Truck crashes happen. It’s the unfortunate reality of truckers sharing the road with other vehicles.
In far too many cases, however, the truck driver isn’t at fault but becomes an easy target. That’s why even before a crash happens, motor carriers and their drivers should be ready.
Jeana Hysell, a senior safety consultant for J.J. Keller & Associates, has been in the trucking industry for 43 years and kicked off her career as a truck driver. Today, she helps trucking companies identify compliance deficiencies and work safety into the company culture.
Before companies can even consider planning out what to do in the event of an accident, all departments must be on the same page. All too often, however, Hysell sees disagreements among upper management, middle management, and drivers on what it means to be safe and compliant. During a panel discussion on safety in corporate culture and operations at the recent Women In Trucking Accelerate Conference & Expo in Dallas, Hysell and other industry veterans warned that if company leadership doesn’t buy into safety, it’s a red flag.
Jill Snyder, who is director of safety and compliance at Zonar Systems, learned early on in her career as a former fleet safety director that if a fleet’s C-suite isn’t onboard, a safety culture won’t work. To get through to leadership, she urged safety directors to become salespeople.
“You have to sell it,” Snyder advised. “When you go to leadership or the financial people, talk to them about dollars and how much it costs to have an accident and how many loads it will take to refund all that money that they just lost because of that. Educate them that safety is a profit, it’s not a cost. Talk to them about the retention of drivers. If drivers feel they are driving for a safe company, they are going to want to stay with you. If drivers feel like they are being pushed to operate illegally, they are not happy.”
Fellow panelist Donna Fielding, director of intermodal safety at Arkansas-based J.B. Hunt (ranked No. 5 on the 2022 FleetOwner 500 For-Hire list), explained that over the years and after several crashes, the company has made it a point to bring together its safety and operations departments, rather than running them as separate entities.
“If you’re in operations, you’re responsible for safety, and if you’re in safety, your main role is safety but you’re helping operations bring those drivers along and into the safety culture,” Fielding explained. “Early on at J.B. Hunt, if a catastrophic accident happened, it was held close to the vest and people didn’t talk about it; only certain individuals knew about it.”
Now, however, Fielding said that mindset has shifted so everyone within the company knows what is going on within each fleet across the multimodal company.
“What can we do differently to make it better?” she suggested. “We really try to make sure that we marry operations and safety as one and not separate.”
Hysell agreed, reiterating the importance of companywide transparency.
“You’re all one company,” she said. “You may have different departments, but you’re all after the same goal. Make sure that you incorporate the communication not just from operations but from safety, and make sure it gets back to the drivers. The drivers are the face of the company, and they need to be in the know versus in a hearsay-type situation because they are always addressed at truck stops. What you don’t want is the rumor mill running rampant and becoming cancerous among your drivers, so be transparent with your drivers and let them know if things are changing.”
At the end of the day, Stephanie Chesney, a partner and transportation defense attorney at MG+M Law Firm, explained it’s about the safety steps trucking companies take and actually implement that make all the difference. Video is one tool fleets might consider adding to their safety kit.
“It’s immediately the story,” Chesney said of video. “We find the cameras so helpful as counsel because it’s so clear-cut. It helps save on costs in terms of litigation and whether we are going to spend so much money fighting and figuring out what happened by asking 15 people. Or, are we just going to look at something and make a calculated decision collectively?"
“Mistakes are just human nature,” she added. “Making a mistake is fine, but then we need to make a business decision to resolve it, package it up, and move on. When you take these steps to put additional technology in your vehicles, have robust safety features, and follow them—that’s the most important part—it really puts you in the best defensible position for anything.”
Below are some of the additional lessons learned and best practices panelists offered that carriers could adopt.
A fatal crash happens. Now what?
First and foremost, according to J.J. Keller’s Hysell, remove that driver from operation and make sure they are mentally stable enough to go back into the truck.
“When a crash happens, especially when it’s severe, the driver goes through a set of emotions, and those emotions need to be addressed before the motor carrier puts them back into the truck,” she advised. “They may need to see professional help.”
Once the carrier decides to put that driver back in the truck, Hysell urges companies to provide adequate training before they get back out on the road.
“The motor carrier needs to make sure that driver is safe and emotionally connected back to reality and can focus back on the driving,” she added, noting the importance of preventing a post-traumatic stress episode should a similar event arise down the road.
From a legal perspective, call counsel immediately, Chesney stressed. She also said it’s important that carriers and their driver know that anything that is said at the scene of an accident to police or other parties will likely end up in a police report and in court.
Looping in the carrier’s lawyer or insurance provider from the start and getting them on-scene, if possible, will better protect the carrier and driver in court, she added.
“In the nature of human emotions, especially when there is a catastrophe, people are prone to explain,” Chesney said. “They are prone to speak. They’re afraid. They want to clarify their position. All of these things are human nature, but what we see is a series of interactions with state police, with the other driver, with someone else, and they’re not protected. We use the term protected to mean that it’s client confidential.”
“It’s especially interesting that people in a larger rig have a tendency to think it could be their fault just by the nature of their vehicle being larger, and that’s not always the case,” she added. “Videos can show us that’s not the case. There is a concern and a welfare issue, and the driver thinks, ‘Maybe I should have done X, Y, and Z,’ but now that’s a statement in a police report that follows you forever.”
Proactive crash training
When conducting accident training, Hysell recommends educating drivers and providing them with the necessary tools. She also reiterated the importance of telling drivers not to speak to anyone at the scene of an accident.
“I tell my drivers do not speak to anybody—not even the police—until either I get there or until I can get an attorney there,” she said. “The driver does have the right to be quiet until they speak to counsel or to someone in their company that they feel comfortable with. They do not have to give a statement at that point in time until they feel comfortable with someone representing them or until they have an attorney there.”
Fielding pointed out that J.B. Hunt has a 24/7 number that their drivers can call. The company will then dispatch an adjuster or accident reconstructionist to the scene depending on the incident.
For many trucking companies that might not have the in-house resources that J.B. Hunt has, both Snyder and Chesney said insurance providers and attorneys have 24/7 hotlines for such emergencies.
Snyder also noted that she learned early on in her career as a safety director that anything a manager receives from a driver in writing can be used against them in court, but anything given to an attorney or insurance provider is blanketed under that client confidentiality privilege.
“In so many safety meetings where they talk about getting an accident report from your driver, don’t do that,” Snyder advised. “Anything they write down and hand to you is admissible in court. I had one case where I was deposed and the only thing that I had as an ‘accident report’ was a paper towel with the date, time, location, and the name of the driver.”
The call came in at 7 p.m. when she was making dinner, hence the paper towel.
“He told me what happened, we walked through that he would need to get a drug test, but I told him that he didn’t have to talk to anybody,” Snyder added. “I said, ‘I am calling insurance now and they will be in touch with you. When insurance contacts you, ask them who they are and make sure they are representing us.’ I said you can talk to them, but if anybody else calls, tell them to call me.”
As a transportation defense attorney, Chesney explained most of the companies she has encountered have taken the time to create safety procedures, but the implementation of those policies is all too often a struggle.
“If there is a crash, someone is going to ask about those safety policies and procedures and they are going to go to someone high up and ask how it actually works,” Chesney explained. “Whether or not that executive bought in is apparent very quickly.”
Hysell added that during audits she conducts, she always tells fleet clients to document the corrective action that has been taken after the audit.
“It’s not so much that you are out of compliance, the biggest issue is that now you’re aware of it and you’re taking the steps that bring you into compliance,” she said. “It’s another thing that attorneys and juries look at.”