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August 22, 2019 10:15 AM, EDT

New Report Points to Ways Truck Companies Can Operate Safer

Truck driver puts on seat belt TT File Photo

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A study that focused on nine motor carriers’ efforts to improve the safety of their operations found that a company’s overall safety culture — from the boardroom to the truck cab — was a crucial element for success.

“This report provides some real concrete examples of what trucking companies of different sizes have done and implemented to change their safety records,” said Jane Terry, senior director for government affairs at the National Safety Council.

Her group, in cooperation with the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute and Travelers, completed the study, which was released earlier this month. “There is so much more we can do to improve safety on our roadways,” she said.

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Researchers followed for more than a year the efforts the nine carriers made to improve their safety records, including one company that at one time had been classified as “high risk” by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration. Over the course of the study, each fleet experienced decreases in the number and severity of crashes and improved their overall scores in FMCSA’s Compliance, Safety, Accountability program.

“It started really at the top with upper management and executives buying into the importance of safety at their fleet and this included investing in good equipment, good vehicles and good programs to help improve the drivers that were already there,” said Virginia Tech Transportation Institute senior research associate Matt Camden. “This could be developing or using in-vehicle training programs, behind-the-wheel training, classroom training, online training or driver simulators.”

Keys to Success

The report said six out of the nine carriers reported that building a strong safety culture increased their safety outcomes, and listed the following items as keys to success:

• Maintaining an open-door policy for drivers to discuss safety-related issues with management.

• Sharing carrierwide safety indicators with management and drivers.

• Improving hiring policies and training, as well as modifying driver scheduling to reduce fatigue.

• Having a zero-tolerance policy for hours-of-service violations.

• Informing drivers about the company’s safety culture during orientation, and having all employees participate in safety training and education programs.

• The report’s authors acknowledge the industry faces significant challenges hiring and keeping drivers, but they stress companies should resist the temptation to hire drivers simply to fill a slot.

“The things that stood out include having a consistent safety culture that reaches across the entire organization. Safety is not just something that’s a single department, it needs to be part of the entire culture of the organization from the drivers, mechanics, dispatch, management, HR,” said Chris Hayes, second vice president of transportation, risk control, at Travelers. “A company needs to have a well-documented, well-understood hiring standard and not deviating from it. Making sure you have the right people coming into the organization is really the key to the whole thing.”

An official with American Trucking Associations regulatory policy staff told Transport Topics the report’s conclusions provide good insights for fleets.

“There is no single fix. But, it’s rather a comprehensive approach,” said Abigail Potter, ATA manager for safety and occupational health policy. “This report lays out a bunch of options that carriers of all different sizes can look to develop best practices and improve their safety outcomes.”

The report strongly advocates both forward- and rear-facing cameras in truck cabs. Rear-facing cameras have been controversial in the trucking industry, because some drivers believe they are an invasion of privacy. The authors said while they understand the complaints, the cameras can be very beneficial if trucking companies use them only as a teaching and training tool, and not to treat drivers in a punitive manner.

The authors noted forward-facing cameras have become more accepted because video can exonerate a driver who is not at fault in a crash.

According to National Highway Traffic Safety Administration data, large-truck occupant truck deaths in 2017 — the last year figures are available — increased even though the overall traffic fatality rate declined. That year, 840 truck drivers lost their lives, compared with 786 in 2016, a 6.6% increase.

FMCSA Administrator Ray Martinez said 40% of those deaths were the result of drivers not wearing seat belts.

Overall, in 2017 NHTSA said a total of 37,133 people died in motor vehicle crashes, a 2% decline from the prior year’s 36,750. The dip reversed two consecutive years of increases. Of the 37,133 people who died, 4,761 were in accidents involving trucks. That figure was up 392 from 2016.

“We’ve held relatively stable over the last year regarding fatalities, but stable isn’t good enough when it’s your loved one killed on the roadway. You demand and expect that more is going to be done,” Terry said.

The National Surface Transportation Safety Center at Virginia Tech’s Transportation Institute was established by the Federal Public Transportation Act of 2005 to develop and disseminate advanced transportation safety techniques and innovations in both rural and urban communities.