Academia meets OTR trucking at DC meeting
The Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association contributed trucking savvy during January’s annual meeting of the Transportation Research Board in Washington, DC — meanwhile, OOIDA will serve on TRB’s new transportation committee, which stands to influence transportation policymakers.

Nothing sounds more boring than 10,000 engineers in one place discussing “Advanced Methods of Concrete Curing” or “Improved Reflectivity of Center Line Paint.” But more was going on at the 82nd TRB meeting in Washington, DC, than sessions covering pavement.

The TRB — the Transportation Research Board — is a unit of the National Research Council, a private, nonprofit institution that is the principal operating agency of the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Engineering. The board’s mission is to promote transportation progress by conducting research through the work of its committees and task forces.

Belzer to head committee

The trucking task force, soon to become a full TRB committee, is chaired by Michael Belzer, associate professor and academic director at Wayne State University, who also sits on the OOIDA Foundation Advisory Board. He will be the chairman of TRB’s new transportation committee.

Other permanent members of the task force are:

  • Peter F. Swan, Penn State University
  • Stephen F. Campbell, Commercial Vehicle Safety Alliance
  • Christina Casgar, IANA - Intermodal Foundation
  • Robert M. Clarke, Truck Manufacturer’s Association
  • Alan M. Clayton, University of Manitoba
  • Michael Conyngham, International Brotherhood of Teamsters
  • Rebecca Brewster, ATA Foundation
  • Dr. Mark L. Edwards, Traffic Safety, AAA
  • Don Jauquet, Schneider National Inc.
  • (Janice) Susie Lahsene, Transportation Program Manager, Port of Portland
  • Timothy P. Lynch, Motor Freight Carriers Association
  • Bob Obee, Roadway Express Inc.
  • C. Michael Walton, Department of Civil Engineering, the University of Texas at Austin
  • Elaine King, Transportation Research Board
  • Richard F. Pain, Transportation Research Board
  • John Siebert, Project Manager, OOIDA Foundation

For several years, OOIDA Foundation Project Manager John Siebert has served on TRB’s Task Force for the Trucking Industry, and OOIDA Executive Vice President Todd Spencer has attended TRB’s sessions.

Soon, however, that task force will become a full-blown TRB committee with significant say over various issues — and OOIDA’s knowledge of real-life trucking is viewed as invaluable as the committee’s work influences policymakers.

At the January meeting, OOIDA contributed to issues where truckers have a vested interest. Spencer was a panel member on one of three sessions covering weights and measures and another session on insurance rates; and Siebert presided over a session called, “Economic Competition and Heavy-Vehicle Safety.”

OOIDA also provided a fresh perspective during sessions on the wisdom of building dedicated truck lanes and whether freight is too cheap.

Is freight too cheap?
All panelists agreed freight is too cheap.

However, OOIDA added its view. No mode of transportation likely pays the full cost of providing the infrastructure it needs. Real transportation costs are picked up by Uncle Sam (U.S. taxpayers). Too often when it comes to ports, Spencer said, this happens for local reasons when it makes no sense for the country.

“The trucking industry is not the primary beneficiary of the nation’s highway system any more than the mules were the beneficiaries of the Oregon Trail,” Spencer told the group. “If we were still driving on gravel roads, truckers would still be hauling most of the freight and probably making the same money.”

Moreover, most money flows to shippers and they, not truckers, are the direct beneficiaries of our highway system, Spencer added.

“Rather than beneficiaries, trucks in the United States are generally viewed as cash cows by every toll bridge authority or roadside enterprise looking for a way to fill their coffers from vehicles that are simply passing through,” Spencer said.

“But if policymakers really believe that trucks and modes don’t pay their share in taxes and fees, the only way to really correct the situation is to determine those costs and then assess them on the cargo being transported as the airlines do now,” he added. “Not only would this system pass those costs to the transportation beneficiary, but it also would resolve the issue of overweight containers. If a foreign shipper wanted to fill a container with two loads, he would pay for two loads.”

Bigger trucks and the Aussie experience
Last year, the TRB issued a study that said if trucks were allowed to be bigger, longer and weigh more, in theory, there would be fewer trucks on the road because fewer trucks could handle the existing freight.

“However, this study was conducted by the ATA Foundation, which favors bigger, heavier trucks,” Siebert said.

Siebert pointed to a discussion by Michael Quinlan, the University of New South Wales, Sydney, Australia, who described what happened when higher truck sizes and weights were approved in the land down under.

Quinlan’s conclusions: There was no decrease in the number of trucks out on the highway; carriers all had to buy new trailers and bigger tractors to pull them to remain competitive; the truck crash and fatality rate did not go down; and when carriers finally spent a lot of money to provide additional capacity, the shippers stirred up industrywide competition that resulted in lower freight rates.

Insurance issues
Spencer told a session discussing insurance that owner-operators had not seen the enormous rate hikes experienced by large fleets, and that those motor carriers that were hit by the biggest hikes were likely underpaying substantially based on the risk they represent.

Insurance industry panel members, meanwhile, said that in boom economic conditions, insurance companies make more money investing their cash reserves in the stock market than they make from selling insurance.

In fact, they subsidize lines of insurance that have more claims than premiums, just to add market share to their portfolios. However, when there’s a down market, as is evident today, insurance companies must make money by bringing in more from premiums than what they pay out in claims.

According to data from the American Insurance Association, commercial auto (truck insurance) was very profitable for insurers in the early to mid-1990s, but since 1997 insurance payouts have risen while returns on net worth have dipped under 2 percent.

How long will high premiums hang around? According to one of the panelists, Jack Burket, a consultant, “Look for at least another year of high premiums before declines begin again.”

How competition affects safety
On this issue, a J.B. Hunt study compared the crash rate Hunt had before and after they raised their driver wages from 28 cents to 38 cents per mile.

The Hunt study described the net result of raising driver wages and being more selective when hiring: For every 1 percent pay raise, the probability of that driver being in a crash was reduced by 1 percent.

Since the FMCSA is committed to reducing truck crashes by 50 percent over 10 years, federal regulators have a keen interest in the study’s results.

Some silly ideas
A session on dedicated truck lanes presented several studies and design proposals for truck-only highways. Some were interesting, while others were downright scary, according to Siebert.

For example, participants discussed a plan to build six lanes of truck-only traffic on a roadway supported by giant pillars located 200 feet or more above existing traffic lanes. The concept was designed for earthquake-challenged California.

Meanwhile, Texas officials want to build 4,000 miles of transportation corridors — however, since the corridors will be four football fields wide, they will require the same land mass as the state of Rhode Island.

During another session, Roadway Express and U.S. Express were represented. John Bronneck from Roadway said, “We would be happy to help finance truck-only lanes through tolls, if we can find a shipper willing to pay a higher rate for expedited freight.”

Siebert asked where a shipper could be found willing to pay a higher rate. The reply: “Well, as you know, the margins are razor thin, and shippers don’t seem to be willing to raise the rates for any reason.”

Siebert then pointed to Virginia’s design for additional truck-only lanes for 324 miles of I-81 that would cost billions of dollars and would be funded solely by the commercial trucking segment of the traffic.

“Well,” Bronneck said, “We wouldn’t be able to handle that.”

Meanwhile, government consultant Edward Regan III, senior vice president of Wilbur Smith Associates, got a bit of trucking education from a Roadway representative.

He asked, “Did I understand that if we give you truck-only lanes that are free of cars and really wide, you wouldn’t open up those big trucks to 85, or 90 mph? You would still run them governed at 62 mph?”

The Roadway representative replied, “That is correct. We have determined that at 62 mph, we get our very best efficient use of diesel fuel. Since diesel is our largest cost, and fuel mileage becomes horrible at those higher speeds, we would never be able to recoup the additional fuel costs by just getting to the destination faster.”

Then came a researcher from the University of California at Berkeley who said the school was testing fuel economy that involved drafting several trucks in a tight formation. A lead truck would break the atmosphere and develop air turbulence, which would allow the following trucks to follow along with a fraction of the fuel consumption. They had found the best distance between trucks was three feet.

“That comment left all the trucking industry people in the room laughing out loud,” Siebert said.

The net result of the sessions was that truckers, who face everyday challenges to survive, are finally being heard by the planners, designers and regulators.

“Folks that all too often sit in glass offices and think their deep thoughts have little or no idea how they will help, hinder or affect the truckdrivers and just-in-time commerce that passes over that perfectly cured concrete,” Siebert said.

—by the Land Line staff