The American Trucking Assns. (ATA), the trucking industry’s largest lobbying group, plans to make highway safety and driver recruitment two critical cornerstones of its public outreach efforts this year.

“Our number one issue going forward is safety,” explained Bill Graves, ATA’s president and CEO, in a conference call with reporters. “Our industry is moving more freight over more miles in more [traffic] congestion, so we need to stay focused on ways to improve safety not only for trucking but for the motoring public as well.”

Graves noted that ATA’s safety agenda for 2006 includes a continued push for the adoption of primary seat belt laws in all 50 states, more targeting of “problem” drivers of both cars and commercial trucks, addressing ways to lower highway speeds, and more research on the plausibility of using electronic on-board recorders (EOBRs) as a way to automatically record truck driver hours-of-service (HOS).

“EOBRs could have a role to play in fostering a safer [trucking] environment and could also be part of a larger package to gather driver/truck data to drive better asset use,” he said.

However, Graves said speeding is probably a larger safety issue than EOBRs – and is one trucking carriers themselves are anxious to address.

“We have many members who support a variety of options to lower highway speeds, from lowering overall highway speed limits to limiting truck speeds via programmed engine governors that come pre-set from the factory,” he said. “You’d be surprised and impressed at the amount of dialog and discussion the issue of speeding generates among our members, but the challenge for us is to reach a broad consensus as to what path to pursue. Until we do that, we are not going to pursue anything aggressively.”

Driver recruitment is also an issue that’s going to get a lot of attention from ATA – most likely in the form of a public education campaign designed to target specific groups such as the Hispanic community, retired or laid off workers over 50 looking for a second career, and former soldiers leaving the service after just one hitch.

“We believe there are adequate pools of workers out there – we just need to get to them and convince them that trucking offers good jobs,” said Graves. “We need to make the truck driver’s job more appealing and we know that past efforts haven’t worked to solve the shortage.”

Part of that effort is going to involve working not only with government job banks and other employment agencies. but special interest organizations as well – including the American Assn. of Retired People (AARP), said Graves. “We can’t leave any stone unturned in terms of addressing the driver recruitment issue,” he added.