Late last month, HDT quizzed David Heller on how the trucking regulatory landscape might shape up this year. He’s got an excellent vantage point on all that, having recently been promoted by the Truckload Carriers Association from director of safety and policy to vice president of government affairs. In his new role, Heller is tasked with expanding TCA’s presence on Capitol Hill and forming partnerships and alliances with those sharing a common vision with the association. He’s been with TCA since 2005.

HDT: Now that you’ve been in your new position for about three months, what are you finding to be the most intriguing aspect of your responsibilities?

David Heller Photo: TCA

David Heller Photo: TCA

Heller: You know something, whether it has been a product of my new position or a sign of the times that our industry is in, I have noticed a tremendous increase in the number of discussions regarding legislative and regulatory issues that are being circulated throughout our industry. Conversations with Capitol Hill staff, government personnel and even other industry-related groups and associations have elevated and reached levels that I have not seen before. The underlying feeling is a need to finally bring to a head the issues that we have been speaking about for years and getting some of them in the rear view mirror.

HDT: As a key voice for the truckload segment on Capitol Hill, what policy issues will you have right on the front burner going into 2017?

Heller: You hit the nail right on the head with this one. Going into 2017, regardless of the issue, it is imperative that not only should I be a key voice for our industry on Capitol Hill, but also that TCA establish itself as THE voice of the truckload industry. With the 34-hour restart provision put to bed in the recent CR that was passed and will carry our nation’s spending through April 28, we can begin to navigate the legislative arena on issues that can move the needle in our industry. 2017 will bring about meaningful discussion on issues surrounding F4A federal preemption language, productivity, sustainable forms of highway funding and the implementation of autonomous vehicle technology to our industry in which I, and TCA, need to be heavily involved.

HDT: Do you expect that many existing rules will be “rolled back” or have their implementation “slowed down” under the Trump administration? 

Heller: It is reasonable to say that every president who has transitioned into the Oval Office with the promise of a regulatory rollback has not dramatically changed any of the regulations that have been bestowed upon our industry. We all have heard that we are the most regulated deregulated industry in our country, but for the most part, many TCA members can agree that the regulations we do have in place are there for a reason. That being said, I would imagine the issue of speed limiters could be placed on one of the rear burners, if only because the ambiguity of the proposed rule released by the agency made agreement difficult. The majority of TCA members already have limiters set at speeds that they have deemed practical for their own operations, and the time has arrived in which autonomous vehicle conversations have become mainstream, which will almost automatically be accompanied by a limiting device of sorts, which renders a mandate moot at this point.

HDT: In this year, or any year, is there one thing about the rulemaking process that would be helpful to understand for those in trucking who don’t live and breathe policy daily?

Heller: It is important to realize that when it does come to rulemaking, FMCSA (or any government entity for that matter) is placed in the unenviable position of trying to make everyone happy in one way or another. Oftentimes, one party will spend a lifetime advocating for an issue while the other party will spend a lifetime opposing that same issue.  Unfortunately, this process tends to create a seesaw battle, which rarely moves the needle. People possess very few things that were not on a truck at one point or another and that is the story on which we must capitalize. I think everyone can agree that “responsible trucking” should be placed at the forefront of our industry.

HDT: TCA and other trucking lobbies tend to approach safety regulation in a nuanced way; that is, rules can be good or bad or in need of improvement. Do you think that’s a fair assessment of the industry’s general approach to the Congressional mandates and executive actions that drive federal safety regulations?

Heller: That is a great way of describing the rules bestowed upon our industry, and nothing better exemplifies that point than CSA, a rule which can be described as good, bad AND in need of improvement. TCA members and trucking as a whole can pretty much agree that CSA, in theory, is viewed as a good thing. Realistically judging motor carriers and their safety performance in an effort to remove bad apples from our roads is a direction that we should applaud, as our responsible and proactive carriers should not have anything to worry about. However, pointing out the negative aspects of the CSA program is probably a thousand word story in and of itself, which we won’t get into here, but we can all agree that improvements do need to be made.  In a nutshell, the same can be said for almost any regulation. There are good parts and bad parts which we would hope to better shape as the comment periods open so that trucking can better position itself as a safety-first industry. 

HDT: Which safety rules already in the works will you be tracking most closely this year for their potential impact on truck safety as well as on fleet operations and the driver shortage?

Heller: Wow, there are so many. I think the drug and alcohol clearinghouse and the incorporation of hair testing to DOT drug testing protocols will be extremely beneficial to the industry and have a dramatic effect on our driving force. As you know, our industry has a zero tolerance when it comes to operating a commercial motor vehicle when under the influence. We like to know what a prospective driver’s drug history is when onboarding them to our workforce and we want to be sure that each fleet is fielding the safest team of drivers available to them.

The clearinghouse will provide a tremendous insight into our world so that we can be sure of who we are bringing into the driving fold. Today, drivers can test positive for a carrier and go onto the next possible employer when their system clears out and the next carrier would have no way of knowing about the previous positive test from possibly a few days ago. The clearinghouse looks to remedy that.

As the Department of Health and Human Services vets its guidelines to incorporate hair testing as an 'and/or option' for its drug testing protocols, carriers can use that option to better define the drug history of a potential driver. Both of these represent tremendous strides towards upholding our industry’s zero tolerance policy for prohibited substances on our roads. 

HDT: In December, the electronic log mandate will kick in. What should fleets do that have not already converted to smoothly transition from paper to electronic logs?

Heller: If your fleet has not started to traverse down the ELD transition road yet, it is time to start. While we just entered 2017, time always seems to fly when it comes to these issues. Yes, the rule is still being litigated in what TCA hopes is short-lived as OOIDA has filed yet another appeal in an effort to roll the ELD clock backwards. However, the majority of TCA members have been proactive on the ELD adoption front, finding ELD solutions that they are comfortable with and fit the needs of their operations. For those that have not yet begun the process of finding ELD technology to implement, the first place to start would be FMCSA’s website. There, carriers can find a growing list of companies that offer the FMCSA compliant devices, which means that the specifications that the agency outlined in its rulemaking are contained within the products listed. 

HDT: Another rule that directly concerns drivers is the one aimed at preventing coercion. Can you explain the ins and outs of that rule and whether it will improve the working life of drivers?

Heller: Will addressing coercion improve the lives of our drivers? Certainly, if those drivers that are indeed being coerced take the time to report it. Whether you are a carrier, shipper, broker or any other party involved in the transportation of goods, we must respect the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations and the drivers that abide with them. If a driver feels forced into a situation of non-compliance by any party involved in the freight distribution chain, encouraged to violate a regulation or possibly feels that their job is threatened if they don’t operate in a way that would be considered in violation of federal rules, I would encourage them to report the incident through the procedures outlined on FMCSA’s website. 

HDT: Are there any new initiatives TCA favors or is working on to help alleviate the endlessly growing shortage of truck drivers?

Heller: It seems as if everywhere we turn nowadays is yet another discussion about finding new drivers. TCA is keenly interested in the younger driver pilot program that will begin soon in an effort to find discernable data that will either prove or disprove once and for all whether or not a younger driver, between the ages of 18-21, can safely operate a commercial motor vehicle in interstate commerce. We have been advocating for this kind of demonstration project since 2000, when we originally petitioned for this project. The reality is that I can stand atop of TCA’s headquarters in Alexandria, Virginia and see the Washington Monument. I can turn 90 degrees and look into Maryland. If I am a 19-year-old commercial driver, I cannot drive my truck there, but can turn around and drive all day into the southwest corners of Virginia because I am still operating in intrastate commerce. We aren’t saying that we should just hand the keys over to younger drivers, but we certainly are saying that we would like to see the data that could decide whether or not they can be as safe or safer than our drivers operating in interstate commerce today. 

HDT: What’s your take on the recent DOT rulemaking proposal on autonomous cars — do you think such an effort aimed at commercial vehicles is far off?

Heller: I am a bit surprised that DOT’s recent autonomous policy was based strictly on cars, considering the headway that our industry has made recently on this very subject. I actually believe we will have larger fleets of autonomous trucks well before autonomous cars hit mainstream. The technology is already being tested and commercially speaking, the venues exists to actually recoup dollars invested into this technology that would dictate for trucking to come first. I remember the days when we used to imagine that this day would come and it seemed so far off, the idea of a beer truck being driven autonomously would be synonymous with a fraternity party joke or a Super Bowl commercial. Now it seems as if everywhere I turn, is another hearing or roundtable on vehicle autonomy and it is only a matter of time before these test drives become everyday occurrences to a normal course of business. Before long, our industry will be revisiting the majority of rules that affect our drivers today to incorporate these self-driving vehicles. Think about the leg work that will go into our regulations, our security protocols, driver training, or for that matter what the driver of the future looks like. We are on the cusp of a new world in trucking and it is imperative that we continue to be involved in this process so that we can help shape the future, not just watch it go by.

HDT: Before we let you go, what brought you to building a career in government relations serving the trucking industry?

Heller: The million dollar question… If you had asked me in college if my plan was to become the vice president of government affairs for the Truckload Carriers Association, I would have thought you were joking because the only experience I had with trucks growing up was getting the drivers to blow their horns on family trips. Quite honestly, I kind of fell into it as I was at a stage in my life where I was job hunting. I landed a job at the American Trucking Associations working on safety programs, such as the National Truck Driving Championships, and made some great friends. Once you get exposed to trucking, it gets in your blood and before you know it, you are surrounded by great people with the same common goals, delivering freight from point A to point B and doing so safely. Before I knew it, I was involved in the issues, took my career to TCA, and have not looked back. 

Related: TCA Promotes Heller