Las Vegas. The 79thAmerican Trucking Associations (ATA) Management Conference and Exhibition officially convened here in Las Vegas yesterday morning. A record turnout packed the ballroom to hear ATA president and CEO, Bill Graves, deliver his annual state of the industry address. While Graves was upbeat about the long-term future of the industry as a whole, he was less so about the challenges facing individual companies in the immediate months ahead.

“From my vantage point as the head of ATA, I don’t think the industry itself is at a crossroads as much as each of your companies,” Graves said. “Both the essentiality of the industry and the demand for freight movement by truck—a growing demand for freight movement by truck—is unquestioned. That is to say that the long-term macro outlook for trucking has never been better, but the near-term micro view continues to be very challenging…

“I honestly do believe, [however], that anyone who is operating in the trucking industry is at a crossroads –in fact you’re facing an entire series of crossroads –each one a decision point sending you in directions that will ultimately determine success or failure, profitability or loss, growth or stagnation,” he observed. “There will be multiple paths forward on policies of federal and state government, but some will be cluttered with over-regulation and bureaucratic burdens, while others will provide smooth sailing through partnerships, communication and cooperation.”

Graves placed responsibility for many of the industry’s ills on Congress and the White House. “..three of our nation’s biggest problems are the sluggish economy, a very dysfunctional federal government and the people of this nation who lack confidence that the economy will get better and that our government as its currently assembled in Washington isn’t capable of getting the job done,” he said.

The American Transportation Research Institute (ATRI) also released the results of its annual trucking industry survey of top concerns yesterday, and Graves reviewed some of the finding in his address.  Number one on the ATRI report was compliance, safety and accountability.

“The federal government’s CSA program has been one of the biggest challenges confronting our industry in the last twenty-five to thirty years, probably since deregulation,” he said. “We still believe that CSA is fundamentally the program that will make travel on the nation’s highways safer, but it must be implemented and managed in such a way as to instill confidence within the industry that our ‘buy in’ to the program will make our companies stronger and not be penalized by inaccurate data or misrepresentation by the shipping community or the media.”

Hours of Service (HOS) garnered second place on the ATRI list. “After more than a decade of wrangling over the proper balance of working and rest hours for our driver force, we find ourselves at yet another Hours-Of-Service crossroads,” Grave noted. “Despite the tremendous safety strides made by trucking over the last decade, early on the Obama Administration chose to rewrite the safety rules that have helped us achieve record low crash rates….

“The rule was working just fine...,” he said, “and I have no doubt that the changes were the result of political pressures brought to bear from the White House and not the result of FMCSA professionals believing that further change was necessary or could be justified.”

The state of the economy ranked third on the ATRI survey and Graves placed much of the blame again on the President and Congress for “playing political “gotcha” while we risk falling headlong into another recession.”

A growing driver shortage was number four on the ATRI survey and Graves noted that the industry has to find ways to make driving a more attractive career option to more people.  “Maybe we’re not feeling it quite as much right now, but you all know that once our nation finds a way forward to economic recovery we’re going to be very hard pressed to find enough qualified drivers,” he said. “Finding people who want to work in this industry is very hard. Heck, finding people who want to work hard at anything seems to be in short supply.”

Graves ticked through the other items on the ATRI list from the availability and cost of fuel (number five) to EOBRS, (electronic onboard recorders), driver retention, driver health and wellness and highway congestion.  He also added another concern not mentioned in the ATRI top ten—tax policies. “This was one of the foremost topics in the first Presidential debate,” he observed, “and it is the basis of the crisis we are calling the Fiscal Cliff.”

Ending on a more positive note, Graves noted that, “Change within our industry tends to happen relatively slowly, usually giving us time to shape outcomes that benefit the industry, giving us time to anticipate and prepare. Conversely, change in our industry happens slowly, so if you’re in a hurry for something to happen you might be frustrated with the pace of change. In almost every instance, our past is a good indicator of what our future will hold—and this industry’s past is certainly a story of growth, success and profitability.”