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Thursday, August 11, 2022

Staying safe out there is harder than ever

I was touring a big distribution center recently and saw something that made me question whether I’d ever feel safe getting back on the highway.

I watched someone who was clearly a warehouse employee climb into the driver’s side of a tractor-trailer belonging to a carrier making a delivery.

I asked my host what was up. “Oh, that’s our shunt driver,” he said. “He backs trailers into docks for truck drivers who can’t do it themselves.”

I lost my mind.

(Illustration: istock)

If a driver can not back a tractor-trailer into a dock, how the hell can they navigate 80,000 pounds on a crowded highway through a construction zone at 65 miles per hour?

Lately I’m feeling an unease out on the road like never before. Maybe I’ve seen enough driving stunts that make me cringe in horror. Maybe it’s the trucks that look like they’re held together with bungee cords and duct tape. Maybe I know too much.

One thing I’m certain about: More drivers are getting behind the wheel without basic skills and oversight, and it makes our highways less safe.

The US Federal Motor Safety Administration confirms what my gut tells me. In the past five years the number of fatal crashes involving large trucks is up 2%. Per 100,000 million miles traveled they are up 4%, and injury crashes involving trucks are up 6%.

Despite better technology and safety programs, the numbers sure aren’t trending in the right direction.

Haves and have-nots

The irony is that established fleets have never been safer. Their investments in equipment, technology and training show a commitment to best-in-class safety. When they acquire fleets, they pay a premium for good CVORs [commercial vehicle operator’s registrations] and experienced drivers. They’re not the problem.

The issue is the influx of new carriers. During the first half of 2021, when rates were sky-high, the number of active for-hire trucking companies operating in the US jumped by 58,000. More truckers were out hustling for loads than ever before.

Today spot rates are plunging, diesel prices are setting records, and inflation is through the roof. When your easy-money trucking business suddenly turns marginal, safety and maintenance are the first to go.

Equipment trickle-down

The scarcity of new iron also trickles down to safety.

In a recent Canadian Trucking Alliance survey, fleets said the inability to get new equipment is one of their top issues. Fleets are running their equipment longer and used trucks are older and more expensive. Parts are increasingly hard to find.

In the hands of carriers and drivers that lack the capital and commitment to safety, older trucks are part of a perfect storm for unsafe roads. They’re hauling freight with equipment that should have been at the scrap yard a long time ago.

Driver Inc. danger

In the same CTA survey, Driver Inc. was another top issue for fleets. My guess is the unfair operating advantage, not safety, was the respondents’ biggest concern.

However, according to the Ontario Trucking Association, 135 of 150 Driver Inc. trucking companies audited by the Ontario WSIB were also the subject of Ministry of Transportation intervention for poor safety performance. That’s a whopping 90%.

And this segment of the market is growing with no end in sight.

Training school madness

In mid-May, police in Ontario and Quebec laid 11 charges for driver-training schemes that involved unlicensed training schools and interpreters completing tests for students. They reported 200 cases where students committed a “variety of fraudulent activities” to obtain commercial licenses.

Like trucking companies, training schools have been popping up all over. Many are funded by carriers only interested in helping new hires pass their test. It also seems odd that you can become a licensed driver-trainer the day after you get your license to drive. A person who can not back up a truck should not be teaching someone how to back up a truck.

Better training and equipment combined with a crackdown on poor performers and Driver Inc. are low-hanging fruit compared to some of the structural changes our industry could use. For years I’ve taken heat because I’m a vocal proponent of paying drivers differently. It’s ambitious but I think a revised compensation system would help make highways safer.

More on that next month. Drive safe.

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