Dan O'Neal hates the word "deregulation."

"I call it improved and responsive regulation," he says with a smile. "Or if that's too long, how about just IRR?" Whatever it is called, it is a concerted effort he is making to shake the regulatory tree and see what falls off.

Since his appointment to the job of chairman of the Interstate Commerce Commission in April, O'Neal has been marked as one of the bright young deregulators sent by the Carter administration to halt the endless flow of red tape, open up the regulated industries to those denied entry in the past, and maybe to leap tall buildings in a single bound.

"That's so much baloney," he said in an interview last week. "The White House has never talked to me about undertaking this effort. In fact, the impression I get is that no matter what I do, the White House is going to study the whole area of regulation anyway.

"I don't want to be classified as one who supports deregulation just because it is a concept out there that we ought to achieve.I think the term is misused so often.

"The commission does have an obligation, though, to look at whether there is adequate competition among trucking companies that we regulate. I think it is clear that competition is a benefit to the users of the system, and that is the framework of the act we are working under," he said.

O'Neal has been in the hot seat in recent months. He has traveled the country to chair hearings that were aimed at spurring public debate over the issues surrounding trucking deregulation. He has discovered that he is up against one of the strongest alliances ever put together to stop deregulation: labor and management in the trucking industry.

Even the shippers - the group that would presumably benefit from lessened government control over the trucking industry - have not rushed in with any organized support. In fact, in recent hearings here, two large local retail outlets and shippers. Peoples Drugs and Woodward & Lothrop, both testified that they like the system just the way it is.

Those retailers and representatives of the baking industry, which finances many of these small businesses, told the ICC that the stability of the tducking industry is at stake.

Looking around a room full of truckers with medium-sized businesses, a representative of New York's Citibank told O'Neal that under almost any deregualtion plan, most of the carriers in the room would be out of business in a matter of years.

"You can't complain about the overall, general performance of the motor carrier industry," O'Neal pointed out. "Service has been generally good, but at the same time here are a lot of specific areas that need study. Some shippers who need service complain about either the time it takes to have a decision made over new carriers or that they are stuck with one carrier."

O'Neal says he is concerned that the government is changing the name of the game after the starting gun.

"Truckers play the game of business under the rules that are laid down," he explained. "They have a right to expect that those rules aren't going to be changed precipitously. Lots of money is invested, and a lot of families depend on those businesses that have developed under this system. We have to be concerned with disrupting an entire industry."

Although he admits that no one has any real idea what would happen under deregulation, "We know that the motor carrier business is a risky business," O'Neal said. "And we do know that in the 30s, before there was regulations, it was difficult to obtain reliable transportation."

He has proposed a major study of the industry to see just what the effects of various forms of deregulation will be. He discounts totally the many estimates of how much money could be saved, or lost, under deregulation.

"I don't think anyone accepts the numbers being thrown out," he said. "Whenever an analysis is done of any of those studies, big holes are found."

O'Neal does have specific areas of the ICC regulatory system involving all forms of motor carrier regulation he wants changed. A task force he directed came up with 39 specific proposals for changing the way the ICC does its business. O'Neal proudly points to progess already made on 35 of these.

One of the major problems facing the commission is the mass of paperwork it generates in the process of handing down hundreds of orders every day and additional paperwork that comes from carriers who are protesting orders or applications for entry.

"Some of the large carriers have an automatic protest button," he said.

"And whenever they see anything in the Federal Register that's even close they push the button and boom - in comes the paper. That process costs the applicant a lot of money to tolerate it."

O'Neal says many of the protests are from carriers not affected by the route application in question.

"Under the existing statutes, a protester has the right to come in if he is affected by the applicantion," O'Neal said. "But it's no secret in the industry that there are hundreds of frivolous protests. There are some people who say this is just another example of the way a large carrier can keep smaller carriers from entering the field."

Frequently a small applicant will withdraw his application rather than continue a prolonged legal battle to get a route because he cannot afford the fight.

"I don't think Congress intended that the process would be perverted in this way so some carriers could use it to limit entry without ever letting the commission get to the merits of the case," O'Neal said.

O'Neal also beleives that pricing evidence should be evaluated as part of an application for a new carrier entering a market. At present that is not the case.

"It's hard to make a judgment on whether a carrier should enter a market without knowing how much he is going to charge," he said."That information frequently does make a difference. Carriers will often obtain support in their application from shippers because they have promised the shipper secretly that they will have a lower rate."

"We should have a legitimate concern that as the applicant's rate is shown to be above his cost, and we are sure this is not just a large carrier coming in with a lower rate just to get rid of the competition," he added.

The 41-year-old O'Neal has a good deal of experience dealing with Congress, something he has to do on a regular basis. Before coming to the ICC in April, 1975, he was transportation counsel to the Senate Commerce Committee, where he had principal staff responsibility for legislative actions affecting rail and motor carrier service, inland water transport, gas and oil pipeline safety, the ICC and several aspects of the Department of Transportation.

While at the ICC he was the chief architect of a 750-page staff study of the rail industry and the collapse of the Penn Central.

And before joinning the Commerce Committee he spent two years as legislative counsel to Sen. Warren Magnuson (D-Wash.).

"I think my relationship is pretty good with most members of Congress," he said. "But they are getting a lot of pressure on the issue of trucking deregulation. There are 15,000 regulated motor carriers in the United States, and there is hardly a congressional district that doesn't have a regulated motor carrier that is worried about deregulation."

O'Neal acknowledges that the lobbying against deregulation on the Hill is heavy, and he also knows that there isn't going to be much outside support.

"Not many shippers are going to jump into this fray," he said, "and I would think a number of congressmen are going to ask, 'What are the benefits to be gained by deregulation?' And that is hard to put in numbers."

"It may well be that the percentage of costs of a particular product that can be attributed to transportation is low," O'Neal said in response to critics, "but it is significant enough that companies come down here and fight even the smallest of increases regularly. Sometimes the cost of transportation can make the difference for a business whether it makes it or not. Total revenue derived from transportation last year alone was about $25 million."

But Congress has its priorities, O'Neal admits, "and they are influenced by outside interests."

"We shouldn't have to have Congress or the White House do anything to get this agency to continually look at its regulatory system and the need for constant changes," he said.

He also dosen't expect much help from the press or consumer groups. He says it is going to be much more difficult to muster public support for motor carrier deregulation than it was for airline deregulation.

"There are several reasons for that," he said. "Airlines are visible, and it is commonly believed that airlines are the major mode of transportation in the U.S. Actually, the bus industry, you know, buses moved 340 million people between cities last year."

In trucking, "what we're talking about is a wholesaler, or middleman, someone not visible to the normal Person." O'Neal said.

"But most reporters, lawyers, consumer types don't ride the bus, so they don't have the same concern they have for airlines. Also, buses provide pretty good transportation at pretty low rates," he said.