ATA president calls for improvements to NAFTA during MCE keynote address

SAN DIEGO, Calif. – In a spirited keynote address, American Trucking Associations (ATA) president and CEO Chris Spear urged those in trucking to “get out and kick some ass” in an effort to advocate for the betterment of the industry.

Speaking today during the ATA’s Management Conference and Exhibition in San Diego, Calif., Spear outlined several achievements and goals of the association, including improving the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which he said has inadequate labor and environmental standards.

“We’ve been working with this administration, House and Senate, and our Mexican and Canadian counterparts to highlight the overwhelming benefits, as well as the alarming economic impact that would ensue if the pending U.S., Mexico, Canada agreement is not passed by Congress,” Spear said. “And that work is paying off.”

Also relating to Canada, Spear underscored recent moves to legalize the use of marijuana, which he called a compounding effect of social change.

Spear said Canada, along with 11 states and the District of Columbia, have all legalized recreational cannabis, but the U.S. federal government continues to turn a blind eye.

“And guess who gets caught in the middle?” questioned Spear, saying the ATA’s new Controlled Substances, Health and Wellness Subcommittee announced its first meeting in San Diego to address these concerns. “To change direction, we need a member-led policy platform that helps lawmakers, regulators, and courts make informed decisions about the impact substance abuse is having on safety and interstate commerce. We’ll also continue pushing federal agencies to finish the mandate ATA got enacted four years ago, permitting hair follicle testing in place of traditional testing… and that those same test results populate the Drug Clearinghouse.”

ATA Chris Spear
Chris Spear.

Spear also doubled down on the driver shortage, despite recent media reports to the contrary.

“Denying the shortage even exists only empowers other modes to chip away at our current market share… and they will,” said Spear. “Ignoring the facts is not an option. The problem is real. And the solution is not one thing… but many, starting with our current stable of drivers.”

Spear said numbers show there is currently a shortage of 60,000 drivers in the U.S., and the industry needs to build a well-trained talent pool to take over for today’s aging workforce.

He urged those in attendance not to poach drivers from other carriers, as this is not a sustainable growth strategy.

“We need to focus on improving access to affordable health care and wellness programs that keep our employees healthy and improves their overall quality of life,” suggested Spear.

In addition to efforts to entice former military personnel like Hiring our Heroes, Transition Trucking, and the ATA’s Workforce Hero’s program, Spear said they have taken a closer look at urban centers, which could help increase the number of minorities and women in the industry.

“And considering the average age of our drivers well exceeds the national workforce, we need to elevate the next generation of workers who will inevitably replace them,” said Spear, “beginning with 18- to 21-year-olds.”

In the U.S., 48 states allow 18-year-olds to drive Class 8 commercial vehicles, but they cannot cross state lines. They are permitted to drive truck without any training standards or technology requirements. Spear said the ATA is committed to teaching young drivers how to responsibly operate a truck, pointing to young military personnel as proof those in that age bracket can be successful.

The need for a robust infrastructure spending bill was another area Spear highlighted during his speech.

Using the American Transportation Research Institute’s (ATRI) data as evidence, Spear said the industry is losing $74.5 billion a year sitting in traffic.

With commercial vehicles making up 4% of vehicles on U.S. roads, Spear said that equates to 425,000 trucks sitting idle for a year, emitting 67 million tons of CO2.

To address this concern, the ATA created a national campaign ad called Life Won’t Wait, which Spear said was praised by pro-infrastructure advocates.

“Getting a well-funded infrastructure bill passed takes resolve,” said Spear. “To succeed, we have to call out anyone who thinks fake funding, like tolling existing roads and bridges, is in our nation’s best interests.”

The ATA’s proposed solution to help fund infrastructure upgrades in the U.S. is to increase the fuel tax by 5 cents per year over the course of four years. Spear said that would generate $340 billion in new revenue over 10 years and cost less than 1 cent per gallon to administer.

“It’s the most conservative, efficient, and equitable solution, and the most difficult to evade,” said Spear. “It’s immediate. And it’s time for Congress to do the job we hired them to do… vote. And I am absolutely convinced the votes are there to fund America’s infrastructure.”

Spear touted the ATA’s ability to advocate and work across party lines, with strong relationships having been built with the current Trump Administration, as well as with House speaker Nancy Pelosi and others in the Democratic Party.

Spear passionately said it was time for the industry to go on the offensive and tell its story to policymakers.

Using an example of a car traveling in the opposite direction of a truck, losing control, crossing the median and colliding with the truck, Spear said carriers should not have to pay for a tragedy the truck driver did not cause.

“We’re fed up, and I don’t know about you, but I’m sick of playing defense while trial lawyers buy jets and yachts at the expense of trucking jobs,” Spear said, receiving an ovation. “We will make tort reform a tier one priority at the state and federal level…we will continue to grow the ATA Litigation Center, and increase the number of lawsuits.”

In the U.S., Spear said trucking employs more than 7.8 million people, or one in 16 jobs, with truck driver being the top job in 29 states.

Award time

After being launched during last year’s ATA conference, Spear named the 2019 winner of the Trucking Cares Foundation Premiere Achievement Award – Mike Ducker.

The award goes to those who positively impact the lives of others. For years, Ducker has given back to his community by serving as the ATA treasurer, on the board of ATRI, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and the Salvation Army.

Ducker also helped a driver named Chad Schrak, who was dealing with a pair of personal tragedies, including having lost a friend to suicide and his wife being diagnosed with colon cancer. Schrak walked across the U.S. to raise awareness of both issues, and Ducker traveled to Oklahoma to cheer him on and make sure he had everything he needed to succeed.

“Talk about showing up for one another,” said Spear. “This was a life changing moment for Chad and a gesture he will forever remember.”
In addition to Ducker’s award win, a $5,000 donation will be made to the Salvation Army.

A university graduate with a degree in English, I have worked in the media and trucking industries as a writer, editor, and now as western bureau chief of Today's Trucking and I have several years of management experience in journalism, as well as hospitality, but am first and foremost a writer, both professionally and in my personal life, having completed two fiction novels.

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