A well-run, strong safety program is an investment, not a liability.

A well-run, strong safety program is an investment, not a liability.

Photo: Getty Images/krblokhin

For those of us who have made careers out of trucking safety, we tend to think a great safety program will solve all problems. Of course, that’s not true. My admittedly biased opinion is that it only solves about 95% of them. We also must take into account that there are many different types and sizes of companies. There’s no one blueprint for safety that works for everyone.

However, there are a few concepts that will work for all of us, no matter what kind of fleet we manage. They are easy to understand and proven in the field. But there’s one catch — you must be committed to allowing safety to guide your entire business. That’s a pretty big pill to swallow, but you may just find it’s the cure you needed all along.

1. Get Your Mind Right

Let’s address swallowing that pill first. Safety is something that many trucking companies think of as a liability, as far as the accounting ledger goes. We buy equipment and spend time and money training our employees.  If we look at safety as an investment and even a profit center, the medicine starts to go down a little easier.

This is the hardest step for most fleets because it’s counterintuitive. Hauling the freight is what brings in the money. While that’s true, a well-run, strong safety program will allow you to keep more of that money.

I realize many fleets are just hanging on and they’re paying today’s bills with today’s loads. I get it. But as soon as you possibly can, take this leap of faith. If not, you might just be delaying the inevitable end of your business. I’m rooting for you!

2. Prioritize Driver Safety — and Improve Retention

When I speak to prospective drivers, I always ask them what will keep them at their next employer for the rest of their career. I get many different answers. Some focus on pay. Others feel like equipment is more important. Many have had such bad experiences, they’ll tell me that if a company will just communicate and tell the truth, they’ll drive a piece of junk and work at the low end of the pay scale.

But as they give me their wish list, most of them offer some variation of, “I just want to do my job and get home to my family in one piece.”

This statement reveals much more than we realize. Remember, the drivers were asked what they needed from the company. Getting home in one piece is completely up to the driver, right? Apparently, the drivers don’t see it that way. Drivers believe, and rightly so, that a company has a moral duty to protect its drivers. They also believe companies that don’t value human lives are not going to be bothered to get things like payroll and scheduling right.

If you can look a driver in the eye and tell them you care about their safety, then do everything in your power to back up that statement, you’ll likely have a driver who will not only stay with you longer, but also will put their hard-earned skills to work for your company and do a great job.

But you’ve got to back it up. If a driver is out of hours, the DOT doesn’t care how hot that load is. If a driver is fatigued, their bodies don’t care how important this customer is. If the road is covered in ice, the laws of physics don’t care about messing up dispatch’s plan.

Showing drivers that you value their lives more than anything else will dramatically improve your retention. The money you save advertising, recruiting, and training new drivers will far outweigh anything you think you lost.

3. Put Your Money Where Your Mouth Is

While drivers expect a company to have proper safety measures in place, they do understand that it’s up to them to get the job done right. Not only do they understand it, but it’s also the very source of their pride as a professional truck driver. Acknowledge that pride and reward the drivers who go above and beyond in the name of safety.

There are three things to keep in mind when setting up a safety bonus program.

  • First, keep it in the safety world. Don’t send mixed messages about what’s most important. If a driver does an outstanding job operating safely but gets disqualified from the bonus because their fuel mileage wasn’t up to par, the message is lost.
  • Secondly, make the reward significant. Let your drivers know that you’re serious by giving out serious money. When bonuses are large enough, even the drivers who philosophically don’t care as much as you about safety will do it for the money. In the end, it’s not their motivation that matters, it’s their performance.
  • Third, make bonuses frequent. There’s nothing more demoralizing to a driver than getting disqualified for a yearly bonus in January or February. Even your safest drivers are going to mess up every now and then. Give your drivers a chance to learn from their mistakes, reevaluate, and get back on the horse.

4. Do It for Your Customers

Here comes some more counterintuitive, leap-of-faith stuff, but stay with me.

When companies make a conscious decision to do something they know is unsafe, it’s usually to avoid a service failure. After all, our customers are the lifeblood of our businesses. If we make them upset, our business will fail.

But when we allow ourselves to think like this, we not only put our drivers in danger, but we also make unfair assumptions about our customers.

I suggest we go back to Number 2, where we looked our driver in the eye and told them we cared about their lives. Let’s do the same thing with our customers. When we have to delay a load because of a safety issue, let’s call up the customer and tell them exactly why this is happening. Tell them that you value your driver’s life more than anything. Also tell them that their cargo is the second most valuable thing and you will do whatever it takes to ensure it gets delivered safely, even if it’s delayed.

Then, of course, apologize all over yourself and beg them not to drop you as a carrier. Chances are, they won’t. In fact, you’ll probably keep that customer for a long time and have a much easier time negotiating rate increases. Your customer also has customers at the end of the supply chain. They don’t appreciate having their products spilled all over the road.

5. Crunch the Numbers on Repair Savings

Equipment is expensive, as is downtime.

This is the most basic, easy to understand, and measurable reason to beef up your safety program. If you’re like most carriers, you’re self-insured on your own equipment. Repairs come right off the bottom line.

Safer drivers mean fewer repairs, and this is where your safety bonus money comes from. The math works whether you have 10 trucks or 1,000 trucks. If you don’t wreck the equipment, you’re already ahead of the game, no matter what rates your competitors are getting.

Fewer trucks in the shop also means your equipment can spend more time on the road generating revenue.

And if you have your own shop, your technicians will spend less time on body work and more time on preventive maintenance inspections and service, catching those small problems before they turn into big problems.

Safer drivers mean fewer crashes, which saves money — which you can use to pay driver safety...

Safer drivers mean fewer crashes, which saves money — which you can use to pay driver safety bonuses.

Photo: Pixabay/DeniseMcQuillen

6. Take Charge During Litigation

This is neither the time nor the place to break down the absurdity of trucking litigation (although it’s maybe my favorite thing to do). Sadly, the day comes for all of us when we’re faced with a lawsuit. Sadder still, we stand to lose significant money, even if the accident was not our fault. We know the plaintiff attorney’s plan is to explore our safety program’s weaknesses. Every chink in the armor becomes a soundbite for the jury. They’re counting on us to have enough shortcomings that it’s not worth being exposed at trial. So, we settle, and the cycle continues.

But what if our safety program was so solid that we were no longer afraid of litigation? What if we told the plaintiff’s attorney to set a trial date immediately after being served rather than inviting them to the negotiating table?

First of all, that plaintiff’s attorney will think twice about what they’ve gotten themselves into. More importantly, if we can all show juries that we’re the good guys, the tide will begin to turn back in our favor. Juries are made up of mostly reasonable people — regular citizens like you and me. They recognize when someone is trying to take advantage of a company who really is working to protect the lives of the motoring public.

Assuming you’ve taken each of these points to heart, let’s see what our company looks like now. We’ve decided to operate as safely as possible. That mandate comes from the top and managers are free to make operational decisions in the name of safety. We’re retaining our drivers and spending much less money recruiting. Not only that, but our drivers are happier because they feel their company cares about them and proves it by paying a premium for operating safely. They’re performing better than ever. We don’t have a yard full of wrecked trucks. Not only are we spending less money on repairs, but that equipment is making us money by staying on the road rather than in the shop. We’re delivering freight at a record pace to happy customers, and we’re no longer afraid of exposure when an accident happens.

Will a great safety program solve every problem? Of course not. It’s trucking. This is a difficult job that is unsafe by its very nature. But your safety program can create a firm foundation from which most problems can be solved.

6 Steps to a Safer Trucking Fleet
6 Steps to a Safer Trucking Fleet

About the author: Chris Woody is the director of Safety at M&W Transportation Co. in Nashville, Tennessee. On top of the numerous fleet safety awards M&W has received under his leadership, he was a 2020 HDT Truck Fleet Innovator and the 2021 Tennessee Trucking Association Safety Professional of the Year.