Hundreds of trucking firms employ thousands of truckers to haul millions of tons for clients shipping their goods throughout North America.

Hundreds of trucking firms employ thousands of truckers to haul millions of tons for clients shipping their goods throughout North America.

Mike Card has taken on the role of representing the industry's collective conscience for the next year as chairman of the American Trucking Association — a collection of state, national and international organizations.

ATA's primary interest is safety, closely followed by the industry's essential role in the American economy and its sustainability, said Card, president of major flat-bed hauler Combined Transport, based in Central Point. "Trucking is essential for everything we do, and a lot of people don't understand that," said Card. "When you order something on the Internet, the Internet doesn't ship it to you — trucks do. Trucking is not something that's going to be outsourced to India."

Still, Card has a sense that his industry needs to shore up its public perception. He points out truckers are twice as safe on the road as the average driver, based on the number of accidents per miles driven. While railroads have produced slickly packaged commercials touting their efficiency in moving freight, it doesn't come close to matching trucking's overall production.

"Burlington Northern Santa Fe ran a prime-time television commercial, and people look at that and begin thinking railroads are doing a great job," Card said. "But railroads only do 10 percent of freight shipping in this country. Trucking does 70 or 75 percent, depending on if you're talking tonnage or dollars. In Oregon, 85 percent of the communities are served only by trucks. What we do is critical for small-town America."

Card, who was elected to his post last month during a conference in Las Vegas, has met with industry groups in Houston, Mexico City, Los Angeles, South Carolina and Tucson, Ariz. He's headed out of town Sunday for another gathering in Palm Springs, Calif.

Card said truckers need to regain a status they lost more than 30 years ago when deregulation altered the landscape and introduced an army of new players.

When deregulation hit in 1980, ending government-set rates, market rates took over. "A lot of little guys popped up, including Combined Transport," Card said. "There were a lot of smaller carriers that didn't have budgets to maintain their trucks. A lot of the startups didn't have the knowledge to do things the right way. Truckers need to be considered knights of the road again. From the types of truck — clean with up-to-date technology — and most drivers are starting to wear uniforms again."

Natural disasters such as Hurricane Sandy create a variety of challenges for truckers.

ATA Executive Director Bill Graves, a former Kansas governor, told one cable news network that road officials have to keep access open to trucks. "When you close off roads," Card said, "not only do you not have access to fuel, but hospitals don't get supplies."

Card said an earthquake near Portland likely would close Interstate 5 because of unsafe bridges, forcing truckers to find alternate routes.

"The buildings and people might be fine," he said. "But if the infrastructure was knocked out, they would feel it after three days without electricity, hospitals and food; a lot can happen in a negative way. We need Highway 97 (east of the Cascades) turned into a viable freeway."

The ATA backs higher fuel taxes simply to ensure roads and bridges are maintained. "We're falling behind global competitors," he said. "When you can get stuff shipped from China to Portland cheaper than having it shipped by truck from Salt Lake City, there's a problem. We need better infrastructure and better highways."

He said toll roads are not the answer. "When you run freight from Seattle to Minnesota, you're taking I-90 all the way through Montana," Card said. "Who is paying for that highway? There aren't enough people in Montana to pay for it; you need a national and regional system. That's why we're for raising fuel taxes."

Reach reporter Greg Stiles at 541-776-4463 or email