As Good As You Want to Be

September 1, 2011

The Truckload Carriers Association (TCA) has embarked upon their Driver Image Campaign.  Their Image campaign is a concerted effort to improve the image of truck drivers to the general public and is supported by carriers and suppliers to the trucking industry.  If you would like to see which carriers and trucking industry suppliers are supporting you the driver, go to www.truckload.org/image  If you see a company you know, thank them for their support.  If you don’t see a carrier or vendor that you think should be listed, ask them to get on board!

I had a recent opportunity to discuss drivers, driver image, driver quality and driver recruiting with Rodney Mills, Vice President-Administration and General Counsel, and Dan Smith, Director of Safety and Security, of USA Truck Inc., a dry van carrier located in Van Buren, Arkansas.  We talked about the economy and how it was affecting truck drivers.  We determined that carriers are beginning to focus more on the driver as a valuable asset of the company and getting away from the “just hire another driver” attitude that has hampered driver safety and pay for too many years.
I thought it important for you to hear in their own words how things are changing so I asked some questions you will want to know about.

How is trucking in today’s economy?

Rodney: Freight volumes remain very choppy.  The economy remains in a state of flux with fuel prices swinging wildly, unemployment staying stubbornly high and our dollar hanging in limbo.  However, due to capacity falling out during the Great Recession, we are seeing some slight increase in pricing.  I would expect things to remain choppy for the foreseeable future, over the long term, we should see a slow and steady upward climb.

Unemployment is 9.2% as we speak.  How in the world can there be a driver shortage?

Dan: I don’t know that there is a shortage of drivers as much as there is a shortage of quality drivers.  A large percentage of drivers who are looking for employment right now have less than desirable records when it comes to safety and company loyalty.  Good trucking companies are looking for experienced drivers with a stable background and good safety record.  Factors such as a history of job hopping, previous terminations, accidents, and citations/violations in a driver’s past generally make driver applicants a less desirable option for the long-term employment relationship that we are seeking to develop with our driver team members. We are seeing some inexperienced driver applicants that come from a wide variety of backgrounds.  Many are professional people who can’t find employment in their field due to current economic conditions.  This is a positive development in the short term, but in the long run this could cause problems.  As the economy rights itself and the jobs many were forced out of return to the marketplace, these individuals will likely migrate back to their previous careers, thus leaving a deeper driver shortage.

Rodney: I would add that recent changes in the federal regulations, such as Compliance, Safety, Accountability (CSA), as well as changes proposed for the near future (hours of service changes (HOS), and Electronic On Board Recorders (EOBR’s) make trucking a less desirable, or less accessible, profession for many people.  While some of these changes were needed and should benefit the industry in the long run, the short term effect on the availability of quality drivers has been a real issue for the industry.  Additionally, fewer new entrants are entering the driver market.  Truck driving is a tough profession, and more and more young people are looking to other options for their career choice.

Carriers traditionally have had high turnover rates for drivers.  What should carriers do to increase their driver recruitment/retention?
Dan: Currently companies are trying to find driver irritants and remove them.  Whether it’s adjusting their home time policy, evaluating pay, ordering equipment with more driver friendly equipment installed or just looking at the culture and making the company a more positive and friendly place to work, everything is on the table.

Rodney: At the end of the day, drivers are looking for the same things as the rest of us when it comes to job satisfaction: open and honest communication, opportunity to earn a fair wage, and get home when scheduled.  We work hard every day to honor these commitments to our driver team members.

The Compliance, Safety, Accountability 2010 (CSA) changes to replace SafeStat is profound for both the driver and the carrier.  Now both driver and carrier have a Safety Measurement System (SMS) score they must manage.  Additionally, the driver has a Pre-Employment Screening Program (PSP), which is very much like his credit report, only the PSP is his driving report.
Dan: We currently purchase the PSP report for every experienced applicant we hire, and we consider that information when making hiring decisions.  If an applicant doesn’t meet our standards, we don’t hire them.  We have had to increase our advertising and recruiting budgets due to the reduction in qualified applicants resulting from less than desirable PSP reports.  We want quality drivers on the USA Truck Team, and we are going out to get them.

Rodney: We also monitor our CSA scores very closely. It is important for us to keep our driver team members safe and compliant, so when we see a pattern of violation types or other opportunities for improvement developing, we make it a point to educate our drivers and other team members so we can correct issues before they develop into problems and continue lowering our scores.  It is our goal to be below the national average in all seven BASICS measurements by year end, and we are working hard to achieve that goal.

Carriers and drivers now have the ability to challenge violations issued to them during an inspection by doing a DataQ Challenge.  There are some Due Process issues with the current system for both carriers and drivers.  Rodney, you are an attorney, can you explain to drivers how the DataQ Challenge works for them and what I mean by Due Process issues in the current system.

Rodney: The way the system is currently set up all DOT violations are assigned points that are assessed against drivers and carriers.  Points are assigned even though there has been no conviction through the legal process. This is a concern as it allows a driver or carrier to essentially be “punished” (assigned points in the CSA system) without an adjudication of fault.  In fact, points can be assessed against a driver even if they are later found to have not been ”not guilty” in through the judicial process.  The FMCSA attempts to remedy this by allowing DataQ Challenges.

A DataQ Challenge allows drivers or carriers to submit requests to remove erroneous violations from their records. In order to submit a DataQ Challenge, the carrier or driver logs onto the FMCSA website and submits their position relating to the charges to the officer who wrote the violation.  If the officer agrees he made an error relating to the charged violation, then he may change the points assessment.  If the officer believes he did not make an error, the challenge will generally be rejected and the violation assessment will stand. Any appeal goes back to that officer to see if he really wants to change his mind, so in actuality, no consistent and viable appeal process exists at this time.   However,    FMCSA is promising that appeal system will soon be implemented that will allow the charged party to pursue a review of the alleged violation consistent with due process guarantees.  Due Process is a Constitutional guarantee the government cannot take away a person’s right to ‘life, liberty or property, without due process of law.’ This is generally understood to be a hearing before an uninterested third-party trier of fact, like a jury, an administrative law judge or a judge in the court system, where the driver or carrier can try their case, offer evidence to support their position and cross examine witnesses against them as part of their defense.
If you are saying there is no appeal process, but one should come soon, what do you advise a driver to put into any DataQ Challenge?
Rodney: If an appeal is to be allowed by the FMCSA, it will most likely simply consist of a review of the record pending before the FMCSA.   Therefore, any time a Data Q challenge is submitted, it is important to include any and all evidence necessary to support the facts giving rise to the challenge.  This could include such things as affidavits and written statements from witnesses, photos, police reports and other documents.  If you don’t make your case for the challenge at your first opportunity, you might not get the chance to do so later.

What will USA Truck do to keep their current drivers and at the same time make their job safer and the driver more money?

Dan: USA Truck constantly reviews our pay policies and home time policies and makes adjustments to keep us as a carrier of choice for experienced drivers.  We have recently embarked on a culture training exercise that includes every team member in the company, including driver team members, designed to allow for better communication and team work, which leads to happier customers and happier employees.  We have upgraded our fleet of trucks to an average age of 2.5 years and have realigned our maintenance facility network to ensure drivers can get serviced without adding unproductive time and miles to their day.  Where many companies are happy with their place in the industry, USA Truck is NOT satisfied with the status quo and is making the necessary changes to become a bigger, better, faster and stronger company.  Our driver team members are critical to our success, we recognize and appreciate what they do for us each day, and we have set out on a journey to prove it.

Rodney: The  federal initiatives mentioned above affect not only carriers such as USA Truck, but regulatory, safety and compliance violations have a long-term effect on a driver’s career as a professional truck driver. We dedicate a lot of resources to educating both our drivers and our support staff about the issues that affect them each day, such as communication, relationships, safety and compliance.  We know how difficult it is for carriers and drivers at this time.  USA Truck is a service company, and it is our purpose to safely and reliably deliver our customers’ products to the marketplace. We want USA Truck to be the carrier shippers want to haul their freight and the place where everyone wants to work. This begins with hiring and retaining a quality driver workforce.  And we are dedicated to being among the elite.

Simple explanation is carriers are concerned in this economy, just like you are, and about the future of the trucking profession.  Carriers are willing, and in fact going to spend, tons of money to keep you the driver happy and safe plus to meet the new regulations.  If you are not safe, then there is no way you can be happy.  If you don’t meet or follow the new regulations then there is no way you can drive.  Your best chance of staying or getting into trucking is (1) find a company that respects you and treat you like family, (2) respect the profession because trucking is truly a professional job which means you must know the law, know the regulations, know your company policies and (3) always defend yourself against any allegation you violated the laws or regulations.

It comes down to this, it always comes down to this, you are responsible for your future, therefore you must act like the professional driver you are; Drive Safe and Drive Smart.

• You can contact Jim C. Klepper at www.interstatetrucker.com or
www.driverslegalplan.com.

The information, advice and opinions in Legal Lane are entirely those of Jim C. Klepper.