Opinion: Trucking Industry’s Culture of Safety

This Opinion piece appears in the June 23 print edition of Transport Topics. Click here to subscribe today.

By Dean Kaplan


National Tank Truck Carriers

Within all segments of the trucking industry, safety is always a priority. Two recent incidents — an extremely offensive ad from a personal injury law firm depicting a Class 8 tractor with the words “Serial Killer” at the top and a tragic accident involving comedian Tracy Morgan — have generated outside attention to perceived lack of safety in the industry. 

My family owned a trucking company, and I was born into this industry more than 60 years ago. Drivers were the white knights of the highway back then, as the interstate system was built and the country grew rapidly. A safe and efficient trucking industry played — and continues to play — an important role in the nation’s growth, and I’m proud to be a part of this industry and, in particular, the tank-truck segment.

There are about 3.1 million highly trained professional truck drivers on our nation’s highways, with approximately 10% of those being tank-truck drivers. Professional drivers have an extremely tough job. It’s a job that requires specialized training to deal with the variables thrown their way for every pickup and delivery, including: traffic, construction, weather, equipment concerns, parking difficulties and other drivers and motorists.

In my new position as chairman of National Tank Truck Carriers, I value the opportunity to emphasize the critical importance of our professional drivers and the role they play in safety. Given the frequently dangerous nature of the products we haul, the tank-truck industry is and should be held to higher safety and security standards. Tank trucking is widely recognized as one of the safest segments of the industry, and we want to become even better.

Compliance with regulations and guidelines is only the beginning. In a competitive industry like ours, safety sets us apart. Only by cultivating a culture of personal accountability for safety at every level of trucking can we reduce the number of accidents.

There are a number of things we can do in this regard, starting with emphasizing and ingraining safety into everything we do. At my company, it starts with rigorous hiring and screening processes, continues with comprehensive driver training that engages senior drivers as mentors, regular safety meetings and providing our drivers with state-of-the-art equipment to help them get the job done. Across the industry, we must also work with our customers to improve the treatment of these professionals at the plant level. The entire logistics chain needs to understand that common courtesy and respect are fundamental to our shared success.

At NTTC, we have also made significant investments to improve safety programming and update our programs to recognize and reward our very best drivers. Similar to the U.S. Marine Corps, tank truckers’ collective experience is mission-critical. With a tank trucker, what you see is what you get. And what you get are highly trained, committed drivers like the eight finalists for NTTC’s Professional Driver of the Year award, which NTTC presented in April. These driver champions are true safety experts and stand as an inspiration to us all.

The tank-truck industry continues to work at reducing driver turnover, which is already low (around 15% to 30%) compared with other segments within the industry. Tank truckers typically have shorter lengths of haul, allowing drivers to get home at the end of the typical workday. Also, the specialized equipment required lends itself to dedicated carriage, which breeds greater familiarity with our routes, products, procedures, and loading and unloading locations.  Driver sustainability is a larger issue facing the trucking industry as a whole, and NTTC member companies are looking at new ways to attract and retain talented professionals, from aforementioned mentoring programs and recognition programs to technology investments, performance bonuses and loyalty incentives.

Finally, rules and regulations can limit on-duty and driving time, but what drivers do on their down time remains their responsibility and is done at their discretion. Supporting smart, data-driven regulations and guidelines is critical, and so is respecting driver decisions and supporting them to comply with guidelines when they’re out on the road. We can’t account for every bad apple in the bunch, nor should we. But we can take pride in the collective efforts of the many good actors on our nation’s highways who prioritize safety with each and every load.

The overwhelming majority of loads are delivered safely. In 2013, NTTC’s safety contest participants reported one DOT-recordable accident every 2 million miles. But that doesn’t mean we shift our attention away from safety. We know that accidents will happen, and it is our job to do everything we can to prevent them.

The focus of my tenure as NTTC chairman is to continue to promote safety and support the future of our industry. To do this, I will be spending significant time and energy at my home office, in my industry interactions and in my leadership position sharing the positive results from our increased investment in safety with our constituent groups and the general public.

Shippers and carriers alike need to recognize that drivers are the most important asset of any trucking company and serve as the frontline ambassadors of safety. However, the reality is that safety begins and ends with leadership from each and every one of us. In an industry preoccupied with multiples ratios, and valuations, the math just doesn’t add up without the commitment and service of a professional driver.

Dean Kaplan is CEO of K-Limited Carrier, based in Toledo, Ohio, a liquid bulk carrier.