August 12, 2014 11:30 AM, EDT
NTDC: Competition Breeds Better Drivers, Safety Directors Say
Sam Faucette of Old Dominion
If anyone is measuring the enthusiasm in the viewing stands this week at the National Truck Driving Championships in Pittsburgh, some of the loudest cheering probably will be from the safety directors working at carriers large and small.

The benefits generated by NTDC, known as trucking’s Super Bowl of Safety, are incalculable because safety awareness and excellence are contagious, safety directors said.

“They’re the cream that rises to the top,” Jerry Peterson, safety director at Bulldog HiWay Express in North Charleston, South Carolina, said of the 426 drivers competing this year.

“And usually you find that they’re the team leaders in the companies — just a step above,” is the way Peterson summed up their standing among their peers.

Many of the competitors, he said, are the same drivers that end up on their state road teams or on the America’s Road Team, sponsored by American Trucking Associations.

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The championships — 77 years old this year — do “nothing but promote good,” added Peterson, who goes each year as a volunteer to help with the event.

“It’s nice to be able to go and just see the best of the best . . . drivers coming from every state in the union, in nine different categories, just to compete and show their company and their families that come with them what they do and how well they do it.”

To participate in the competition at the state or national level, drivers must be accident free for a year. And among them, the contestants have racked up 653,577,080 accident-free miles, ATA said.

Outstanding drivers, though, are not born but rather are the product of intense effort, safety directors said.

“These folks that are competing at this level . . . they practice and practice and practice,” said Greg Pawelski, senior director of safety at Con-Way Freight. “So it’s not by chance that these folks are here.”

Con-Way has 63 drivers in the competition, and Pawelski said the carrier actively encourages drivers to take part in the competition, which begins at the state level. Winners there go on to the nationals.

“These folks really embrace our core values,” Pawelski said of how drivers help burnish Con-Way’s image.

“They embrace safety and demonstrate that at the highest levels, and they’re the ones that help lead, train, mentor our new employees and peers . . .  to strive for the excellence that they’ve achieved,” he said.

“So they’re not only advocates for safety, they’re the advocates for Con-Way truck customers as well as for the industry.”

Con-way Freight is a subsidiary of Con-way Inc., which ranks No. 4 in the Transport Topics Top 100 list of U.S. and Canadian for-hire carriers.

Pitt Ohio, a Pittsburgh carrier and ranked No. 60, also actively encourages the driving competition, safety director Jeff Mercadante said.

“Most of the bigger companies participate because they have such good drivers and they want to give their drivers the ability to show off their talent,” he said.

Pitt holds an internal driving competition to determine which of its drivers will move, with company support, to the state level in hopes of going to the nationals, he said. Pitt has three drivers in the competition this year.

Like other carriers involved in NTDC, Mercadante said, Pitt has found the benefits extend beyond company pride because the drivers that compete are those who become leaders and trainers within the driver ranks.

Old Dominion Freight Line, ranked No. 12, has eight contestants in the championships this year and is intensifying its involvement going forward, said Sam Faucette, vice president of safety and compliance.

“We’re growing our program, and we were in about 29 competitions this year,” he said.

“We’ve been joining states progressively in the last couple of years so we can build this program,” he said of the ATA state affiliate organizations.

“The driver has to, of course, drive one-year accident free . . . so anything we can do to promote highway safety and the safe driving of our operators we want . . . to promote that,” Faucette said.

Those that compete in their states influence their peers on safety and generally are more focused as drivers, Faucette said.

Plus, once they participate in the competition, they want to come back, which makes them safer drivers.

“After they get the fever and start winning, that breeds the competitor in them, and they’ll do everything in their power to come back,” he said.

At New Penn, Rick Gagnon of Rhode Island, who is bound for the championships, is called the safety superstar. The Northeastern regional LTL carrier is owned by fifth-ranked YRC Worldwide.

“Truck driving competitions are an excellent way for our drivers to hone their driving skills and promote safety,” said Shawn Nolan, New Penn’s vice president of operations.

YRC Freight is sending 23 drivers to the event. Like the other competitors, they had to win at the state level before advancing to Pittsburgh.

“This event is a celebration of safety, and we have 23 participants who are not only state champions but also champions of safety and service at YRC Freight,” carrier President Darren Hawkins said in a statement.

“While these drivers have been preparing for months to compete in this event, in reality what makes them champions is a careerlong dedication to safety and customer service,” he said.

Second-ranked FedEx Corp. has the largest contingent at the championships — 138 drivers from 45 states.

“FedEx team members are among the safest in the industry, and the number of state finalists at the NTDC exemplifies our commitment to safety,”

FedEx Chairman Frederick W. Smith said. “I’m proud of the 1,500 FedEx team members that qualified to compete at the state level and the 138 finalists competing at the national level.”