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Former ATA head Bill Graves tackles politics and the challenges facing trucking

SAN ANTONIO. No longer feeling the need to toe the company line, former American Trucking Assns. (ATA) President and CEO Bill Graves offered some of his thoughts on politics and what the trucking industry needs to do moving forward to customers of Pressure Systems International (P.S.I.) during the Meritor and Pressure Systems International 2016 Annual Fleet Technology Event here on Wednesday.

Graves joked that since he is no longer leading the ATA, and is not running for public office, he was now free to offer his opinions. Right from the start of his approximately 30-minute long presentation, Graves tackled what he thinks is the biggest obstacle facing the industry.

“I believe the biggest challenge we face as an industry…is the challenging and dysfunctional nature of our government,” he said. “Right now, it is difficult for any of us to know where the truth lies in any of these campaigns.”

Predicting that Washington gridlock is likely to remain following the November elections, Graves recited the famous quote from Adlai Stevenson II, former governor of Illinois (1949–1953): “In America, anyone can be president. That’s one of the risks you take.”

“What this country needs is a really strong mandate that we can all rally around, but what we will probably end up with is anything but,” Graves said, noting that third-party candidates could pull up to 15% of the presidential popular vote this year, with the eventual winner garnering as little as 42%. “That’s hardly a mandate.”

Graves then shifted gears, albeit only slightly, turning his attention to the biggest issues facing the industry, in his view.

At the top of the list is the current state of the infrastructure. Graves noted an American Society of Civil Engineers report that said the country needs to spend between $170 and $175 billion a year to properly maintain the roads, yet Congress struggles to budget just $60 billion annually.

“We have to figure out in this country how to pay for roads and bridges,” he said. “Roads and bridges are not free and they are not cheap.”

Also of concern to Graves is the speed of traffic, distractions and otherwise impaired drivers leading to increasing traffic fatalities and road rage incidents.

“How many times have you been behind someone a green light who hasn’t moved because they are looking down at their phone?” Graves asked the audience. “When I lived in Kansas, I never used my horn. Now that I live in Washington, DC, I use my horn every day.

“We allow 96 people to die on our nation’s roads every day and we just keep going on [like nothing happens] and it ties back to [deteriorating] infrastructure and distraction,” he added.

Graves went on to downplay the near-term viability of autonomous trucks. “I just don’t think it is going to happen anytime soon,” he said. “I don’t think people in this country are going to turn loose an 80,000-lb. truck with a driver asleep in the berth.”

As far as younger drivers goes, Graves also doesn’t understand why an effort to qualify 18 to 21 year olds to drive interstate hasn’t happened.

“You can drive … 400 mi. intrastate in Kansas, but you can’t drive from Kansas City, KS, to Kansas City, MO, about 10 mi. It doesn’t make any sense,” he lamented.

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