 'get used to different,'" he said. "Serving ATA while our four kids attend four schools virtually, my family and I have managed to stretch the outer limits of our home's internet bandwidth. There's no question the year impacted each of us, professionally and personally. For me, in the midst of all the challenges, I lost three true friends this year, prohibited from being by their side or getting closure by attending a funeral service. And my family and I experienced firsthand the threat of a major wildfire, as it indiscriminately destroyed more square miles than all of New York City, along with countless homes and dreams in its path."

However, he said, the trucking industry has a great many positives to think about rather than dwelling on the negative.

“It’s no surprise that America has awakened to the trucking industry. Together, we inspire others,” he said. “Together, we will win and grow. And we’ll always answer the call when our country needs us most. Trucking isn’t just the backbone of our economy – it’s the heartbeat of this nation.”

James Menzies is the editor of Today's Trucking, where this article originally appeared. This content was used with permission from Newcom Media as part of a cooperative editorial agreement. HDT Editor in Chief Deborah Lockridge contributed to this story.