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October 22, 2008 4:00 PM, EDT
View of Safety Technology Must Change Before Use Grows, Fleet Executives Say

By Sean McNally, Senior Reporter

This story appears in the Oct. 20 print edition of Transport Topics. Click here to subscribe today.

NEW ORLEANS — Fleet executives said that despite the benefits of using safety technology, attitudes within the industry need to change in order to have wider acceptance.

“Clearly, there is a big expense up front, but done right, it can become an investment,” Chris Lofgren, president of Schneider National Inc., said during a panel discussion here at American Trucking Associations’ Management Conference & Exhibition.

Craig Harper, chief operating officer of J.B. Hunt Transport Services Inc., said the truckload carrier spends “in excess of $50 million” annually on safety technology and training. He said the investment in safety has saved the lives of company drivers and the motoring public.

Harper said the carrier has cut its number of reportable accidents by 43% over the past decade, and its injury rate has fallen each of the past 10 years.

Steve Williams, chairman and chief executive officer of Maverick USA Inc., said his fleet’s use of safety technology “exempted us from an $18.5 million final judgment” after a crash.

However, he said, some fleets may need to be forced into using technologies such as electronic onboard recorders, lane departure warning and collision avoidance systems.

“If it is left up to this industry at large, it will take forever to get done,” Williams said. “I would be one to advocate for a mandate.”

Failing that, Williams said, trucking is “going to have to have regulatory and/or financial incentives in order to get the industry to embrace some of these technologies.”

Doug Duncan, CEO of FedEx Freight, suggested that fleets “have got to get credit for what we’re investing in.”

Those credits, either in the form of tax incentives or relief from regulations, he said, would help promote the broader use of technology.

“We have to have broad-based acceptance and broad-based use to get the [fatality] numbers down,” he said.

Added Williams: “Until we bring the raw [fatality] numbers down, we’re not going to win any battles in the media. And that’s going to be particularly more challenging as we are charged with moving more freight in a much more congested environment.”

Duncan recommended the government offer regulatory relief in the form of graduated safety ratings or reductions in the minimum insurance requirements for fleets that use safety technologies.

Even without incentives, Duncan said FedEx Freight was “installing onboard recorders as we speak to do, among other things, the hours-of-service calculations.”

“If the hours of service was designed to create safety within the industry,” he said, “then I think we have the obligation to enforce these hours-of-service regulations so that we will have the safety output that they were designed to do.”

Rose McMurray, chief safety officer of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, said that trucking fleets can push for wider adoption of technology.

“One answer,” she said, “is for companies to try to promote the economic argument about why investing in these technologies pays off.”

McMurray added that she thought as larger fleets buy the technology, smaller fleets will eventually follow suit.

“Secondary sales of these vehicles will trickle down to the small operator, and over time, demand will grow and will drive down prices,” she said.