March 27, 2017 4:00 AM, EDT

Opinion: Regulation Rollback: Will Safety Suffer?

This Opinion piece appears in the March 27 print edition of Transport Topics. Click here to subscribe today.

By Brian Fielkow


Jetco Delivery

Throughout Donald Trump’s campaign for president, slashing regulations was a core theme. Many of President Trump’s Cabinet nominees are long-standing opponents of a heavily regulated business environment. I welcome this time to catch our breath. The rate of regulatory change in the trucking industry has been too rapid for many businesses to keep pace.

In the trucking industry, we have been steamrolled with actual and pending regulations with widely varying degrees of merit — electronic logging devices, sleep apnea, speed limiters, revised hours of service, repeal of revised hours of service — and the list goes on.

That said, the trucking industry must be prepared to answer this question: As regulations are rolled back or right-sized, will safety be compromised? The answer is clear: It’s up to us as business leaders — both labor and management. This always has been the case, regardless of the political climate.

From an outside and sometimes misinformed viewpoint, the level of safety is measured simply by crashes and regulatory compliance. When we measure crashes, it’s too late. We are basing our measurements on a tragic event. When we look at compliance, at best, we are looking at meeting standards that define the minimum or are incapable of addressing the broad number of niches in which we operate. At worst, we are spending time jumping through regulatory hoops that really do not drive safe outcomes.

So how do we raise the bar as an industry on our safety performance? It’s not in the regulations. Consider the myriad risks that lead up to an at-fault truck crash, including unreliable maintenance, poor planning, near misses that are ignored, driver fatigue, personal distractions and incomplete pre- and post-trip inspections. And this list goes on. Regulations will not fix most of this. If we do not practice prevention by addressing these behaviors ahead of time, then we will relegate ourselves to cleaning up crashes.

Safety and regulatory compliance simply are not the same. While some level of regulation clearly is essential, when politicians and regulators dictate the structure of our safety programs, there is a low probability that desirable safety outcomes will result.

Take two hypothetical companies and assume that both are fully compliant with all regulations. The first company has a tightly woven safety culture in which values are aligned, leadership and front-line employees are all engaged. The second company views safety as a cost, and its leadership is not engaged unless DOT visits or it’s time to renew insurance. The fact that both companies are compliant has nothing to do with how more likely Company 1 is to yield much safer outcomes than Company 2.

When high-profile safety failures occur, a knee-jerk reaction is to run to Washington, D.C., for the solution. While the government can and must be a partner in promoting safety, oftentimes the promulgation of more regulations provides the appearance of action. In reality, safety is driven and owned by those operating in high-consequence environments.

Here’s how we can drive desired safety outcomes faster than any new regulation:

Ensure your employees report a near miss without fear of retribution. This will allow you to diagnose and prevent near misses so that an actual accident does not occur in the future.

Walk around. Create a system of field-behavior observations to ensure employees are following processes. Incorporate technology, such as onboard cameras, to better monitor behavior in the field.

Bring your front lines inside. They have the best idea of where the risks lie and, if engaged, will be your greatest source of information. Lecture less and listen more.

Ensure an ongoing system of process audits exists. Be your own worst critic to find flaws in the system and locate areas for improvement. Don’t wait for a DOT audit.

Promote a culture of accountability. Every employee should adopt a mindset of prevention and should be personally accountable for making this happen, both individually and peer to peer. Your entire organization must be aware of its duty to ensure that your team members, customers and the public reach their destinations safely every time. Ninety-nine percent is not good enough!

Implement a new employee onboarding process that instills preventive behaviors from day one. Just because a new hire knows how to execute a given job function does not mean that he or she knows how to do this in your organization and in line with your safety values.

In addition to simply repealing wasteful regulations, let’s create an opportunity to establish a new tone between businesses and regulatory agencies. Let’s move from enforcement to collaboration. Most businesses want to operate safely and simply need the tools. What if we redirected some of our regulatory resources to helping these businesses improve, as opposed to looking for ways to immediately penalize them? Enforcement efforts are, of course, appropriate for willful and repeat violators. But for the majority of businesses that desire to operate safely, a collaborative approach will yield better results than one of assuming guilt at the outset.

If you think that changing the tone between regulators and the private sector is far-fetched, consider the fact that it is working well in so many areas. Examples include the Environmental Protection Agency’s SmartWay initiative, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s Voluntary Protection Programs’ Star certification and the Federal Aviation Administration’s self-disclosure program. Each of these highlights that public and private sectors can work collaboratively toward a shared goal.

Jetco Delivery is a Houston-based regional trucking company.