The wisdom of ex-ATA honcho Tom Donohue

February 14, 2018

John Bendel

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Do we all need ELDs? Not according to the ATA.

“If we’re safe, if we do the maintenance, if we do the safety training, if we don’t have a lot of accidents, then we ought to have some flexibility.”

Sound familiar? That’s pretty much OOIDA’s case in its request that safe small fleets and owner-operators be exempted from the ELD rule.

But that statement was not from OOIDA. It was from the president and chief operating officer of the American Trucking Associations, Tom Donohue – 22 years ago.

On a mild August day in 1996, I interviewed Donohue in his office for Heavy Duty Trucking magazine. The story appeared in the magazine later that year. Donohue’s comments were recorded and transcribed. They’re his words, not mine.

Donohue came to the ATA from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in 1984. Less than a year after we spoke, he returned to the Chamber as its president and CEO. Now 80, he’s still there. Believe me, Tom Donohue was not then and is not now a friend of workers or small business truckers.

In the summer of 1996, the hours-of-service adopted in 1937 had finally become a serious issue in D.C. At that time, you drove 10 hours in an 18-hour day that defied the natural 24-hour circadian order. Change would not come for another seven years, but the issue was alive in the halls of Congress, and lots of sleep research was underway and so was research into onboard service recorders, a precursor to the ELD.

Tom Donohue
Former ATA chairman and current CEO of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Tom Donohue, in a Jan. 18, 2018 interview with CNBC. Credit: The U.S. Chamber of Commerce Twitter account.

The Federal Highway Administration was running such a study with the cooperation of the National Private Truck Council. The agency had invited the ATA to participate, but ATA had declined. I asked Donohue why.

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“They wanted us to do a study on onboard recorders. They might suck us into that study in such a way that we would find it more difficult to vigorously oppose onboard recorders,” he responded.

“I’m saying anybody who wants to (install recorders), fine. But I don’t want to get into a mandatory deal. The reasons I would not jump up tomorrow in support of hours of service devices? No. 1, a whole lot of people don’t need it, and the government doesn’t know how to do anything other than with a broad brush. Why spend the money?  … We’re not getting into this study. It takes away all our options to be helpful to our members.”

Since then, the ATA has changed its attitude to please its big fleet members, the moneyed folks who have always run the ATA. Those onboard recorders are now the ELDs we all have to live with, the drop-dead devices that provide not one ounce of the flexibility Donohue referred to.

He has never been one of my favorite people, but that mild day in August of 1996 Donohue described what is probably the worst problem with the devices.

“The bottom line is when you go to an absolutely finite system where the guy goes over 28 minutes, he’s out of compliance. If he goes over two minutes, he’s out of compliance. The government, if you have the wrong guy, can write him for being out of compliance, and the media will say that 47 percent of the trucks are out of compliance,” Donohue explained.

“How much are they out of compliance? Are they out of compliance 20 minutes or half an hour? Are they out of compliance because of a snowstorm? Are they out of compliance because when they went to deliver at Ford Motor for just-in-time inventory and had to wait an extra hour? Who knows?”

Who knows, indeed, Mr. Donohue. But the real problem now is that with ELDs the enforcement community doesn’t care.

John Bendel

John Bendel is Land Line’s contributing editor-at-large. A former trucker, former editor at National Lampoon, and longtime truck writer, John is an author, photographer, and freelancer for New York Times. There’s more, but in short, his insight and matchless style of writing makes “Gizmos and Gears” a runaway reader favorite.