In the Driver’s Seat

If you’re reading this, pat yourself on the back. You’ve weathered slow freight, a sluggish economy, sky-high fuel prices and ever-tightening regulatory red tape. And you’re still in business.

Others have not been so lucky. Since 2000 the industry has lost nearly 15,000 owner-operators, according to analyst Chris Brady of Commercial Motor Vehicle Consulting. Some of you became company drivers or parked your trucks, waiting for an economic rebound. Still others left the industry altogether. But the survivors should see light at the end of the tunnel, and this time it’s not an oncoming train:

IMPROVED FREIGHT LEVELS. While the American Trucking Associations’ 2003 truck tonnage index continues to seesaw, freight levels remain up 3 percent over last year. Economists predict that better consumer spending, higher manufacturing output and low inventories should keep plenty of freight in the pipeline.

STABLE FUEL PRICES. Affordable diesel remains your biggest concern, as evidenced by a recent poll where you told us 50-cent diesel fuel, not a new truck or sexy team driver, would have made your Christmas dreams come true. While fuel prices have leveled off, they still remain high compared to historical levels, so plan ahead. If your carrier doesn’t pay a fuel surcharge, now is a good time to find one that does.

MORE STRINGENT HAZMAT REGULATIONS. New rules from the Transportation Security Administration disqualify commercial driver’s license holders from having hazmat endorsements if they have committed certain crimes or are deemed mentally incompetent. About 56 percent of owner-operators hold hazmat endorsements, but that number could drop based on the new rule. If you have an endorsement, or have done nothing that would prevent you from getting one, chances are your services will be at a premium.

RENEWED DRIVER SHORTAGE. Productivity losses from the new hours-of-service rule, tight capacity and a brightening economy mean the industry might need as many as 180,000 drivers this year, according to some estimates. You will be in greater demand than ever and carriers will have to pay more for your services.

And speaking of higher pay

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