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July 4, 2011 8:30 AM, EDT

Facilities Focus on Safety, Health Concerns in Response to an Increase in Female Drivers

By Stephenie Overman, Special to Transport Topics

This story appears in the July 4 print edition of Transport Topics.

As the number of women truck drivers increases, truck-stop operators say they are adding services that are meant to allay concerns about safety, cleanliness, health and respect that often trouble their female customers.

These services include programs designed to enhance safety, increase inspections of restrooms and showers, provide healthier food choices and add sensitivity training for employees.

Tom Liutkus, TravelCenters of America’s vice president for marketing and public relations, said his company has been working with the Women in Trucking Association to improve its service to women drivers. WIT, according to its website, “was established to encourage the employment of women in the trucking industry, promote their accomplishments and minimize obstacles faced by women working in the trucking industry.”

Liutkus also said TA senior executives meet regularly with groups of professional drivers of both sexes for lunch or dinner.

“We ask them to tell us about recent visits to sites and let us know which ones are doing well, and which locations are not meeting their needs consistently,” he said.

Since August of 2009, TA has conducted some 25 sessions, and “most new company initiatives since that time have either been a result of their feedback, or we have reviewed new ideas and programs and asked for their feedback,” Liutkus said.

Other truck-stop chains also said they survey drivers and conduct focus groups that include both sexes to find out what customers want.

“We do focus groups on an annual basis. Part of that audience is female,” said Jenny Love Meyer, director of communications for Love’s Travel Stops & Country Stores. “We ask general questions about the facilities — what they like, what they don’t like, trying to find out what their opinion is about us and what we can do better.”

Ellen Voie, president of WIT, said she often hears from women drivers about their safety worries.

“We’ve had female drivers say they will fuel and eat at one truck stop and at the next one, they sleep,” so observers at the second stop won’t realize there’s a women sleeping in the truck.

Part of the problem is that trucking companies often determine where drivers buy fuel, and drivers’ concerns about safety aren’t necessarily the biggest factor in that decision, Voie said.

The person in charge of purchasing decisions “isn’t in charge of retention. Everything needs to be taken into consideration, not just price,” Voie said. “The cost of turnover is high, too” when truckers feel forced to use truck stops they consider unsafe.

Desiree Wood, who operates the TruckerDesiree.com and Realwomenintrucking.com websites, said the message she consistently receives from women drivers is that “it’s nice that [truck stops] are doing some things with towels and flowers but, realistically, personal safety is more important than a pink towel.”

It’s such a constant worry, Wood said, that “I’ve met women truckers who carry their own safety bar in their shower bag. You should be able to know that the shower is secure.”

Wood called on executives in the truck-stop industry to review their facilities and conduct risk assessments.

“I don’t think sometimes at the corporate level they are aware of what’s going on. Upper-level industry people need to put themselves in the situation. They need to do a walk-though and put themselves in the shoes” of women drivers, she said. “They want us to come and spend money, but I’ll go to a rest area that is safe and quiet instead of a travel plaza where somebody’s knocking on doors all night.”

Truck-stop industry representatives, however, say they get the message and are taking steps to improve safety.

TravelCenters is introducing a program called StaySafe that is “the equivalent of a neighborhood watch program, only for truck stops,” Liutkus said.

Improvements include better lighting, fencing and security services.

“There are also more frequent walks around the lot by employees,” he said.

Managers at the chain’s 165 locations are reviewing the program with the local officials and posting parking lot signs with law enforcement contact information.

Meyer said that safety is an obvious concern for women drivers, a concern that Love’s Travel Stops works hard to address.

“We provide well-lit, secure lots. The building and parking lot is well-lit. Somebody is outside patrolling on a regular basis,” she said. Love’s operates about 270 locations in 39 states.

Next to safety comes cleanliness, Love Meyer said. “As a female, I know that women do notice the cleanliness a lot,” she said.

Love’s employs “mystery shoppers who inspect the women’s restrooms extremely thoroughly. A lot of emphasis is put on making sure that women’s restrooms are physically clean,” she said.

The importance of clean shower facilities has been prominent in Pilot Flying J’s research — from surveys to posts on social media and in conversations with customers, according to Wendy Hamilton, senior national account marketing manager. Pilot Flying J has 550 interstate locations across North America.

Through Labor Day, Pilot Flying J is inviting professional drivers to participate in the “Best Shower on the Interstate Contest.” Drivers may vote every three days on the best shower they have experienced in a Pilot Flying J facility, and for each vote, they’ll automatically be entered in a contest to win free Pilot Flying J coffee for a year, Hamilton said.

Pilot Flying J has added a number of luxurious touches to its shower facilities, Hamilton added. The company recently upgraded to larger towels and hotel-quality shower heads.

TravelCenters of America also has launched what Liutkus called “an aggressive program” to upgrade driver shower facilities.

In addition to thicker towels, “we added cloth floor mats instead of paper, installed new four-position shower heads, new soap dispensers, racks and even began putting fresh flowers and candies inside after cleaning,” he said.

What Desiree Wood really appreciates about TravelCenters’ showers isn’t the flowers and candies that adorn the facilities but the privacy safeguards — which touches on the safety issue.

“In the hospitality industry, you never say somebody’s room number out loud,” she said, but at some truck stops “they announce the shower number over the loudspeaker so everyone knows where I’m going. . . . TA has a keypad. You get a ticket and go to the door. There’s a code on there. I like that system a lot better.”

In many ways, women drivers visiting truck stops have the same goals as male drivers, WIT’s Voie said.

“They want healthy food, reasonable prices, easy access to fuel. But there are still a lot of travel centers that don’t have clothing in women’s sizes or feminine products.”

Pilot Flying J has been researching healthy food choices and has begun offering better snacks and meals, Hamilton said.

Love’s also tries to offer healthier products such as dried fruit, nuts and fresh cut fruit, Love Meyer said. “That’s something that helps draw women.”

Plus, Love’s has rolled out an smart phone app to let customers know what restaurants are available at each location.

To appeal to nutrition-conscious customers, including many female drivers, healthy menu choices at TA restaurants are identified with the company’s “StayFit” icon.

“But we went one step further. In the travel store, we have placed the StayFit icon on items deemed ‘better for you’ by the manufacturer,” she said. “For example, items that may be sugar free, gluten free, low in carbohydrates, low in sodium, multigrain and so on, are labeled so drivers can decide” what’s best for them.

TA also has about a dozen fitness rooms at various locations and has created walking or running trail maps, he said.

“The fitness rooms have been so popular with drivers, we are installing another 10 to 12.”

Another problem that many women truckers say they face is inequity of treatment.

Voie said all truck-stop employees should be better trained to treat women drivers with respect.

Too often, women “are told to get out of the drivers-only section,” she said. “One woman told me when she stood in line to pay, the woman [cashier] said, ‘Honey, I’ve got to get these drivers out of here.’ ”

Change “has got to come from the top, Voie said. “I don’t think anybody at travel centers does that intentionally. They may just not be sensitive. I recommend travel plazas work with their employees to make them aware that this happens, that [employees] shouldn’t assume because someone is a woman, she is not a driver.”

TravelCenters and Pilot Flying J said they have initiated sensitivity training programs for their employees.

Voie also urged carriers to “talk to your drivers about how they treat women drivers. I get e-mails from drivers that say, ‘Women shouldn’t be playing where men are trying to make a living.’ ”

According to American Trucking Associations’ American Trucking Trends 2009-2010, there were 166,012 female truck drivers in 2008, up from 154,644 in 2001 and — according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics — almost double the 84,000 female truck drivers in 1983.