The Roemer Report: April 2020

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Speed to Market: New ATRI data shows trucking activity accelerating recovery. Where would we be without our Truckers?

Lots of social, scientific and political talkers are voicing hopes that the April 30 deadline for alleviating some of our social restrictions might allow for a truly epic Cinco de Mayo celebration this year.

However, many others believe it will probably be premature to pass the Patron on May 5 to celebrate the beginning of a societal and economic recovery. We fear that this fiesta may, indeed, – like so many others - be postponed. Times are tough. The talkers are talking and talking about how severe the economic impacts will be.

We can’t really know just how bad it will get but we do know we can’t stay hunkered down forever. And although we may not be preparing to party just yet, by looking back to our recent past we can certainly hope for a robust recovery when the time is right.

Not so long ago, we saw our economy manage to lift itself out of the country’s deepest-ever recession, albeit only to stumble along at a tepid 2% annual growth rate. Keep in mind, the fundamentals at that time were very different, indeed.

The fantastic, elastic US economy: Driven by trucks

One thing was true then, and it is true now. Trucking is a fundamental force in any economic recovery. Without trucking our economy doesn’t move an inch. When the great recession ended our recovery was feeble, but once we began implementing pro-business – and pro-trucking-economic policies our economy kicked up its heels and really got galloping.

America’s trucking industry is firmly in the saddle all the while. There is plenty of evidence that despite the significant impact this virus is having on the global economy and many of our citizens’ personal economies, the US national economy may just have enough horsepower to recover what’s been lost, then accelerate past the pandemic’s worst effects.

Provided we giddy-up pretty soon.

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Trucking on the move in March

What’s also proving true is the fact that the trucking industry (as they have in the past) is proving it can and will continue to provide the torque the US economy needs to bottom as gently as possible; recover quickly and see us well past this unprecedented economic speed bump.

Although the guacamole isn’t made yet, at this point it is very likely there will be plenty of ripe avocados in the produce section May 4th. Truckers will see to that.

Especially gratifying was the American Trucking Research Institute’s (ATRI’s) end of March analysis of real-time GPS data from more than 1 million trucks.

Newly released data from ATRI shows that trucks are on the move - and faster than usual – in response to the demands placed on the industry by COVID-19. According to ATRI their analysis shows unprecedented performance year-over-year.

Extra effort proven by hard data

ATRI President and COO Rebecca Brewster offered hard data to support the assertion: "ATRI's real-time GPS data comes from more than a million trucks, allowing us to analyze freight flows, and so far in March, what we are seeing is an unprecedented level of truck movement.” Not only are trucks continuing to move, she said, but they are doing so at speeds “well in excess of normal traffic patterns."

Spaghetti junction now cibo di rapida

Although it took the American public to self-suspend their liberty and civil rights related to freedom of movement and association, the effect (as draconian as it might be) has been to clear the road so America’s trucking industry can keep the US economy moving.

For example, even the infamous intersection of I-85 and I-285 in Atlanta, long-known as Spaghetti Junction, can – at least for now - now be called cibo de rapida which is Italian for “fast food.” According to ATRI data, trucks are now averaging 53 MPH in afternoon rush hour.

Doesn’t sound all that impressive until you consider that all things being considered, truck speeds through this bottleneck are typically less than 15 MPH due to congestion. "Spaghetti Junction is typical of what we've seen across the country, especially in areas hit hard by the virus and subject to quarantines and lockdowns," noted ATRI’s Brewster. "As other traffic dissipates, trucks continue to move, delivering much-needed relief supplies to markets, hospitals, gas stations and other essential businesses."

Just one data set, but a good one

Understandably this is just one data set showing the trucking industry’s amazing response to the pandemic crisis. Certainly, there is plenty of data scaring people half to death out there right now. But these trucking stats are generally being under-reported and seemingly with a pronounced political agenda.

Ditto media’s profit motive: “If it bleeds, it leads.” Come on, people. We could all use some encouragement. And there are glimmers of good news just over the horizon. Thank God for our truckers bringing the goods – and the good news.

At the end of March the expected bad news began accelerating as well, with hard data coming in from testing showing the steady rise of confirmed cases. Unfortunately this data seems often to be used to serve political agendas more than people’s need for accurate unbiased information.

There is little in these daily reports to help people understand the true relative impact of the disease on society or give them enough context to process this information – hopefully so we all can react more appropriately than hoarding toilet paper, setting checkpoints at state lines or stopping a pastor from holding a church service.

Trucking’s best PR campaign

For most observing the trucking industry it is truly a marvel to see how fast the public’s popular opinion can change. It was just two short months ago this column was covering the impact outsized damage awards were having on the trucking industry. Similarly we reported on toll authorities diverting funds to pay for social programs rather than the roads truckers use and pay for.

With new ELD regulation came an unprecedented level of political/social hostility towards the industry. For the most part, prosecutors seemed to be hell-bent on making having an accident in a truck virtually a hate crime.

Seriously positive role, seriously positive role models

The former mayor of Chicago and Obama’s Chief of Staff once famously said, referring to his party’s doctrine when it came to generating political change. Referring to the last recession as an opportunity, he said something to the effect of: “Never let a serious crisis go to waste.”

Perhaps it is time for trucking to rip a page from the Saul Alinsky playbook. The sentence following that tone-deaf remark offers a caveat the industry might consider: “And what I mean by that it's an opportunity to do things you think you could not do before.”

It’s been decades since the industry has seen such tremendous popular support and positive media, and that spells renewed political power for the trucking industry. Once the bug dies down, and it will, the role trucking plays in carrying the US economy in good times and bad will have been made absolutely clear; politicians will be forced take notice more than ever. If you got it, a truck brought it.

It seems equally clear that trucking’s role in mitigating the pandemic and its panic is an opportunity for the industry to do things it thought it couldn’t do before. What might be in that list? Perhaps tort reform and damage award limits. How about a fair, nationwide tolling system? What about exclusive funding for a real parking solution for truckers nationally?

If there was ever a time for the industry to seek reforms and a more rational, national and regional support, It’s now. The US economy is completely dependent on trucks and the operators that drive them; isn’t it about time society returned that favor? After all, where would we be without our truckers?

Bob Tales