Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association (OOIDA) is the largest membership organization that represents the interests of small business truckers and professional truck drivers. Now in its 50th year, the organization has more than 150,000 members from all 50 states and Canada.
OOIDA is first and foremost an advocacy organization, fighting for the rights of small business truckers. According to COO Rod Nofziger, the organization is “still fighting the good fight in the nation's capital as well as state capitals across the country.” It does this at the legislative and regulatory levels, and sometimes at the judiciary when action is needed against some government entities that overstep their authority.
The OOIDA board of directors is made of folks that come from the truck-driving community, all voted up from the membership. The leadership of the organization really keeps focus and has a finger on the pulse of what was happening with the overall membership and certainly the entire truck-driving community.
In addition to many resources, such as trucking insurance, a drug and alcohol testing consortium, and a permits and licensing group, OOIDA has the Land Line magazine and Land Line Now radio show on Sirius XM’s Road Dog Trucking channel to help to educate and empower the membership. Landline magazine is sent to 215,000 - 220,000 households about 10 times per year.
It started in the 1980s when the current president, Todd Spencer, was in charge of the OOIDA newsletter, among a hundred different jobs for the board. Todd actually sold his two trucks and took the proceeds of those trucks to invest in printing equipment, so that the organization could print a better magazine. Everything's produced in-house, including the radio show, which is put together in a studio at the OOIDA headquarters in Grain Valley, MO.
In a recent interview, Payload Podcast host JT sat down with Rod to talk about truck driver advocacy, how recent events affected the trucking industry, and what’s the future of trucking.
Rod Nofziger: Well, it depends. As far as high-profile accidents that unfortunately do happen, whether it's in rail or in trucking, a lot of times what you see is a lot of media attention. Especially so if there's a lot of damage or if there's a significant number of fatalities involved. Just like what we're seeing in East Palestine, the government engages for many reasons. Sometimes, the National Transportation Safety Board sends out investigators to do a full investigation. They come up with determinations on what could have happened, what should have happened to avoid that tragedy, and to provide recommendations to policymakers in D.C. and to lawmakers up on Capitol Hill.
I think you also tend to see, particularly the politicians and the lawmakers on Capitol Hill, wanting to jump into the fray and show that they're doing something to try and take advantage of the headlines by inserting themselves. That latter part is, unfortunately, what we have had to battle back some situations. Now it's not necessarily coming in for a specific individual because a lot of times there could be local law enforcement issues, and there could be insurance matters. There are court issues that come into play and certainly, if it's an OOIDA member, we can help out in different ways. But the bigger thing is, when the government gets involved, negative things tend to happen, and not always good stuff comes out of those high-profile accidents. Sometimes, but certainly our experience has been the majority of the time, there are knee-jerk reactions by lawmakers that result in less than fully vetted bits of legislation that would have significant unintended consequences.
One of the things we've been pushing back against for a good few years now is mandates associated with the side underride guards on trucks. There are entities out there associated with an individual who had some family members that died in an accident, where the car went underneath a trailer and they have been pushing lawmakers to create a mandate that will require all trailers to have these side underride guards. There’s a multitude of reasons why that's not a good idea and why in many cases that could be much more dangerous, not only for the truck driver but also for the motoring public around them.
A tragedy is really the ultimate source of what motivates those lawmakers to support that mandate. We see that in other instances, as well. Again, a lot of times what we will see is somebody trying to come up with a change to Hours Of Service (HOS). Somebody trained to change the insurance overage requirements for truckers or come up with some sort of equipment mandate. Whether they're motivated by a tragedy or they just simply are citing tragedies to try and help their cause, we certainly have had to battle back on some of those things over the years.
JT Peters: I know we're all very much glad to be living in 2023 with the pandemic behind us, but I do like to take stock and look back at the year 2020 when COVID-19 struck and when the music stopped. When did you realize that the coronavirus outbreak was a big deal and how did it start impacting you right first?
Rod Nofziger: Oh jeez… With the membership, I remember it really would have been late March or April of 2020 when there was just a lot of chaos going on and we were trying to keep our members informed. As you may recall, there were all sorts of mandates or things being shut down. Facilities are being shut down. And new requirements for truck drivers. There were personal protection equipment requirements in different states and even different counties within different states.
So we were just in a mad scramble to try and keep up with all that was happening across the country. One of the things really proud of, going back then, was that the staff of Landline magazine literally had people working around the clock to try and keep up with all the different issues that truckers might have to navigate in various states. And we were putting out that list to our members and the general public. It was really intended to help our members. And that lasted for quite some time trying to navigate what the realities were on the road for truck drivers associated with different requirements that were related to COVID. Let alone all the vaccination stuff that started coming into play as well.
The whole COVID era was really fascinating from a trucking standpoint. We certainly saw that early on that we had quite a few members, whether they had personal health concerns or just the freight that they were normally hauling was drying up, who were temporarily shutting down. They didn't know what was going to be available or what they were going to be dealing with once they were on the road. That actually bounced back pretty quickly and from then on for a good year and a half, if not more.
It was actually a very positive market. A lot of negative things were going on but at least from a freight rate standpoint, it was a very positive market for small business truckers. The freight was ample and the rates were great.
That happens from time to time, as the freight market is very cyclic and can be a little bit on the boom or bust side of things, too. But the upcycle lasted for an extended period of time. That came with the supply chain issues. There were some negatives, of course. We saw inflation in truck equipment and truck pricing. Obviously, fuel, as well, was a big issue.
But those freight rates hung up there for quite a while. So all in all, what we heard from our members was, for a good year and a half to two years, it was some of the best trucking that they've had in their entire careers, despite some of the COVID restrictions. That's all changed a bit. We’re reading the tea leaves, the economic tea leaves on where things go from here, and some of the lingering residual impact of the COVID era. How will that play out? I really don't have a good sense, but I guess we'll all see.
JT Peters: As a result of COVID, we've seen an incredible amount of government fiscal policy and stimulus. Money has been injected into the economy in a variety of different ways. Many different bills were passed, some of which were specifically related to COVID while others were on the coattails of COVID. What comes to mind on the infrastructure package and how it impacts trucking?
Rod Nofziger: That's a great question. In the truck world, the so-called highway bill comes out in a few years and that is a multi-year authorization legislation. This, of course, generally speaking, is kind of a two-step process; the money gets authorized, but then it goes through the budgetary process. That is where the money actually gets appropriated. So it's kind of like a kid going to Dad and saying, ‘Hey, can I spend so much money on a new video game?’ And Dad says, ‘Yes, but you're gonna have to go to Mom for the money.’ And Mom actually opens up her purse strings and provides the money. It's kind of a two-step process like that.
The big highway bill has a lot of policy matters that go along with it. Whereas the appropriations process is supposed to be purely spending. Anyhow, the highway bill was in the middle of the so-called bipartisan infrastructure package. As such, we were really looking forward to the provisions of the highway bill. In particular, there was a significant amount of money that was being dedicated toward truck parking across the country. Not just coming up with new signs that say there's X number of spaces at a rest stop or truck stop, but, it actually was to go toward adding additional truck parking capacity and additional spaces. We got some out of the infrastructure package but not quite as much as we had hoped. We are still working on that. In fact, there was a separate piece of legislation that was introduced after the fact focused solely on truck parking. Without letting too much out of the bag, be looking for something significant in the legislative arena on truck parking soon.
We also were looking at certainly an overall investment in the nation's highways, bridges, and tunnels. It is something really important to OOIDA and our membership to make sure that the Highway Trust Fund provides the majority of funding for those facilities, and is actually spending the money it collects on highways, bridges, and tunnels.
We're going to keep on fighting that fight. The truck parking thing is an ongoing issue and has been for many, many years. We feel like we are finally making some progress on that front. So, again, stay tuned as far as some future legislation associated with that.
JT Peters: I'd like to ask about autonomous trucks and when you see them taking jobs away from drivers. When, if ever, do you see an autonomous truck starting to really impact the owner-operator?
Rod Nofziger: Well, that's a good question. I get asked that question actually quite a bit because autonomous vehicles, both personal vehicles and trucks, are in the news so much. My take on this, and I think this is safe to say OOIDA’s take on autonomous vehicles, is that it will be someday. It's something that we should have a lot of concern about but more so the process as those come along. By that, I mean making sure that there are no regulatory shortcuts provided or benefits provided for autonomous vehicles just purely because of the significant venture capitalist money and significant lobbying that's behind that technology.
Sitting here in front of me, I've got the book of regulations that impacts trucking and truck drivers. We don't really have phone books around these days, but this is like a good New York City phone book. It is that thick. How autonomous vehicle information is navigating that stuff, I have no idea other than that they are massively lobbying folks in DC to circumvent the same regulations that traditional trucks and truck drivers have to deal with on a daily basis.
It's one thing for the public to be fascinated and hear about autonomous vehicles. It's a whole other ball game when you're talking about an 80,000-pound rig with nobody behind the wheel going down the same roadway that's being shared with your family.
I hate to say it but it's no surprise a lot of the general public doesn't like trucks. They understand the importance of trucks but trucks are a hindrance for them on the highways. That's just the sad truth. They don't generally get the significance of how safe the vast majority of truck drivers are; they don't get the significance of trucking to our economy and to their lifestyles. But you add a rig that's going down the road with nobody behind the wheel and the implications associated with that, I think that there's going to be a bit of a different story once things get to that point.
I think there are a lot of issues that stand in the way of autonomous vehicles having a material impact on the livelihoods of truck drivers. There certainly are going to be some shorter route applications and some things that probably are going to take place in the next several years, but as far as long-haul truckers. I think we are a ways off from seeing any sort of impact. It's a big issue, though.
JT Peters: I think we hold some very similar views on the matter. Thank you for sharing those with me. Another topic that popped up as a result of the COVID-19 shutdowns and the bullwhip effect on inventory changes, was the ports. I know we aren’t talking about ships; we're talking about truck drivers and specifically about Owner-Operators and Independent Drivers, but there's been an undercurrent over many years at the ports. Specifically, I recall articles by The Atlantic (Truck Stop: How One of America’s Steadiest Jobs Turned Into One of Its Most Grueling) and The New York Times (Alone on the Open Road: Truckers Feel Like ‘Throwaway People’) describing some issues at the ports like modern indentured servitude. [Check out additional coverage in a four-part series by USA Today (Rigged: Forced into debt. Worked past exhaustion. Left with nothing).]
Rod Nofziger: Well, ports are a little bit of a different beast in that most of our members are going to be over-the-road long-haul folks who visit ports on an infrequent basis, at least when you talk about LA and Long Beach. Certainly, we have other ports where we have members that do all containers in and out of LA and Long Beach. A lot of those folks are going to be pure drayage, so containers are in and out, and get paid on how many turns they make on a daily basis. That's not really the core of our membership.
[Learn more about the difference between drayage and intermodal transportation.]
That said, our membership is impacted because certainly there are times when they're hauling in and out of ports. We've been heavily involved out in California for many years. It's the massive port issue that took place in LA in Long Beach, which at least was the busiest port from the volume freight standpoint. This had to do with environmental requirements, concessionaire agreements, and folks on the labor side trying to do away with small businesses and independent drivers in the ports. Basically, the standards were too high for an independent trucker to attain that. So by design, it was intended to vastly reduce the number of companies that were operating in the ports and to force a lot of those independent folks to drive for somebody else. By the way, once they do, then that opens them up to union membership. Back then, we did battle because certainly there is that level of indentured servitude. That does take place in La and Long Beach and in some other ports. t also takes place across the country, even with a few large carriers that are very predatory with lease purchase programs. In fact, to the point where, with a few notable exceptions, we tell folks to stay away from lease purchase programs.
Fast forward to a bit more modern times in California passing the AB5, we've been involved in pushing back on that, trying to educate the lawmakers and people in California, but unfortunately with not much success. It’s a bad idea to apply it to the trucking industry, and in fact, we're participants in pending litigation right now.
Photo by Bernd 📷 Dittrich on Unsplash
JT Peters: The trucking industry, on a different topic, is in a bit of a pickle with the marijuana legislation and safety-sensitive jobs, such as CDL driving. Even with owner-operator independent drivers, there are a lot of issues with marijuana use, as legislation is now different in each state. Can you maybe talk a little bit about that issue and how that may or may not be impacting owner-operators?
Rod Nofziger: It definitely is something that we're trying to navigate. I mentioned earlier that we have a program called CMCI, which is a drug and alcohol testing consortium or a drug and alcohol testing pool if you will. Being an owner-operator or an over-the-road truck driver of any sort, you are under the regulatory purview of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration. They have random drug testing and random alcohol testing in place, as well as pre-employment testing and post-accident testing. So those things are all in place and the standards and the drugs that are covered by those programs from the agency come from Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations.
The short of it is that marijuana is still considered an absolute no-no from those programs for truck drivers or interstate operators. So regardless of whether you reside in a state or operate in a state that has legalized marijuana for recreational purposes or not, it's still off limits for you. It still is something that if indeed you get tested and you test positive, it is going to have ramifications for you.
JT Peters: Well I really appreciate your taking the time to talk through all these issues with us and educate some of the folks out there that might not have been this familiar with OOIDA. Is there anything we did not cover that you want to touch on?
Rod Nofziger: The last thing I would say and this is not just for OOIDA members or truck drivers in general, but for family members and other trucking stakeholders from an advocacy standpoint. GET INVOLVED.
If you see some sort of negative or positive legislation moving forward, I strongly encourage you to reach out to your lawmakers and let them know what you think. Your voice has much more impact than what you think it does. And this is coming from somebody who used to work on Capitol Hill.
Far too few truck drivers actually get involved, actually voice their concerns, their opinions, or their support for something to help move those things along or put those things to bed. So, I encourage everyone to really get involved, whether you agree with a matter or just to exercise that right as an American to be involved and to have your voice heard by folks in Washington and state capitals that are making decisions that could very well impact your livelihood.
OOIDA has a website, fightingfortruckers.com, that will allow you to pretty quickly and easily find out who your senators are and how to contact them through the website. You can even see on the website when there is a regulatory rulemaking before the US Department of Transportation. It's a great place to start. Even if you're not in agreement with some idea or position, you can utilize this website and those capabilities within the website to reach out to your lawmakers.
Land Line magazine: https://landline.media/
Land Line Now radio: https://landline.media/land-line-now/