New round of data from ATRI highlights how COVID-19 is affecting trucking movements

By Jeff Berman, Group News Editor · April 23, 2020

Data focused this week by the American Transportation Research Institute (ATRI), the trucking industry’s not for profit research organization, focused on the continued impacts of COVID-19 business disruptions on the trucking industry. This follows an ATRI release issued last month.

This new batch of ATRI research addressed truck activity over six states—California, Florida, Illinois, New York, Pennsylvania, and Washington—from February 9 through April 18, based on converting ATRI’s real-time truck GPS dataset into a truck activity index.

“The GPS data we use is a valuable tool into what is going on in the economy and the trucking industry right now,” said ATRI President and COO Rebecca Brewster in a statement. “We knew from talking to drivers and carrier executives that there were significant impacts on operations as a result of COVID-19, but now, by analyzing this data we are able to put numbers and data to feelings and anecdotes.”

ATRI’s research noted that from early February into March, its data pointed to an initial strike in trucks activity over these six states and provided the response to things like high consumer demand for non-perishable food and paper products and medical supplies, items which are in high demand.

What’s more, ATRI’s data examined the impact of stay-at-home orders, which have essentially shuttered various parts of the U.S. economy that was apparent in April, to date, too, including:

Of the six states analyzed, California had the earliest stay-at-home order issued on March 19. California also experienced the earliest upward spike in truck activity, occurring during the week of March 1. However, truck activity in California is now down 8.3 percent from early February;

In Florida, Illinois and New York, truck activity spiked the week of March 8 but is now down on average by over 10 percent from February 9;

In Pennsylvania and Washington, truck activity spiked during the week of March 15, but is now down by an average of nearly nine percent from February 9; and

ATRI observed that there initial signs of a return to normal, however. In New York, one of the earliest states to experience high numbers of cases, truck activity started a positive uptick during the week of April 12

“In these unprecedented times, we need to rely on science and facts, not anecdotes and speculation. This ATRI research is able to tell us in near-real-time what the pandemic is really doing to the trucking industry,” said American Trucking Associations Chief Economist Bob Costello in a statement.

In a March interview with LM, ATRI’s Brewster said that ATRI’s findings speak to how fewer cars on the road are allowing trucks to do what they need to do, to get goods to people.

“Each week we go into this, we may see a different scenario and we may see fewer cars sharing the road with trucks. But, from a trucking industry standpoint, certainly fewer cars on the road is good news for us.”

What’s more, she observed that so much of the data ATRI has used in the past with this same dataset has looked at the impact of congestion on everything from drivers’ hours-of-service to the availability of truck parking or drivers’ ability to get to that truck parking because of congestion. And she added that ATRI has done a significant amount of work in the area of traffic incidents, which she said would be fewer and farther between, as there are fewer vehicles on the road and sharing the road with commercial vehicles.

If there was a silver lining in this situation, Brewster said that fewer vehicles on the road could clearly be one, in that roads are opening up and allowing the trucking industry to do what is needed to serve America’s needs during this very difficult time.

When asked how ATRI’s data reconciles with the recent emergency declaration issued by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) to issue a national emergency declaration to provide motor carrier hours-of-service (HOS) regulatory relief in response to the coronavirus outbreak, she said one major benefit is that drivers are not burning hours sitting in traffic and subsequently becoming more fatigued and stressed because of congestion.

“You could even argue that this situation has a wellness benefit for drivers, in that we are reducing stresses that they typically encounter when they drive in a regular situation [in a congested city],” she said. “It is allowing truck drivers to do what they do best and that is delivering freight to America. And it is also allowing drivers to better plan deliveries, as there are not these unexpected delays that come from unexpected things like traffic incidents because there are fewer cars. It allows the supply chain to operate more efficiently, as we hope it would do under normal situations, but traffic congestion and traffic incidents and weather and other incidents don’t always allow that.”

April 23, 2020