Who runs the ATRI?

June 16, 2023

John Bendel


ATRI, the American Transportation Research Institute, just did a study on the impact of legal marijuana on trucking.

The study shows it’s a serious and complex concern, and I agree. The study itself is serious and seems comprehensive within its scope.

So, why in its 59 pages does the study refer to a truck driver shortage at least seven times?

There is no truck driver shortage, of course, but the perception of one works to the advantage of big, corporate trucking and the folks who speak for them in D.C, the American Trucking Associations. The ATA’s mighty public relations and lobbying machine has convinced the media, Congress, and most of the general public there actually is a shortage of truck drivers.

So, seeing those references to a driver shortage in an ATRI study should be a little unsettling. They’re a reminder that ATRI is an extension of the ATA. Both organizations would rather you not be aware of that.

Don’t mention that

Is it a secret? No. But if you don’t ask, they’re not going to tell you, and they really do not want people to ask.

Once when I was writing news releases (something writers do when they lose real journalism jobs) for a trucking technology company, ATRI honcho Dan Murray was the speaker at my client’s customer event. When I mentioned the ATA connection in our conversation, he instructed me not to say that in a news release. Period. I was a writer-for-hire, so I did what I was told. But I have never forgotten how adamant he was about such a simple fact. It was as if the ATA scoutmaster would strip the poor guy’s merit badges if I mentioned it.

Visit the ATRI website and you’ll see what I mean. You’ll find no reference at all to ATA. The “about” page briefly recounts their history that began in 1954, but they do not mention that when the organization was established and for 50 years afterward they were known as the ATA Foundation. You could get the impression ATRI was a completely independent organization or maybe connected with a university.

Until you get to the link marked “ATRI Board,” that is.

There, they have no choice but to come clean. You get smacked upside the head with exactly what the ATA would rather you not think too hard about: ATRI and ATA are tightly linked at the top.

Of the 14-member board, eight represent big carriers, all in the top 28 of Transport Topics’ Top 100 For-Hire Carriers. Of the remaining six members, two are carriers not among the 100. Another is a state trucking association, one is the ATRI president and one is Cummins, the engine manufacturer whose customers are, well, motor carriers. The 14th board member is none other than the president and CEO of the ATA, Mr. Driver Shortage himself, Chris Spear.

ATRI credibility

I am not questioning anyone’s integrity here. The ATRI does lots of important work that is respected across the industry. I am not suggesting the ATA leans on ATRI’s research professionals or tries to rig the outcome of individual studies. I don’t believe that happens.

Then, why are ATA and ATRI, clearly linked by history and management oversight, so reluctant to acknowledge those bonds? It’s hard to believe the people who commission studies, government agencies for example, don’t know of the ATA-ATRI connection.

I have to guess it’s about marketing, the credibility of ATRI’s work out in the public. Which would you trust more, a study from the ATA Foundation with its obvious industry connection, or from an outfit with the grand name American Transportation Institute? Gimme an institute any day.

Which brings us back to those seven references to a truck driver shortage in their latest study. It’s a buzzword reference, pure ATA speak. Why talk about a shortage, a vague, negative value, when the impact of marijuana – the subject of the study – would be on the driver pool, a positive and measurable value. We all know what the report’s authors are saying. But why say it that way?

While the board and the ATA may keep out of ATRI business, that hardly means they’re without influence. But it’s subtle – passive even. If you led the ATRI with all those corporate trucking folks down the hall, how would you express things?

I’m guessing the influence of the big-trucking board probably has a more important impact, not on how studies are conducted or what the results might show, but on what studies are conducted in the first place and what studies are not. And it may not be all that passive. If they don’t talk about that at board meetings, what do they talk about?

Here’s an idea. Why doesn’t the ATRI do a study of the ATA’s driver shortage? Not a casual survey of carriers’ fuzzy estimates, but a hard look at the shortage numbers? Where do those numbers come from? How exactly are they derived? And by comparison, how many CDL drivers are there in the country? How many of them chose not to work in the industry – and why not?

How about it ATRI – or should I be asking ATA? LL

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