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Qualified drivers with good CSA scores may become hot commodity, says TCA president

TCA President Chris Burruss is among those leading an effort to change public perception about trucking. (The Trucker: LYNDON FINNEY)

By LYNDON FINNEY
The Trucker Staff

4/25/2011

SAN DIEGO — How many times has it been said that the key to opening and maintaining a successful business venture is location, location, location?

Has sort of a ring to it, doesn’t it?

Well, the Truckload Carriers Association has come up with its own marketing slogan that resonated over and over again during the organization’s 73rd annual convention here March 13-16.

Image, image, image.

“I’m one who believes that public perception drives public policy. I think there’s a direct correlation between how the public sees us and how we’re treated,” TCA President Chris Burruss said during an interview with The Trucker during the meeting. “It’s weird. If you go back and look at the industry 30 or 40 years ago, there was a relative popularity of the industry, maybe for the wrong reasons. You look at what was going on in the movies — “Smokey and the Bandit,” “Convoy” — nothing good was happening in those movies. If you looked at the truck of that era, fans in the window, it didn’t look like it would be a very comfortable experience; none of that seemed to matter.”

But fast forward to today.

“We’re cleaner, safer and more efficient and here we are with the challenge of trying to operate our companies,” Burruss said. “So ultimately what we’d like to see is for people to look at what the industry is and what it is not. I don’t think we’ll ever get to the point where people have a love affair with our industry.”

There’s a highway mentality on the road today, Burruss said.

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“It’s kind of and us vs. them, and truckers fall into that as well. They look at four wheelers and say it’s us vs. them. On the car side, people don’t like the trucks. It’s us vs. them. I don’t think we’ll ever change that, not with more and more congested highways.”

The industry must do a better job of helping motorists understand exactly why trucks are on the road and how safely they operate, Burruss said.

TCA board members discussed image during meetings here, at one time juxtaposing two television commercials, one produced by TCA that debuted during ESPN’s Dec. 18 telecast of the uDrove Humanitarian Bowl (see article on Page xx), the other the type of commercial often seen on stations across the country — that of a lawyer soliciting business from consumers who’d been involved in an accident with a big rig.

“Last time I checked, nobody’s ever gone to a rail yard to buy a shirt or a pair of shoes or anything like that,” he said. “I think if we do a better job of illustrating what we do, if we can get people to understand our role, I think that’s the best we can ask for. If that understanding is there, then we may start having an impact on some of these things we are seeing.”

As for the health of the industry itself, things are looking up, although there are challenges.

“Certainly, the economy is better, at least in trucking. Carriers are busier, capacity is tightening and it’s going to tighten some more,” Burruss said. “From a business standpoint, carriers, or those who are still here for the most part are in a much better position than they were.”

Among the challenges, he said, are financing markets, which are not too attractive to the trucking industry, and fuel prices, which have jettisoned to almost $4 a gallon.

On other industry matters, Burruss said:

• Most carriers believe CSA will be good for the industry, but urged industry stakeholders, including shippers, to examine scores closely before passing judgment. “When you see a bad score, your first reaction is knee jerk, my goodness, that’s a horrible score,” he said. “Then you go in and look and a majority of the incidents reported were like cracked reflectors. It’s a safety issue, but how many reflectors does a truck have? I would hope shippers are not going to look at them in a blush and go ‘I’m moving on to the next person.’”

• In the short term, CSA will have an impact on the number of drivers available to fill seats. “I have no real basis in my guess, but I would think between 10 and 15 percent of existing drivers will have some challenges staying in,” he said. “I think over the long haul it will continue to have an impact, but hopefully that will mean better training for drivers, which means we will have a better quality driver, not that we don’t have quality drivers now, but I think once that 10-15 percent is no longer able because of scores, ultimately, I think it will help.

• Because of CSA, carriers are going to have to be more careful about who they hire and good driver scores could become a commodity. “Drivers’ scores are technically not supposed to be made public, but a driver’s score may become a commodity for them. I could see a driver with an excellent CSA score being worth 10, 15, 25 cents more a mile. Time will tell on that,” Burruss said.

• When coming out of an economic recession, the tendency for the industry has been to grow and grow rapidly. But that won’t occur this time. “I think what we’re seeing this time is a little bit different for a number of reasons. Carriers are mot rushing to add trucks. If they are adding trucks, it’s replacements, not necessarily to grow the fleet,” he said. “Drivers are the issue. A lot of fleets are saying ‘if I do buy trucks, I don’t know that I can find drivers to fill the seats, and not just drivers, but qualified drivers.’ Time will tell if we fall back into the same trap we found ourselves in which is everybody rushes to add trucks and we flood the market with capacity, and that has a corresponding impact on rates.”  

Lyndon Finney of The Trucker staff can be reached to comment on this article at editor@thetrucker.com.

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