Small Settlements’ Impact Tops ATRI’s Research Priorities List

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The American Transportation Research Institute’s recently announced list of research priorities for 2020 includes several key trucking industry issues, ranging from legal settlements to vehicle-miles-traveled taxes.

The topics, announced May 12, were identified by the group’s Research Advisory Committee and subsequently approved by ATRI’s board of directors. The Research Advisory Committee, which is made up of trucking company executives, labor union leaders, academics and government officials, developed the list of research topics in March at its meeting in Atlanta.

The impact of small settlements on the trucking industry topped the list. As a follow-up to ATRI’s work on “nuclear verdicts,” this study will focus on legal settlements of less than $1 million. Nuclear verdicts are those in which juries award large sums, usually more than $10 million. ATRI President Rebecca Brewster said the group plans to have research pertaining to nuclear verdicts available in June.

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Specifically, ATRI’s research will assess small settlements’ frequency, fleet responses to these settlements, and the consideration of verdicts versus settlements. This topic also aligns with American Trucking Associations’ tort reform efforts associated with these kinds of verdicts.



“Given the work we’ve been doing on nuclear verdicts, I think the sense among the Research Advisory Committee members is, while that is a big issue, oftentimes, just in terms of frequency, it’s these smaller settlements that are really impacting our businesses,” Brewster told Transport Topics. “They really felt, following a similar methodology, we could pursue looking at these small settlements so we really would cover the landscape between the two studies on all that’s going on on the legal side of things and how that’s impacting our industry.”

Re-examining miles-based safety metrics is listed as the No. 2 priority. ATRI notes in its press release that trip lengths and route locations have changed due to e-commerce and indicates that new metrics may be needed.

Another research topic involves the role of owner-operators and independent contractors in the supply chain. The research would assess the role of these drivers, including financial and operational considerations.

ATRI also plans to conduct a cost-benefit analysis of vehicle-miles-traveled taxes. Previously, ATRI’s research has identified barriers to implementing a VMT tax. For this research, ATRI would examine multiple datasets associated with deploying these fees, including implementation and enforcement costs, potential evasion, and the challenges of establishing such programs at the state and local levels.

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The final priority is researching the impacts of rising insurance costs on industry operational costs. This analysis would examine fleet resources and decision-making processes to understand how fleets are covering these cost increases. Considerations may include reprioritizing technological investments and “cannibalizing other cost centers, such as safety.”

ATRI’s research work will continue amid the COVID-19 pandemic and include consideration of the virus’ impact on trucking. Already, ATRI has released analyses on the virus’ effect on bottlenecks, truck activity and driver issues, such as haul length and detention time.

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Brewster said COVID-19’s effects likely will be reflected in ATRI’s other research, such as the list of industry concerns and the truck bottlenecks report.

“I can’t imagine that we won’t continue to do research around COVID-related impacts,” Brewster said. “Even if we’re not directly studying a COVID impact, I think the fact that we’ve been living through this pandemic will bear itself out through a number of our studies going forward.”

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