Choose your language

IRU History


Seven decades: driving road transport

IRU is the International Road Transport Union, founded 75 years ago in Geneva to facilitate trade, international road transport and passenger mobility, and to support sustainable development worldwide.

We have been driving economic growth in more than 100 countries, upholding the interests of all road transport operators by finding increasingly efficient ways to connect societies.

We enjoy long-standing partnerships with the United Nations, the European Union and Eurasian institutions, giving us the insight needed to drive progress in the road transport industry.

Today, we connect societies with safe, efficient, green mobility and logistics.

1940s: rebuilding Europe

IRU was founded in Geneva to help war-torn Europe rebuild devastated trade and commercial links. It began with an alliance of national passenger and freight road transport associations from eight European countries, to ensure that the road transport industry would be represented at the newly created UN, which was tasked with putting in place the frameworks for a new, post-war Europe.  

IRU created the TIR system in 1949 – initially an inter-governmental agreement – it later became a global convention. TIR became the tool to facilitate post-war inter-European trade – within the context of fragile geopolitical relationships. The customs transit system enabled goods to flow across unstable borders as the economies and the communities of Europe began to recover. TIR became a tangible means to strive for prosperity. 

The forties: rebuilding Europe

1950s: rewriting the rules of road transport

Representing road transport at the UN table meant that IRU was able to partner with governments to rewrite the rules of transport for the decades to come. Every UN convention relating to road transport, defining the roles and responsibilities within logistics and road transport, involved or was initiated by IRU. 

The Convention on the Contract for the International Carriage of Goods by Road (CMR) was signed in 1956. This set out, for the first time, the responsibilities and liabilities of private parties involved in the transport of goods. Complementary to TIR, it is to this day the most widely used document on shipments between senders, receivers and transporters. It provides a record of the transport operation and contains essential information in relation to the load carried. 

In February 2008, a protocol was added to the CMR Convention concerning the use of the electronic consignment note and it forms the bedrock of a global strategy to digitalise transport and logistics, as the industry looks to adopt game-changing innovations in the 21st century. 

With TIR, 1959 saw the first historic example of a public private partnership between IRU and the UN, as the two organisations came together to establish the UN Convention on International Transport of Goods Under Cover of TIR Carnets. IRU continued to manage the system, and it quickly became the global standard for customs transit.

The fifties: rewriting the rules of road transport

1960s: safe passage

Expanding IRU membership included a number of Eastern European countries, with its reach growing. IRU adopted a unique, global view of road transport amid a period of social shift and cultural conflict on the global stage. The sharing of best practice became one of IRU’s touchstones – as the West moved into a period of greater prosperity. 

IRU established two awards in 1966, recognising heroism and, significantly, safety. This represented a key moment, when safety and professionalism became a focus for the organisation. Driving all aspects of its work thereafter, IRU continues to advocate for international standards that improve safety, working with the United Nations, international organisations and government authorities on both formal and informal standards, in particular through IRU’s Commissions on Road Safety, Technical Affairs, Legal Affairs and expert working party on Transporting Dangerous Goods.

The sixties: safe passage

1970s: the right mode

The advent and standardisation of shipping containers in the 1970s reinvented the way that goods were transported. The need to operate intermodally was absolute. Replacing the 1959 version, a new TIR Convention was concluded in 1975, ensuring that TIR became the best transit tool for intermodal transport. 

The TIR Convention was restyled to allow for the intermodal transport of goods, provided that at least one leg of the journey is carried out by road. 

The seventies: the right mode

1980s: Brussels blueprint

With its established home in Brussels (created in 1973), IRU had a seat at the table of European policy making. The 1980s saw the European Parliament take the Council of the European Union to the European Court of Justice for its failure to develop a common transport policy. The Court’s judgment of May 1985 finally kick-started progress on a common policy. 

The legislative push towards the single European market heralded a turning point in transport policy, with market access balanced against EU-wide rules in areas such as driving and rest times for heavy commercial vehicles. IRU also launched its star classification system for coaches to improve quality, safety and comfort in the sector.

IRU continues to contribute to EU policy initiatives and legislation, promoting an economically sound operating environment for road transport, ensuring fair competition, and seeking a road transport industry that plays a leading role in mobility, trade and tourism throughout Europe. This mission is all the more important in the light of recent issues such as Brexit, the Mobility Package and decarbonisation.


The eighties: Brussels blueprint

1990s: sustaining road transport

Following the 1st Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 where 182 countries adopted Agenda 21, IRU was the first transport organisation to become involved in the UN plan for sustainable development and subsequently made it a constitutional obligation. Its Charter for Sustainable Development was adopted in 1996 and it developed the the 3 "i" strategy for achieving sustainable development, based on innovation, incentives and infrastructure.

Later, IRU’s “30 by 30” Resolution became a pledge from the entire road transport industry to cut its CO₂ emissions by 30% by 2030.

The IRU Academy – the training arm of IRU – was conceived at the end of this decade, reinforcing the message that the professionalisation of the industry is at the heart of its ongoing sustainability. This was reflected in tangible outcomes – such as the benefits to the environment and safety with eco-driving and crash prevention training – as well as the economic and social factors at play with the increased prosperity that results from more efficient transport systems and improved access to personal mobility.

Sustainability remains high on IRU’s agenda and it continues to work closely with the World Bank, the UN and the wider industry on driving sustainability targets and setting the global sustainability agenda for road transport. 

The nineties: sustaining road transport

2000s: Silk Road foundations

With the China Road Transportation Association joining IRU, and knowing that China is an emerging world power, IRU seeded the concept of the revitalisation of the ancient Silk Road. The New Eurasian Land Transport Initiative (NELTI) was conceived as an essential next step in the IRU strategy for interconnecting businesses in Asia and Europe along the Eurasian landmass to all major world markets, as well as increasing public and business awareness of the huge opportunities created by this land bridge. 

Based on data from 200,000 border crossings, the NELTI study found that 57% of transport time is lost at these crossings, adding to increased costs of 38% due to unofficial levies, highlighting the potential for TIR to counter these issues. 

As China’s One Belt One Road initiative now moves ahead, IRU’s longstanding, prescient work to reopen ancient Silk Road trade routes has gathered ground and has set the foundations in place for recent developments which are transforming trade prospects for the region. Indeed, China is using TIR to realise OBOR objectives.

2000s: Silk Road foundations

2010s: digital daring, global growth and a level playing field

2010 onwards has seen an acceleration of IRU’s global reach, with China, India and Pakistan joining the TIR network. These are just three of the latest countries to ratify the TIR Convention, representing between them 40% of the world’s population. IRU’s expansion efforts have gone truly global. 

TIR now has full digital and intermodal capabilities. There is a growing web of digital trade corridors inching around the globe – with TIR and e-CMR offering the global standard for digitalised transport. 

The UN has adopted a resolution which highlights the importance of e-CMR for bringing innovation to real life and signed a milestone agreement with IRU supporting the full digitalisation of the TIR customs transit procedure.

IRU has been advocating “same service same rules” for new market entrants to a transformed taxi sector, while encouraging innovation across the board. 

As urban populations multiply, buses and coaches are promoted as part of the solution to reducing the environmental footprint of personal mobility. Identified benefits of an increased public transport use include CO₂ emission reduction, job creation, reduced road deaths and less road congestion.

Guiding the industry into the future, IRU's World Congress is the platform to address current challenges and offer solutions to stay ahead of the innovation curve as the industry looks to the next 70 years.

2010s: digital daring, global growth and a level playing field