The Truckload Carriers Association (TCA) recently hosted its 69th annual convention, called “Built on Heritage.” It was the future of trucking, not its past, however, which dominated discussion.

Following the conference, Fleet Owner had the opportunity to talk with TCA president Chris Burruss; 2007 TCA chairman Jim O'Neal, president of O&S Trucking; and the immediate past chairman, Barry Pottle, president and CEO of Pottle's Transportation. As they did from the podium, the three industry leaders focused on plans for the future.

FO: There was considerable discussion about the image of trucking at the recent convention. How did trucking come to be on the defensive when it comes to image? Do you have plans for how to restore the industry's once-admired position in society?

O'Neal: There is no question that other motorists today tend to have a negative image of trucks and truckers. When a truck passes them on the road, they feel afraid. When a jury deliberates on a case involving a truck, they often seem to feel a need to “pay trucking back” for all the bad things it does. Somehow we have to change this fear to faith. The public should feel like the truck driver is probably the safest one on the road. We know that safe truck operators are by far the rule, not the exception, but there is no question that public perception drives public policy.

I am not sure how we will accomplish this. Those of us within the industry have probably not put forth a coordinated effort to take back control of our own image, to tell our own story. I'd like to dig a little deeper for starters, and find out why this negative image persists, why people tend to be fearful, and then address that.

Some drivers themselves could use help with how they come across. There are things they could do to help reassure the public. [But] we don't want to launch another multi-million dollar image campaign. That is not what will solve the problem.

Pottle: Our customers need to be more involved. They need to show drivers more respect again. Some treat drivers well already, but I'd like to see that more consistently across the shipper/receiver community.

FO: Chris, at the meeting you noted that the TCA would be “getting more involved in industry policy again.” Can you share any more details?

Burruss: In recent years, we have focused on education, benchmarking, networking, and so on. Lots of hot issues have emerged in recent months, however. Now some of our members would like the organization to reinsert itself back into the policy development process where the truckload community has interests at stake.

One way to do that is to work even more closely with ATA and the state trucking associations to provide input to them on issues of concern to truckload carriers. State associations are often overlooked, but they are very important in bringing about change at the state and national levels.

We are going to have to address critical issues together cohesively, as an industry. If we could ever harness the influence of this industry, there is not much we couldn't do.

FO: During one presentation, Jim, you said “we have to take back safety and wellness as our issues.” Do you have specific plans in mind for how to assume leadership again in this area?

O'Neal: None of the transportation players anywhere in the country…has done as much as our own industry to improve highway safety. However, we have still allowed the sensationalism around certain incidents to let others steal the issue from us. Highway safety is our issue. We are accountable and we know better than anybody else what needs to be done and how to do it. That is what we have to make clear.

FO: Do you see changes ahead for drivers?

Pottle: We talk a lot about the life of the driver, but it all comes down to this: We have to guarantee them a certain wage regardless of what happens, regardless of what goes right or wrong on any given trip. For the past two or three years, that is what we have been doing at our company and our driver turnover is down to 26%.

At every staff meeting, we talk about the reasons drivers were down. We hold people…accountable for their actions, but we just had to take that guessing game about wages away; we had to reduce that anxiety for our drivers.

O'Neal: We have to know what is going on with our drivers, too. Is he or she happy? What is going on at home? We started working with Marketplace Chaplains a while ago. They provide visits and counseling to drivers who request it. You would be surprised at how many drivers and their families use the service. We've also got to make sure that people inside our walls respect and understand what drivers are going through.