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Truck driver safety

Eyes on the driver

Jan. 2, 2018
How two fleets found their sweet spot when it comes to safety ROI

For Pottle’s Transportation, safety is no joke. In fact, the company’s entire culture revolves around it.

Similar to most fleets in operation today, in order to keep up with safety standards and regulations, Pottle’s has implemented safety cameras and technologies across its fleet to drive home the message to its drivers and employees that safety is its top priority.

“I think the more you implement and the more you spend on safety, it kind of sets the tone that safety is never going away; it always has to be and always will be number one in everything you do,” Chelsea Pottle Demmons told Fleet Owner

Demmons is the vice president of Bangor, ME-based Pottle’s Transportation, a third-generation trucking company founded by her grandfather, Clifton, in 1972. She, her brother, and her father run the company’s day-to-day operations.

Pottle’s has two terminals —one in Bangor; the other in Allentown, PA —and operates a total of 160 trucks, excluding brokerage fleet trucks and owner-operator vehicles.

Although the carrier has invested heavily to amplify its safety efforts and update equipment, what Demmons said really separates Pottle’s from its peers in the industry relative to safety is its selective driver hiring process.

“I would say that it’s not really easy to become a driver here,” she explained. “We look at all of our applications very cautiously and have quite the hiring criteria. It’s all based on safety—whether the driver had previous accidents or has jumped from job to job or what not —we take all that into consideration.”

And though there is a growing driver shortage throughout the industry—a projected 50,000 by the end of 2017—Pottle’s isn’t really feeling the impact. That’s because of the higher standard it sets for both new recruits and veteran drivers alike, Demmons noted.

“We don’t like to see 10 jobs in the last year,” she explained. “We like longevity. We believe wholeheartedly in that here. I just had a driver celebrating 20 years here at the company. We don’t want people just here temporarily to fill a seat; we want them here long term.”

In an effort to keep safety a priority and better protect, or even help exonerate its drivers when necessary, Pottle’s installed SmartDrive forward-facing cameras across its entire fleet. The company also recently incorporated a program using driver-facing cameras as a coaching tactic for new drivers. Demmons stressed, however, that the company uses the driver-facing cameras solely for training and performance, not everyday operations.

For instance, one of its drivers recently was in a rear-end accident, and management ended up using the video captured from that accident as a coaching tool. Now, that driver must have a driver-facing camera in his cab until the safety department feels he can operate without it.  

“Our drivers kind of took the bull by the horns and have done great with these cameras,” Demmons explained. “Of course, we’ve had issues; our drivers aren’t perfect. But we also had cases where these have proven we’re  not at fault as well.  It’s definitely worth what we’ve put into it.” 

Jason Palmer, COO of SmartDrive, has seen more fleets adopting ADAS, lane keeping, and active braking technologies to help their drivers operate even safer. In addition, OEMs are adding more cameras, along with auto steer and adaptive cruise control capabilities to their products.

However, Palmer warned that one of the offsets of these safety solutions is that as fleets start to implement technologies like collision avoidance with active braking, drivers may become complacent and begin to rely on the technology too much.

“As a result, they start to take more risks thinking the truck will help them avoid dangerous situations,” he told Fleet Owner. “We have to ensure that we’re using new technologies in the right way. The driver has to pay attention and be ready to take over the vehicle should something happen. The driver must be prepared for the unexpected.” 

Not surprisingly, the worsening driver shortage continues to be one of the biggest challenges for fleets today. Though most fleets would prefer to recruit drivers with five-plus years of driving experience, due to the shortage of qualified drivers, they’re now looking at drivers with less experience, Palmer explained. Because of this, one of the trends he’s seeing at SmartDrive is fleets are finding that video-based safety solutions can help manage those new drivers by quickly tracking the skills they need to hone in on.

“The result is the driver sticks with the fleet longer because we can address problem situations more quickly,” Palmer added.

Regulations are also playing a key role in overall fleet safety operations; for instance, electronic logs are now regulating drivers’ hours of service. According to Palmer, one of the bigger problems right now is the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration’s (FMCSA) Compliance, Safety, Accountability (CSA) scores and whether they are focusing on the right things.

Under CSA, fleets are not necessarily being graded on events correlated to collisions and fatalities as much as they should be, Palmer explained. Instead, current CSA scores rely on whether a driver gets a ticket or not. 

“The bigger issue is what we can track versus what is causing the collisions,” he said. “The problem is that the data elements are so far apart, they tend to over-penalize certain situations.”

Going forward, Palmer said the industry also may see speed limiters become a mandated requirement in
the U.S.

State of safety

In the last month or so, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) reported that the total traffic deaths on U.S. highways rose 5.6% in 2016 to a decade-high of 37,461, with an increase in truck-involved fatalities. According to the report, fatalities rose 2.6% to 1.18 deaths per 100 million miles driven, up from 1.15 deaths a year earlier.

There were 4,317 fatalities in crashes involving large trucks, a gain of 5.4% and the highest since 2007, the report noted. More than 70% of the fatalities were occupants of other vehicles. And a total of 722 occupants of large trucks died in crashes in 2016.

Though the NHTSA statistics indicate some negative trends in terms of overall large truck safety, Fred Andersky, director of customer solutions and marketing for the Controls Group of Bendix Commercial Vehicle Systems, said he believes those trends could be attributed to the increase in distracted driving, particularly among non-commercial vehicles.

Andersky, who is also the director of government and industry affairs for Bendix, highlighted several safety technologies he feels the trucking industry has embraced to improve overall fleet operations—most notably stability control and collision mitigation. But even with the implementation of collision mitigation, the latest large crash and bus study from the FMCSA reports there was a large truck rear-ending a passenger vehicle on average about every 15 minutes. 

“What that says to me is there is definitely a problem out there,” Andersky pointed out. “I think that is probably driving the take rates on the collision mitigation technology even faster than stability technology. I think we’re also seeing the fact that what’s still important is that these technologies actually work.”

Moreover, Andersky stressed that these are driver-assistive technologies, not driver-replacement technologies. That means safe driving practices and comprehensive training must be critical elements of the fleet-safety equation. 

For drivers that have these safety technologies on their vehicles, it’s important for them to understand what the technology is, how the technology works, and what the limits of the technology are, Andersky explained.

“My favorite example is always stability control,” he said. “It does have an upper limit, which is driven by the laws of physics. If you go into a curve too fast, the stability technology is going to intervene, but so are the laws of physics and that vehicle is still going to roll over. It’s important that drivers understand the technology that they have on their vehicles.”

When and if those drivers do get into an accident, video can then come into play as a tool to exonerate drivers and the fleet when they are not at fault. And in those situations when the fleet is at fault, video data can be used to expedite the process and help carriers settle out of court. 

“This is where video, I think, is really powerful,” Andersky explained. “I’ll give you two situations: Driver goes around a turn too fast and stability system intervenes; driver swerves to avoid an overturned car with the family still in it. Those events from a data perspective are going to look really similar, but when you add the video, you get the context. In the one case, the driver should learn not to go around turns too fast. In the other case, the driver is a hero; he probably just saved lives.”

 Overall, when it comes to implementing a safety plan or adopting new technologies, Andersky recommends fleets analyze their operational structure and what it is they actually do. The true value of any technology is whether or not a fleet is getting the return on investment (ROI) from it; that’s what’s going to drive adoption in the end, he explained. 

Return on investment

A big piece of the ROI Pottle’s has seen since implementing video and other safety strategies is time savings. When an accident occurs, it can take hours, days, even months to try to figure out who is at fault. But with the entire event caught on camera, the process moves much faster—whether the fleet is at fault or not. 

Another major ROI is that putting the cameras in place ended up enhancing the overall safety culture of the company.

“Putting these cameras in kind of made everyone aware that we were not backing down on safety, and safety is number one,” Demmons explained. “It got our fleet managers and our shop and everybody on board to know that this was no joke. And everybody had to learn the system, and everybody is reviewing videos when we have accidents to see what our drivers are going through.”

She said the cameras have even helped show customers when something goes wrong on their end. For instance, if a driver arrived on time for a delivery, but the customer’s gate was locked; the carrier then has proof on its end. In addition, when customers ask how the company deals with safety, Pottle’s is able to tout that it’s fully equipped with ELDs and cameras.

“It’s hard to measure all those ROIs, but that’s a big return on investment to be able to have that data at our fingertips,” Demmons said.

Similar to Pottle’s mission, each decision made by Groendyke Transport, an Enid, OK-based carrier, is based on what provides the best long-term solution for safety. That’s according to Brian Gigoux, Groendyke’s vice president of equipment and maintenance. 

Although it may be more costly up front, Gigoux told Fleet Owner that investing in safety not only helps keep the company’s drivers, support staff, and motoring public safe, it also helps eliminate personal-injury accidents and workers’ compensation claims.  

Groendyke began specifying wider brake shoes with extended service linings in 1998, and again when technology started evolving with the introduction of roll stability in 2006 and then electronic roll stability in 2009. 

The carrier has since adopted collision mitigation systems, lane departure and blind spotter technologies along with air disc brakes on the steer, drive and trailer axle positions.  These new components are complemented by automated transmissions to allow the drivers to keep both hands on the wheel and direct their full attention to safely driving the tractor and trailer, Gigoux said.    

“The single largest ROI factor is the obvious reduction of rear-end collisions,” he explained. “As everyone in our industry knows, the costs associated with a serious rear-end accident could easily pay for the mitigation system on your entire fleet. Additionally, the forward-facing camera records events, even near misses, providing insight into what caused them. 

“Not only does it show in many instances that our driver was not the issue,” he continued, “but the information collected from near-miss incidents also provides an opportunity to coach drivers on how to avoid getting into the same situation in the future.”    

The carrier noted it is careful to properly vet any new hardware during the initial stages of implementation. For instance, Groendyke tested a small number of tractors with collision mitigation systems in a highly populated area where it has a 24/7 operation. Within a few months, the company was convinced of the benefits, according to Gigoux.  

Air disc brakes were initially adopted across the fleet to address the issue of roadside violations and brake-stroke adjustment limits. However, Gigoux added, other benefits of air disc brakes include less air consumption, reduced lag time, reduced fade in mountainous regions, and simplified maintenance.

“You must be able to look beyond the initial acquisition cost of a new piece of equipment to realize where and when the savings begin,” he advised. “With properly vetted safety-related technology, the savings begin during the first day of operation for a new piece of equipment.”  

Well ahead of the deadline for the ELD mandate, Groendyke elected to fully implement ELDs in 2010. “Our drivers were receptive, and it is working well for our fleet,” Gigoux said.

Pottle’s, too, implemented electronic logs for its drivers and owner-operators about five years ago. Unlike Groendyke, Pottle’s initially received a lot of pushback from drivers. But that has since changed.

“We didn’t lose one driver, and we now have drivers complaining if anything breaks on their [ELD] and they have to use paper logs,” she explained. “Being on ELDs makes them feel safe. If they have to go through a weigh station or get pulled over, they feel safe. They know they’re in line; they know they’re legal. It just takes all that questioning away.” 

When it comes to complying with the ELD mandate and other safety regulations, Demmons’ stance is that it’s inevitable and there’s no running away from it now. 

“From the start of your day to the end of your day, it needs to revolve around safety,” she stressed. “We’re not 100% great at ensuring safety in everything we do, but we try really hard. I think from the top down, if your leaders are focused on safety, then the rest of your team will be as well, and they’ll realize how costly it is and how horrible it is when your fleet is known for not being safe.”       

About the Author

Cristina Commendatore

Cristina Commendatore was previously the Editor-in-chief of FleetOwner magazine. She reported on the transportation industry since 2015, covering topics such as business operational challenges, driver and technician shortages, truck safety, and new vehicle technologies. She holds a master’s degree in journalism from Quinnipiac University in Hamden, Connecticut.

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