It’s not easy for a long-haul driver to evaluate the safety practices and performance of employers in the trucking industry.
The industry tends to attribute safety problems primarily to external causes. The top safety concerns for truck drivers today are “unsafe, aggressive driving by passenger vehicle drivers, lack of parking, congestion and its implications, and hours of service,” says Dave Osiecki, vice president for safety, security and operations at the trade group American Trucking Associations.
Meanwhile, the federal government is failing to meet its own goals for improving the safety of heavy trucking. The Motor Carrier Safety Improvement Act mandates that the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) reduce fatalities involving large trucks by 50 percent by 2009. But by 2005, such deaths had been cut by less than 3 percent, to 5,212, according to an analysis by eTrucker.com.
While Osiecki claims that “safety data shows that the industry is as safe as ever,” objective data to evaluate a company’s safety performance is incomprehensive. In 2004, the FMCSA cut off public access to some key safety information on individual trucking companies, citing doubts about the quality of underlying state data. Though the agency described the move as temporary, public access to some data on SafeStat was still blocked as of August 2007.
So where does this leave truck drivers? Scrambling to learn about the safety practices of prospective employers. Here’s how to get started.
Training Quality and Quantity
Training is key, whether you’re new to the industry or a 20-year veteran concerned about your colleagues’ safe-driving skills.
“The top safety issues are lack of training and fatigue,” says Mike Johnson, a regional driver for Johnson Feed Inc. “Nationally, the average training is just three weeks. By the time a student gets out of school, they’ve got only two or two-and-a-half hours of driving down the road. And sometimes the trainer has only been driving for six months. So new drivers have a lot of backing-up accidents and don’t know how to drive a truck on snow and ice.”
Drivers should ask prospective employers about their training programs, paying particular attention to hours spent on the road and trainers’ qualifications.
Fatigue and Hours of Service
Driver fatigue is a mammoth and deadly problem for the trucking industry. Each year, about 3,300 truck crashes involve driver drowsiness, according to a report from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. “Drivers are often unaware of their deteriorating condition [and] are often motivated to keep driving,” wrote researcher Paul Rau.
Regulation of drivers’ service hours is an ongoing struggle. The trucking industry, regulators, drivers and the federal courts are still haggling over changes to hours-of-service rules promulgated in 2003. In July 2007, the US Court of Appeals for the Washington, DC, Circuit invalidated a 2005 rule issued by the FMCSA that permitted truckers to drive 11 consecutive hours rather than the previous limit of 10 hours.
Technological fixes for driver fatigue don’t address the root causes, some drivers say. “If a trucking company was using nod-off alerts, I wouldn’t work for them,” says Scott Smith, a long-haul driver on medical leave from a national van freighter. A trucking firm that deploys nod-off alerts may be more interested in pushing drivers to the brink of dangerous fatigue than getting them off the road when they become too tired, Smith says.
Loading time is another factor in fatigue. “A driver goes in and spends eight or nine hours waiting for the truck to be loaded and unloaded,” says Johnson. “The shippers and receivers need to be held accountable.” So it pays to ask drivers at your prospective employer if they experience frequent, lengthy delays with loading and unloading.
Carrier and Driver Licensing and Inspections
All stakeholders say that effective programs of licensing and inspection are key to trucking safety. Drivers should look for carriers with “good safety practices, including management emphasis on compliance-related issues,” says Osiecki.
The government’s role in insuring effective licensing and inspections is limited by budgets. The FMCSA has only enough manpower to check driving records at carriers with 20 or fewer drivers, the agency’s administrator testified before Congress in July 2007.
So drivers should spend the time to find safety data on prospective employers, whether via federal or state databases or non-profit safety advocates such as Public Citizen. When you do locate the data, “if a carrier is operating at a higher level of out-of-service, steer elsewhere,” says Smith.