by Tom Gresham
Fourth in a four-part series on the truck driver shortage and what the industry, carriers and industry partners are doing to address it. Part 4 focuses on safety.
Dave Edmondson, vice president of safety and compliance for J&M Tank Lines in Birmingham, believes a trucking company’s commitment to safety plays a vital role in driver recruitment and retention. Critically, for him and others seeking drivers who are a good fit for their operations, those drivers who make safety a priority tend to be the ones you most want driving your routes.
“A good safety program is not just about attracting drivers – I think a good safety program helps you to attract the right drivers,” Edmondson said.
Carriers that create a culture that makes safety a priority show their drivers that they are supported when they are on the road and that they are not alone on their travels. In a climate where driver retention and recruitment has never been more important, conveying that sentiment to drivers is crucial.
SAFETY’S IMPORTANCE AND THE
EMERGENCE OF TECH TOOLS
Max Farrell, co-founder and CEO of WorkHound, believes that in some ways safety is “table stakes,” something drivers expect companies to emphasize. Drivers can take it for granted. When that emphasis is missing, though, it is glaring.
Farrell said that while safety ranks toward the end of the top 10 among the most important workplace elements cited by truck drivers in WorkHound’s driver database, equipment is at the top of the list.
Edmondson said many drivers’ perception of a carrier’s interest in safety starts with the state of the equipment in use. If it is well-maintained and up to date, drivers are more likely to think a carrier is “on top of their game,” Edmondson said. “They know, ‘They’re going to keep me up and running and successful. And I’m not going to have to worry about being broken down on the side of the road.’”
An emphasis on safety equipment today often means the newest sophisticated technological tools. Del Lisk, vice president of safety for Lytx, which makes video telematics and fleet management solutions, said the cost of vehicle collisions is growing exponentially in the industry, driven by medical claims, vehicle repair and – most powerfully – litigation costs, which can threaten a carrier’s existence.
“Safety technologies like ours have a really good track record of dramatically reducing crashes and collisions and related costs for fleets,” Lisk said.
When crashes do occur, video technology installed in trucks can provide definitive evidence, often helping to demonstrate that a driver was not culpable, according to Ingo Wiegand, senior director of product management at Samsara, which makes dash cams and other fleet management and safety technology tools.
“Video-based evidence in these situations helps to expedite investigations and exonerate not-at-fault drivers, which is becoming more and more important as nuclear verdicts are on the rise,” Wiegand said.
Wiegand said Samsara has seen customers report increased driver retention, as well as fewer incidents and reduced insurance and litigation costs, after implementing its driver safety solution.
“Aside from capturing harsh events, like crashes or sudden stops, AI dash cams can also alert both drivers and fleet managers of distracted driving behaviors in real-time,” Wiegand said. “Not only do these insights help drivers make improvements in the moment, when every second counts, but they also allow managers to identify trends in behavior, pinpoint high-risk drivers and respond with timely coaching based on evidence rather than guesswork.”
Lisk estimates that 30-40 percent of severe vehicle crashes involve distracted driving. Carriers always knew it was happening, but advancements in technology have allowed them to better understand how and when it is happening – and to help prevent it.
“All trucking fleets have always been very aware and attentive to the issue of safety because heavy vehicles can create a lot of damage, but without much technology, they didn’t have much visibility into what was really going on out on the road,” Lisk said.
When Samsara surveyed its dash cam customers, 93 percent reported that safety solutions had not negatively impacted driver retention, Wiegand said.
“At the end of the day, these technologies can be a powerful tool for showing driver appreciation and fueling employee recognition within an organization,” Wiegand said. “I believe the more you can engage directly with your drivers, provide personalized feedback and coaching rooted in data, and give them tools to make their jobs easier, the more well-positioned you’ll be to retain those employees.”
OVERCOMING RELUCTANCE AND GETTING BUY-IN
Farrell said carriers explaining the “why” of safety initiatives is crucial to getting driver buy-in.
“In the absence of clear communication about why something is being implemented, people will often fill the void with their worst expectations,” Farrell said. “Whether a company’s rolling out in-cab camera devices or a new safety program that is helping measure their hard braking, companies really need to take time to share: ‘Hey, here’s why we’re doing this here. And here’s how it helps you.’”
As an industry, Farrell said carriers still have room for growth in the way they communicate with drivers about safety and other initiatives.
“Across the industry, it’s a mixed bag,” Farrell said. “There are certainly some innovative companies out there that really have a commitment to capturing driver feedback and understanding issues and being able to use that data to shape company policy and in-company operations. For those companies, they’re definitely factoring in driver sentiments because a lot of these misunderstandings really come down to a lack of communication.”
The key, Edmondson said, is patient communication with a driver from the start.
“You’ve got to go slow,” Edmondson said. “You’ve got to be methodical. If your driver goes home one day, and then the next day comes in and you’ve got a camera staring at him, and you didn’t tell him anything about it, you’re obviously not going to get a good response. But if you explain to him the reason for putting the camera in – make it clear you tested this, this is what it does, this is what it will help us do – and you give them time to accept it, give them time to talk to their peers about it, then you’re going to get a great experience.”
Edmondson said carriers must be clear about their safety expectations, too.
“That means setting expectations not only for what you can expect from the driver, but what they can expect from you in return,” Edmondson said. “It’s a two-way street. The biggest key is making sure everybody’s on the same page, and that way we know what direction we’re all headed.”
ACCEPTING NEW TECH
The introduction of technology can be particularly jarring for drivers. Drivers initially can be wary of such a high level of monitoring, especially veteran drivers.
Still, Edmondson said drivers tend to adjust quickly to technology when its usefulness is clear. The drivers who object the most to the introduction of a new tech tool sometimes become its biggest fans. He recalls that one of his drivers said he would retire if an ELD was put in his truck. Edmondson asked him to give it a try for a month. Within two weeks, the driver told Edmondson he loved the ELD – that he felt better rested and relaxed because of it.
“Cameras are that new big thing right now,” Edmondson said. “Drivers say the same thing about putting a camera in their truck, but when they hear about the driver it saved from being at fault in an accident, then they want it too.”
Lisk said when new technology is properly communicated with advance notice and explanation, there’s a much higher adoption because the drivers feel like they’re a part of it.
He recommends including drivers in safety technology choices on the market, getting their feedback and insight from the outset.
“Rather than just in an isolated way reviewing different technologies, and let’s see what we want to go with or not include, maybe groups of drivers can be part of that process to evaluate various technologies and test them out,” Lisk said. “Make drivers a partner in that process.”
For younger drivers, Lisk said, carriers that adopt technology can appear to be more forward-thinking than their counterparts and therefore offer a more appealing place to work.
“When I am meeting with a group of drivers who are getting ready to install our technology into their fleet, for the younger drivers, it’s just no big deal at all,” Lisk said. “They’re more curious about how it works and what it can do. That’s a cool kind of perspective.” It’s often the experienced drivers who are slower to adopt new technology, he said, because they didn’t grow up in that world of technology.
Edmondson said he also sees a generational difference in driver acceptance of technology. While older drivers bristle at more technology out of a fear of the unknown, younger drivers love it, he said. Still, he said the ease of use of the tech tools has improved so that older drivers soon accept them once they see how simple they are to adopt.
Safety can naturally lead carriers to spend a lot of time focused on the negatives – the mistakes and the things that team members should not do. However, positive reinforcement should play an integral role in a driver safety plan, and it can play a crucial part in the climate for drivers in a company.
Farrell said too many carriers contact drivers only when incidents occur or they make safety-related missteps.
“It’s detrimental to the psyche, and you can almost argue demoralizing if the only interaction you’re getting from your company is, ‘Hey, you screwed up on this. You screwed up on that,’ even though 99 percent of the time that person has been performing incredibly well,” Farrell said. “That’s another angle that companies should factor in. It’s a lot of work to do that well because it takes a lot of communication to be proactive about good things.”
In addition, when the news around safety from a company is always bad – highlighting only incidents and shortcomings rather than successes and strengths – the perception from drivers can be that safety is a problem for the carrier. That can lead to driver exits, Farrell said.
Wiegand said technology can help carriers recognize and reward successful safety steps that their team members are taking in the field.
“While identifying trends in behavior can be instrumental when it comes to coaching drivers, it can also be used to reinforce and recognize the safest drivers within an organization,” Wiegand said. “We’ve seen a number of customers implement creative initiatives to gamify and incentivize safe driving practices and celebrate footage of defensive driving.”
“Drivers are looking for a company that cares about them and their well-being and their success,” Edmondson said. “In today’s world, your safety program is a pillar to getting the right person driving for you.”
All safety initiatives ultimately should stem from an authentic understanding of the driver experience and a desire to treat drivers as true partners in the process.