The small group of trucking companies that agitated for mandatory electronic onboard recorders in the recent highway bill is on a mission to apply the same laser focus to a half-dozen additional safety initiatives, including mandatory speed limiters and improvements to drug and alcohol testing.
"I didn't feel that there was any other issue, ever, probably within my lifetime in trucking, that was more important to get done and get done as soon as possible than to get an EOBR mandate," said Steve Williams, chairman of the eight-member Alliance for Driver Safety & Security, known for short as The Trucking Alliance.
Williams, chairman and CEO of Arkansas-based truckload carrier Maverick Transportation, helped launch the group in 2010 for the sole purpose of getting Congress to pass the mandate. The alliance was motivated not just by their shared commitment to the mandate, but also by frustration with the regular order of trucking business on Capitol Hill, which they found too slow and tenuous.
Now that recorders are the law - the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration has one year to finish the rule and three years to put it into effect - the alliance is doubling down.
Its agenda for the next two-year congressional cycle is to promote hair testing for drugs, creation of a drug and alcohol clearinghouse, mandatory speed limiters, higher financial requirements for would-be truckers and consideration of alternative compliance methods for determining safety fitness.
None of these issues is new. Some of them already have been proposed as rules. And all are on the safety agenda of the American Trucking Associations.
But the Alliance intends to push them using a new business model for truck lobbying, a model created out of impatience with the style of representation that ATA brings to Washington.
ATA is a federation of state trucking associations and operating groups such as the Truckload Carriers Association, as well as its trucking company members. The policy agenda that ATA's professional staff carries to Congress and the regulatory agencies is shaped in a committee process that reflects the interests of the broad-based federation.
Williams, a former chairman of ATA and current chair of the association's research arm, the American Transportation Research Institute, was not satisfied with how onboard recorders fared in this process.
"ATA has to lobby a laundry list of issues that are collectively important to everyone but have different levels of importance to different factions within the industry," he said. "By forming the Alliance we were able to say loud and clear that we felt (EOBRs were) the only priority. It allowed us to indirectly elevate that issue on ATA's policy agenda."
It would not be correct to say that the alliance made the mandate happen. It was on the Senate Commerce Committee's list of safety provisions for the highway reauthorization bill from the very start, thanks to the advocacy of truck safety groups and the support of Sen. Frank Lautenberg, chairman of the Surface Transportation Subcommittee.
Williams said that ATA "already was there" when the alliance pressed its case for the full mandate. Insider accounts vary on this point, but clearly both ATA and the alliance were active and influential.
ATA went into the highway bill process with a policy that supported voluntary EOBRS generally but a mandate for habitual violators of the hours of service rules. In the wake of the alliance's initiative, it swung to support for the full mandate, but it still had concerns about implementation and technical details. These concerns are now being addressed in the ongoing rulemaking.
Setting the Pace
Some who were close to the legislation say the real impact of the Alliance was to help keep the provision in the bill as it moved through floor debates and the House-Senate conference. At that stage of the process there always is a risk that a high-profile provision like EOBRs will be traded away.
One participant in the mandate negotiations, Jackie Gillan, president of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, credits the alliance for setting the pace.
"Their leadership was instrumental in paving the way for the trucking industry as a whole to come around to doing it," she said.
As Congress was drafting the bill and negotiating its final shape, FMCSA already was well along in a rulemaking process designed to lead to a universal mandate.
So why was the legislation necessary?
The alliance wanted the legal mandate to ensure that the rule gets done as quickly as possible, said Lane Kidd, president of the Arkansas Trucking Association and a member of the Alliance management team.
The group's members were worried that without a congressional order the process could get dragged out for years.
"There are a whole lot of trucking executives that are not that patient," Kidd said.
Plus, having the requirement in the law will make it harder for the rule to be tied up in court, he said. And the specific language of the law ordered FMCSA to make sure it addressed the concerns about implementation and technical standards.
An Innovative Approach
The Alliance will bring a unique business model to its agenda on Capitol Hill.
For one thing, it's a small group. It started in 2010 with five members: Maverick and J.B. Hunt Transport Services, both based in Arkansas, Knight Transportation from Arizona, U.S. Xpress Enterprises, in Tennessee, and Wisconsin-based Schneider National. Since then, it's added three more: Massachusetts-based Boyle Transportation, Louisiana-gased Dupre' Logistics, and Fikes Truck Line out of Arkansas.
What these companies have in common is a progressive attitude toward safety.
Maverick, of course, spearheaded the EOBR initiative. J.B. Hunt has a leading-edge driver wellness program. Dupre' has built its operations around an innovative fatigue management program. Schneider has been a pioneer in the diagnosis and treatment of sleep apnea among drivers, and safety vice president Don Osterberg has been honored by the Truck Safety Coalition with a distinguished leadership award.
Unlike other truck lobbying groups, the Trucking Alliance does not actively solicit new members. "But the door is open and the alliance has indicated that anyone interested is joining should contact the office," said Kidd.
This approach reflects the approach the alliance's board took from the very start. As Kidd explained it, the board wanted the organization to be small in the beginning, with like-minded companies on specific issues so they could avoid the more cumbersome committee-based policy process that ATA must use, and circumvent the legislative roadblocks set up by political partisanship.
Members pay dues, but the dues are based on the alliance's business plan rather than on a formula based on size.
Kidd said the alliance is like a private public affairs firm owned by its member companies. "Dues are based on the investment that's needed to achieve its goals. They decide what they want to achieve and figure out what it will cost to get it."
Most of the alliance's work so far has involved personal contacts with members of Congress and Hill and agency staff, and submitting comments on regulatory issues. But the organization is setting up a Political Action Committee to raise money to support its issues on the Hill, Kidd said.
The presence of the Alliance in Washington creates risks and opportunities for trucking interests.
With the two groups, ATA and the Trucking Alliance, having similar safety agendas but differing priorities, there is a risk that legislators and rule-writers will get conflicting messages from the industry.
Williams sees the alliance as a way to create a sense of urgency about the issues, but said he understands the need for caution.
"I have been particularly sensitive to the potential conflict (between ATA and the alliance) but I have felt that it has been worth the risk due to the importance of prevailing on these issues," he said. "I don't see any other way of getting it done right now."
From the perspective of the professionals who work these issues day-to-day, the risk is manageable as long as communications remain open. Those contacted for background on this story could not speak on the record, but one summed it up by saying, "credibility is key."
ATA President and CEO Bill Graves declined to comment.
On the Agenda
The alliance's to-do list will provide plenty of work for the next couple of years.
Hair analysis works better than urinalysis to detect drugs, and it is permitted under federal rules, but it cannot be used instead of urinalysis. It may take an act of Congress to get the Department of Health and Human Services, which sets the rules for workplace drug testing, to move on the issue.
The law that mandated EOBRs also gives FMCSA two years to finish work on the national clearinghouse for drug and alcohol test results.
This rule has been in the works since 2009 and is scheduled to be released this coming December. Among other things, it will require carriers to query the clearinghouse when screening applicants for driving job, and annually after they are hired. Third-party service providers could do these searches.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is working on a proposal to require speed limiters on all trucks. The initiative arises from petitions from ATA and Road Safe America to set top speeds at 68 mph. NHTSA is scheduled to publish the proposal by the end of this year.
The alliance also wants to see FMCSA raise insurance requirements for carriers.
And it envisions a new regulatory programin which carriers could combine these safety techniques with other initiatives, such as collision avoidance technology, to get to an alternative way to comply with federal safety requirements.
The way Williams sees it, this list of objectives may be as far as the alliance goes.
"The alliance is only as effective as its issues are clear to its members," he said. "If, hypothetically, this ends up being the only group of issues that the alliance members can be unanimous on, then I think that the alliance would cease to exist."
Williams went on: "I've got a full-time job. I'm not interested in trying to create something that doesn't need to be created. We simply want our priorities to be met in the most expedient fashion possible. We do not want to listen to the lowest common denominator or to the person who has some objection to the purity of this effort."
Some might like the group to morph into something else, he said, but so far that has not happened.
Keeping it Limited
For instance, the alliance was asked to get involved in the issue of highway funding, but declined, Kidd said.
Neither has it taken a position on hours of service. Kidd's view is that once EOBRs are mandated and installed throughout the fleet, questions about the particulars of the hours of service rule will be resolved.
"The data will take care of itself," he said. "The data will show how many hours a driver should operate his truck. There's no question there's a correlation between hours of service rules and safety, but nobody knows what data is good because nobody makes sure that the driver's logbooks are that accurate."
Kidd still has some convincing to do on this point, however.
"Advocates and the other groups like Public Citizen and the Truck Safety Coalition strongly oppose 11 hours of driving and electronic onboard recorders is not going to correct that," said Jackie Gillan.
Gillan did say she enjoyed working with the alliance on EOBRs and expects to collaborate on the group's other issues, as well.
"There's a certain level of respect and admiration when you get to know people when you're working together," she said. "It may not change our views of the 11-hour limit and it may not change our views of sizes and weights, but when you have an opportunity to work with a group, even when we agree to disagree, I think it just helps to find other common areas where we can collaborate and advance safety."
Kidd acknowledged that the \alliance will run into opposition from some who see this agenda as simply a way to raise a barrier to entry into the business.
His answer sums up the Alliance's credo: "We work every day within literally feet of hundreds of millions of people. Safety should be our top priority and we should do everything within our power to make certain that our work is done safely."