What a Year

By Randy Grider
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The end of the year always lends itself to a moment or two of reflection on the previous 12 months.

And 2004 has definitely had it moments for those in the trucking industry. We started the year with a new hours-of-service rule, a long-awaited change that was preceded by apprehension and skepticism. Several months after the implementation of the rule, many truckers surprisingly found the transition smoother than expected. Bolstered by wage increases and detention pay, many truckers were soon singing the praises of the new regs. The rule showed signs of curbing some of the inefficiencies by shippers and receivers that have plagued the industry for years.

That was all before a lawsuit and an appeals court ruling cast a cloud of uncertainty over the American trucking community by vacating the rule. The court outlined some of the shortcomings of the new rule, which many drivers, who were just happy to be able to make a living, had chalked up to just being “a part of the job.” This included a lack of attention paid to drivers’ health. The ruling also noted the absence of onboard recorders to force compliance with the new rule.

Congress stepped in and bought the Federal Motor Carriers Administration a yearlong reprieve to reconsider the rule. While truckers are still operating under the new rule for the time being, it’s hard not to feel like the industry is close to where it started a year ago – apprehensive and skeptical of what lies ahead.

Truck manufacturers began 2004 cautiously optimistic. As truck orders continued to gain momentum throughout the year, a renewed confidence in the industry took hold. Strong sales are now projected through 2006.

Rising fuel prices, the war in Iraq and a presidential election also garnered much attention in the past 12 months.

While fuel prices hit record highs, some signs of easing began following the Nov. 2 presidential election. Because of the volatile nature of the Middle East, it’s too early to tell if fuel prices will continue to moderate. But hopefully, if the Iraq situation becomes more stable and the U.S. economy continues to improve, fuel prices will become less of a factor for the trucking industry in the coming months.

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Truckers and the war in Iraq also made headlines across the world. Several drivers were killed, kidnapped or wounded while working for the U.S. coalition. In July, Truckers News ran a feature on the monetary rewards and the perils of working for contractors in the worn-torn country.

Following the publication of the story, we received numerous calls from drivers all over the country who wanted more information on trucking opportunities in Iraq. Some were lured by the prospects of making money, while others felt a sense of patriotism. And we are still fielding calls today.

But perhaps the most inspiring story we covered was that of Thomas Hamill. The Macon, Miss., trucker was taken captive in Iraq after his convoy was ambushed. The levelheaded driver managed to escape from his captors and made his way to freedom by flagging down a U.S. military convoy.

What was impressive about Hamill and his extraordinary ordeal was his demeanor when he returned home. While being hailed as a hero by many people, the 20-year OTR veteran, who now has written a book, downplayed what he had done. Instead, he tried to cast a bright light on the trucking industry. “[Truckers] are not considered knights of the road anymore,” Hamill told Truckers News. “Truckers don’t get the respect they deserve, and hopefully now we’ll get a little more.”

It’s that kind of selfless attitude that epitomizes the majority of truck drivers out there today serving our country – at home and abroad. Because of the uncertainty of the next hours-of-service rule, fuel prices and other issues that continue to grab the latest headlines, it’s reassuring that truck drivers as a whole are dedicated to their profession.

Looking back at 2004, we know the industry has faced challenges. That will continue into the next 12 months. But ultimately, it’s not about the trucks or fuel or regulations. It’s about the people whose rugged determination and sense of contribution keep things moving forward. These people – these truckers – are what gives us great hope for 2005.