Sarah Cates has been director of safety at Thomas E. Keller Trucking (dba Keller Trucking) for only three years. Yet her success in transforming the Defiance, Ohio-based fleet’s safety culture prompted not one, but two, of her colleagues to nominate her for HDT’s Safety & Compliance Award — and helped prompt HDT's editors to name Cates the 2023 winner of the award.
When Cates took over the director of safety position, Keller’s crash indicator score was 71%, said Director of Operations Aaron Patterson in his nomination. After one year, he said, that was down to 10%, and in two years it was down to 1%.
“Sarah and her team achieved this by completely revamping the safety culture at Keller. She has done this by making the safety department a safe place for drivers to discuss issues and learn, instead of just worrying about being disciplined.”
IT Manager Carley Riethman had similar praise in her nomination.
“Sarah has revolutionized our safety culture. The safety department has gone from a place no one wanted to visit to the most popular department in our headquarters. The relaxed, laid-back environment has increased our drivers' desire to communicate effectively internally. Our FMCSA safety scores have incrementally improved month over month, showing that the culture is making a difference among our fleet.
“Sarah has done a phenomenal job improving our safety department, and the way drivers view safety as a whole.”
Keller Career Helped Cates Lead Safety Transformation
Cates has been at Keller Logistics just over 10 years, and it seems every move she has made within the company prepared her in different ways for success in her current role.
She started out in the freight brokerage arm of Keller Logistics Group, Keller Freight Solutions. (Keller Trucking and Keller Warehousing make up the other two companies under the Keller Logistics umbrella.)
After two years, she moved to Keller Logistics’ corporate operations.
“I wasn’t cut out for selling freight,” she admits. “But I got a crash course in the industry. I love the company, and that’s why I stayed.”
In her role at Keller Logistics corporate, Cates was heavily involved in doing audits at company locations — where she again learned a lot.
She became trained and an expert in behavior-based safety, which at its simplest is a philosophy where you proactively coach people and reward safe behaviors rather than reprimanding them.
“I developed that mindset,” she says. “It just matches my personality, too.”
About five years ago, she moved to Keller Trucking. At the time, the company had a driver training school. Cates became a classroom instructor and at the same time got her commercial driver’s license.
After the COVID-19 pandemic and new entry-level driver training requirements that went into effect in early 2022, Keller decided to partner with local schools for new-driver training rather than operating its own. Around the same time, Keller’s director of safety, who Cates had been working under, left the company. She applied for his job and got the promotion.
While she doesn’t want to imply that under her predecessor Keller was not a safe trucking fleet, his approach to safety was focused more on discipline and what drivers had done wrong, Cates says.
With behavior-based safety, she explains, her department looks at why something happened and address the root cause. Maybe the driver never got proper training, for instance.
“And it’s a lot of praising those who do great, elevating them.”
Making Truck Drivers Welcome in the Safety Department
One of the first things Cates did when she took over the safety department was bring two 30-year veteran drivers into the safety team.
“It was very important to me to have their experience, their level of empathy,” she says.
Without that, drivers can be dismissive of safety-department staff, with an attitude of, “You don’t know what it’s like,” or “It’s easy to say that from behind a desk.”
“I cannot stress enough how important it is to be an ally to people,” she says.
It’s not unusual at many trucking companies for drivers to hate the safety department and dread being contacted by the safety and compliance team.
Not at Keller.
In fact, Cates makes it a point to reach out and contact drivers with positive feedback.
“If I haven’t heard from John Smith in six months, odds are, he's doing really great,” Cates says. “But we make it a point to call them. Otherwise, those great drivers will never hear from us, they won't feel appreciated. We really make a point, for the drivers who do great, we make sure they know it. We thank them.”
The fact that drivers now want to hang out and linger in the safety department, as Cates’ nominations pointed out, “is a big deal,” she says.
“That speaks volumes that they're so comfortable with us. They're going to report issues that they feel unsafe. They're coming over and they'll ask, ‘What extra training can I do?’”
Selling Drivers on Dual-Facing in-Cab Cameras
That connection with the drivers made possible something Cates is proud of: Implementing dual-facing in-cab cameras in 100% of the fleet, with no drivers quitting in protest.
When Cates came into the position, most Keller trucks had in-cab cameras that used both forward-facing and inward-facing lenses. But drivers who had threatened to leave if they were forced to use driver-facing cameras were allowed to have only the forward-facing version.
“I hated having two separate lists,” she says. Among other things, she didn’t want drivers finding out there were exceptions and seeing that as unfair.
She put the message out that the goal was to get 100% of the fleet using driver-facing cameras with the message: “I'm going to sell it to drivers in a way that you will feel okay about it.”
Drivers who were against the technology were brought into the office and shown what the safety department sees on their end.
“I said, ‘I want you to see what I see. I think I can ease your mind if you come in, look at some of the settings, the lockdowns we have, who has access to cameras, what I’m looking for, what my triage process looks like,’” Cates says. “That eased a lot of their minds.”
New ELD System Brings AI to Cameras
Cates also spearheaded a project to replace Keller’s electronic logging device provider, “and knocked it out of the park in under two months, which was unheard of in the past,” said IT Manager Riethman in her nomination.
Keller changed providers for its cameras and ELDs in January, adding artificial intelligence technology to the dual-facing camera system. Cates was concerned drivers might view AI as an intrusive presence beyond just the driver-facing camera lens.
“Driver privacy means a lot to me,” she says.
There are many AI-driven features on the system, but she elected to enable only one, to detect use of cell phones.
She went so far as to install the system in her own car, telling drivers, “The safety team will coach me the same way they coach you. I want you to know that I don't take this lightly that I am willing to put my privacy out there.”
Cates encouraged skeptical drivers to stop by and check out her videos.
While that was a temporary exercise and she no longer has the system in her car, Cates says the experience changed some of her own driving behaviors.
How In-Cab Cameras Benefit Truck Drivers
More buy-in happens when drivers realize how inward-facing in-cab cameras can benefit them.
“We have exonerated so many of our drivers,” Cates says.
It’s no secret in this industry that if a truck is involved in an accident with a car, the assumption by the other party and their lawyers is the truck driver must have been doing something wrong, talking on his or her phone or falling asleep. Camera footage can stop many claims and lawsuits in their tracks.
How you use the information gleaned from the cameras is also an important factor in driver acceptance.
“A big mistake a lot of companies make is coaching every single event that comes in,” Cates says. “Everyone does have off days. I'm not going to call a driver who has 20 great years with us for one bad thing. We’re looking for trends.”
Those trends afford the opportunity to talk to drivers and ask them if there’s something going on in their lives causing the trend. That way it can be addressed — and drivers get the message that the company cares about them.
Technology and Growth at Keller Trucking
In addition to the cameras, Cates says, she estimates 97% of the company’s trucks, Volvos and Freightliners, are spec’ed with collision mitigation systems. That number will be 100% as the few remaining older trucks are cycled out of the fleet.
Trucks are spec’ed with “all the bells and whistles” related to safety, she says, but she’s also aware of the effect some of those systems have on the drivers.
Recently, she says, after a group of drivers discussed lane departure alerts that are overly sensitive and very loud, she went to the company president to ask about getting more involved in the spec’ing process.
Of course, truck equipment issues also affect safety, and Cates works closely with Keller’s director of maintenance.
One joint project involved looking for a better way to do electronic driver vehicle inspection reports. With a previous vendor, the eDVIRs had to go through the ELD vendor first, which meant delays. So Cates worked with the Keller IT team to build an eDVIR within the company’s own driver app. That app runs on company-issued Samsung tablets that include other driver-facing apps such as the Samsara ELD app, CarriersEdge training, and CoPilot routing.
Now drivers can do their pretrip and post-trip inspections using the tablet and the Keller driver app. If they find a defect, it’s easy to report using the app, and the system automatically builds work orders in the maintenance software so any repairs get handled as quickly as possible.
Cates has accomplished all this during a time of company growth. Keller Trucking had about 100 trucks when she started in this role. Now it has about 300, she says.
“It’s great to know that you're able to grow and maintain or improve the safety status of a company.”
2023 Safety & Compliance Award Finalists
Keller Trucking’s Sarah Cates was one of four finalists for the HDT 2023 Safety & Compliance Award. The others were:
Frank Chauvette, transportation safety manager, Ocean State Job Lot, North Kingstown, Rhode Island. Chauvette was brought in as a dedicated transportation safety manager and has implemented processes, goals, and technologies that cut its crash rate nearly in half.
Jaime Hamm, vice president of safety and compliance, Werner Enterprises, Omaha, Nebraska. Hamm has led the roll-out of in-cab cameras, helped implement driver simulators and a switchover to a new ELD system, and introduced hair testing for drugs.
John Spiros, vice president of safety and claims management, Roehl Transport, Marshfield, Wisconsin. Spiros, who’s also serving as a state representative, has for more than 20 years led Roehl's growing safety culture, focused on the root cause of crashes and "operationalized" safety.