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August 29, 2016 4:00 AM, EDT
Fleets See Return on Investment in Safety, Training
TT File Photo

Private carriers are adding to their safety efforts by spending more on training, upgrading equipment and taking steps to recognize their best-performing drivers.

When Tom Halpin, a retired state trooper, took over as transportation safety manager at Bozzuto’s Inc., a grocery wholesaler based in Cheshire, Connecticut, one of his first priorities was to install cameras in truck cabs to capture images of crashes and risky driving behavior. The result was a sharp decline in accidents, lower insurance premiums and improved driver safety scores.

The quick payoffs from investments in safety technologies are driving many fleets to do more to protect drivers from risks associated with highway crashes.

At Gemini Motor Transport, a fleet that delivers fuel to Love’s Travel Stops & Country Stores, Vice President of Transportation Brent Bergevin said he is adding air deflectors to tank trailers to make them more stable and working with equipment manufacturers to design a concept trailer that will “push the limits of capacity.”

“We’re constantly looking at how we are spec’ing the truck and trailer,” said Bergevin, who earlier this year also handed out $3.4 million in bonus checks to 135 top-performing drivers.

Drivers for Gemini who maintain spotless records for 10 years are eligible for bonuses equal to six times a driver’s average monthly salary.

Bergevin said he is evaluating the use of in-cab cameras and systems to monitor driver fatigue but doesn’t believe that those systems are advanced enough to currently deploy in his fleet.

At Meijer Inc., a supermarket operator based in Lansing, Michigan, Carol Heinowski, logistics manager for safety and compliance, said she is testing adaptive cruise control, lane departure warning and active brake assist technologies.

“Overall, we’re getting good feedback from the drivers,” Heinowski said. “But we’re experiencing some false reads, such as active brake assist triggering when the only thing around is an overhead bridge or guardrail. So the technology is not perfect.”

Many private fleets developed strong safety cultures years ago, in part because their drivers and vehicles can become targets of lawsuits and bad publicity.

“Our drivers recognized early on that more cameras equal more protection,” Bozzuto’s Halpin said. “With the additional camera views, we have a broader perspective on the risks specific to our industry and the realities of urban operation. This information has proven to protect them, their careers and our company.”

According to Halpin, the number of preventable crashes per million miles traveled for Bozzuto’s fleet of 250 tractors, which operate in some of the most congested urban areas in the country, including New York City and Boston, fell 60% over a two-year period from 2014 to 2016. There also were significant improvements in the company’s Compliance, Safety, Accountability scores.

Earlier this year, at the urging of Bozzuto’s drivers, Halpin said, the company added side view cameras to provide more visibility and protect against incidents involving lane changes and backing.

Michael Gates, fleet department manager for Crop Production Services, a unit of Agrium Inc. that distributes fertilizer and crop-protection chemicals, said he is looking at how GPS tracking and electronic logs can improve safety and efficiency for more than 13,000 tractors, straight trucks and pickup trucks that operate in rural areas and are subject to large seasonal fluctuations in utilization.

“Overall accidents have been reduced, but you can always improve,” Gates said. “We don’t carry the nicest things, so we have concerns with the way things are in the world today.”

Gates said little things, such as backup sensors and seat belts, can sometimes make a big difference because they can subconsciously affect the attitudes of employees.

“We’re looking at using bright green seat belts so you can see them going out of the gate,” Gates said.

Gary Petty, president of the National Private Truck Council, said corporate fleet operators have historically shown a willingness to invest in safety technologies and are well-versed in methods of monitoring drivers who often perform tasks that go beyond driving.

While technology is providing more tools, Petty said, it also is presenting more challenges to fleets that are under pressure to do more with fewer people.

To help ease the compliance burden for fleets with above average safety records, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration has proposed a program called Beyond Compliance that would offer unspecified rewards to carriers that deploy technologies before they are mandated.

American Trucking Associations supports the concept, but ATA representatives warn against any attempt to rate or compare motor carriers since “doing so would have a chilling effect on participation.”

NPTC has long supported the concept of providing regulatory relief for carriers with exceptional safety records, but officials question what the government could offer that would be meaningful to private fleet operators other than tax credits for the purchase of safety systems or credits that might be applied to CSA scores.

“It’s great that they are looking at it,” said Richard Schweitzer, NPTC’s general counsel. “We’re just not sure you will get a lot from it.”

Safety is its own reward, said Tom Moore, NPTC’s education director. In fact, Moore said, executives surveyed by NPTC this year cited safety for the fist time as the most important strategy for improving corporate productivity.

“It’s becoming a real competitive advantage,” Moore said.

For many private fleets, safety is part of a broader commitment to the public and the communities in which they operate.

“We’re committed to being a positive influence in the communities in which we operate, which is why we embarked on a mission to further enhance our safety program,” said Doug Sanford, vice president of strategic initiatives for TBHC Delivers, a distributor for Hunt Brothers Pizza.

Danella Cos. Inc., a construction contractor based in Plymouth Meeting, Pennsylvania, said its safety strategy is a “way of life” for employees.

“We go beyond compliance with local, state and federal safety regulations,” Danella Safety Director Dave Pancoast said. “It is our daily objective not only to perform with excellence but also to eliminate even the possibility of workplace incidents.”

At Mid-South Baking Co. in Bryan, Texas, officials said improving safety is critical to protecting its business, which delivers hamburger buns to 3,500 McDonald’s restaurants.

“As a supplier for one of the most recognizable global brands, our top priority is delivering on our company promise of quality, food safety and customers service,” said Mike Little, Mid-South’s transportation director. “It is a commitment that starts at the top and one that every employee is focused on in their daily work.”