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August 8, 2016 4:00 AM, EDT

Opinion: Olympic Glory? We Prefer Glory in Safety

This Opinion piece appears in the August 8 print edition of Transport Topics. Click here to subscribe today.

By Chris Spear

President and CEO

American Trucking Associations

There’s a big, patriotic sporting event coming this summer. Contenders fly the flags of the places and people they represent and proudly wear uniforms to demonstrate their pride and allegiance. Fans, families and the media all fix their eyes on one storyline: “Who will emerge as the finest in their field and take home all the glory?”

This isn’t the 2016 Olympic Summer Games in Rio, but to the men and women who compete in the upcoming National Truck and Step Van Driving Championships in Indianapolis, it might as well be.

I think it’s fair to say that these championships are on par with the Olympics in terms of importance, at least to our industry. The NTDC gives truck drivers a chance to showcase their safe-driving skills and knowledge of the industry after months of practice sessions and hours of listening to “Facts for Drivers.” The preparations made by the more than 400 competitors at NTDC have tangible safety benefits for our highways — something that is as important to the fabric of our nation as Olympians bringing home gold medals from Rio.

The athletes in Rio will recite the Olympic motto: “Citius. Altius. Fortius,” Latin for “Faster. Higher. Stronger.” Our competitors in Indianapolis are dedicated to another motto: “Safer. Professional. Dedicated.”

If you’ve never been to the NTDC, you really should consider making the trip. Truck drivers from all 50 states compete in their designated class to claim the ultimate prize of being named the 2016 National Truck Driving Championships Bendix Grand Champion — one of the highest honors a professional truck driver can attain in North America. Many of the drivers began their trip to Indy by winning their terminal or company truck driving championship, winning their state championship and maintaining a clean safe-driving record. Now, 430 of the finest truck drivers in America have an opportunity to claim the title of 2016 Bendix Grand Champion — a title even the great Mark Spitz could never claim.

For our industry, this is what we call the “Super Bowl of Safety” because the entire focus of the event is on safety. Can a driver identify the correct defects during a pre-trip inspection? Can a driver navigate his or her vehicle through challenging obstacles in front of thousands of fans and rival competitors? These are questions that the contenders will aim to answer with a resounding “Yes,” but these also are ways in which a driver can demonstrate our industry’s commitment to highway safety.

Personally, I find great comfort and satisfaction in knowing that these impressive individuals are out on the highway — safely sharing the road with my friends and family — delivering all of the goods that we depend on each day. I cannot say enough about the professionalism one will encounter at the NTDC.

Unfortunately, just like the Olympic heroes who shine for one month every four years, we forget about all the good that these truck drivers contribute to our society each day. It is not enough to simply recognize these drivers as masters of the obstacle course or written test. We must acknowledge that these drivers are among the safest in the world and that they perform at a high level on a day-to-day basis. These drivers, and the rest of the 3.5 million truck drivers in America, have earned the public’s respect and deserve to be shown an outpouring of appreciation.

As part of our efforts to generate more respect for truck drivers, ATA hosts an NTDC media day — just like the NFL does for the Super Bowl. Instead of giving reporters an opportunity to ask competitors about childhood memories and scouting reports, we give them a chance to try their hand at driving a tractor-trailer (with the help of an America’s Road Team captain). Letting someone feel the power and understand the responsibility of driving a truck is one of the best ways to teach people the importance of staying out of a truck’s blind spots. It also leads to more respect for the amount of skill and training being a truck driver requires.

The NTDC, like the Super Bowl and Olympics, is about more than what happens on the course or field. The community comes together to support a cause greater than oneself, to celebrate the accomplishments of a distinct group of elite performers and to witness precision, perseverance and focus — all three of which are necessary for a truck driver to have a successful day of work.

So, to the truck drivers heading to Indy, and to the 3.5 million professional truck drivers throughout the country, I want to say thank you on behalf of ATA for the tremendous work you do each day. You all are the reason we are able to proudly say, “Trucking moves America forward.” We are eager to witness history at the 2016 National Truck Driving Championships.

American Trucking Associations, the largest national trade federation in the trucking industry, has headquarters in Arlington, Virginia, and affiliated associations in every state. ATA owns Transport Topics.