MORE THAN 4,000 OF THE TRUCKING INDUSTRY'S top executives arrive in Washington this week to consider the future of their often maligned industry. American Trucking Associations' annual meeting, once billed as the world's largest cocktail party, now gives equal time to computer seminars, tax analyses and vehicle safety programs.

Highway safety has been the trucking industry's Achilles heel for the last decade. Althoughthe better carriers have usually had good accident records, the industry never worked hard enough to rid the highways of the thousands of unsafe trucks and drivers it knew were out there.That seems to be changing. Last week, Congress was completing work on a new truck safety bill that ATA has supported enthusiastically. Through the persistent prodding of its president, Thomas Donohue, the association has come to realize that a shabby public image is not only bad citizenship, it's also bad politics and bad business. With the square-jawed, bright-eyed Donohue at the wheel, the president of ATA not only looks good but the association is looking better.

Certainly, the trucking industry still has its problems. Financially, profit margins are depressingly low and the stagnant economy offers no immediate relief. Still, the industry has reasons to be optimistic. Truckers emerged from the tax reform fight in better shape than most other businesses. For the past year, the association has had an experienced economist, Ken Simonson, working full-time on the tax bill, keeping the industry's interests before the tax writers. That kind of commitment on a general economic issue would have been unthinkable at ATA even three years ago.

The industry is also changing in other ways.

Two years ago, ATA's membership was bitterly divided over the acquisition of North American Van Lines by Norfolk Southern Corp., a railroad holding company. However, last month, when Union Pacific Corp. said it was buying Overnite Transportation Co. for a staggering $1.2 billion, there were no dire predictions of intermodal Armageddon.

The trucking industry has always resisted railroad ownership. But there seems to be a recognition, even among industry reactionaries, that multi-modal control is here to stay. One also suspects more than a few of the 4,000 truckers in Washington this week would like a share of any future railroad largesse.

Changes in the trucking industry never come easily or quickly. However, things are changing, both on the highways and in trucking's relationship with government. Washington is an appropriate place for the industry to review its progress and reaffirm its commitment to improve.

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