In fiscal year 2020, the top three truck driver violations found during roadside inspections were all driver-related behaviors. This included speeding 6 to 10 miles per hour over the posted speed limit at the top of the list. Failure to obey a traffic control device and failing to use a seat belt while operating a commercial motor vehicle were the other two.
The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) utilizes the Safety Measurement System (SMS) to monitor trucking fleets’ safety performance, and it has previously found that “those carriers that SMS identifies as ‘high risk’ have much higher future crash rates than those carriers not designated as high risk.”
The FMCSA data also identified allowing a driver to continue to drive with a suspended/revoked or otherwise ineligible commercial driver’s license (CDL) as the top “acute violation,” according to compliance specialists J. J. Keller & Associates.
What does this mean? FMCSA clearly believes that violations can be an indicator of future risk. If carriers are able to identify potential risk through proactive monitoring before an incident occurs, they could potentially lower insurance premiums, reduce exposure to risk and perhaps even save lives.
Driver monitoring, or lack thereof, has been an issue for fleets for decades. In 1999, a truck driver for Calloway Carriers collided with another truck driver who was exiting his truck after a separate incident involving a pickup truck. Calloway Carriers was ultimately held responsible for its driver’s actions, settling for $1.1 million with the plaintiff. The law firm representing the plaintiff alleged Calloway’s driver falsified his logbooks and violated Department of Transportation safety regulations and that the fleet “knew, or should have known, that [the driver] had a history of serious traffic violations including allegations of six speeding tickets, two license suspensions and two logbook violations within five years before the accident.”
In the nearly two decades since that agreement, settlements have skyrocketed in what many have dubbed “nuclear verdicts.” The underlying fact, though, is that the carrier should have known. Calloway Carriers was held responsible for that fact.
In today’s legal environment, Calloway likely would have faced a judgment far exceeding the $1.1 million it did in 1999. Research from the American Transportation Research Institute (ATRI) has found that from 2012 to 2019, the number of cases with verdicts over $1 million increased to 265 cases, an increase of 335%. The research also revealed that the average verdict across the entire 15 years covered by ATRI’s database was $3.16 million.
For fleets, this reality means the old way of doing business isn’t applicable any longer. Monitoring drivers on a yearly basis may meet the minimum regulatory requirements, but it’s not the most effective way to safely operate any longer.
Drivers are supposed to notify fleets of any loss of license or CDL driver-related traffic convictions. CDL drivers have 30 days following a conviction to notify the employer, while non-CDL drivers have until the annual list review. For notifications, both CDL and non-CDL drivers must notify the employer following the day the employee received notice. How many do? That’s tough to say, but there certainly is a belief in the driver community that if you let your employer know of a violation, it could negatively impact your employment.
Safety-conscious fleets often want to eradicate bad behavior before it takes place, but they also want to develop a culture of safety. Writing for FreightWaves in January 2020, Brian Fielkow, CEO of Jetco Delivery, said safety is a mindset.
For fleets, the old way of doing business isn’t applicable any longer. Monitoring drivers on a yearly basis may meet the minimum regulatory requirements, but it’s not the most effective way to safely operate any longer.
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“As safety experts and regulators have long advised, compliance does not ensure a safe operation,” he wrote. “Operators need to create a culture that takes no prisoners and leaves no doubt about the role of every individual in creating a safe, profitable future. In a culture-driven organization, safety is neither a priority, a policy nor a program. It’s a nonnegotiable core value supported by incident-prevention strategies like these. Safety is not a department – it’s a way of life.”
A fleet’s lack of awareness into a driver’s fitness or pattern of unsafe driving behaviors is not defensible in court, J. J. Keller advised.
The increase in risky driver behaviors has other impacts as well, including higher insurance premiums, increased out-of-service orders that can put deliveries and customer relationships at risk and even the increased likelihood of a full FMCSA audit.
Many fleets follow the minimum requirements for driver monitoring, which include a motor vehicle record (MVR) search at the time of hire and an annual records search. Even that requirement, though, is lacking. J. J. Keller said the minimum can be achieved by simply confirming a valid license for the assigned vehicle.
It is likely that something can and will be missed. In addition, conducting only a yearly compliance check could leave multiple violations – even a suspended license – unknown for months at a time, putting the driver and fleet at risk.
J. J. Keller, which offers a motor vehicle records monitoring service, advises fleets to conduct a full MVR request more frequently. The use of an MVR monitoring service is another option that can help fleets stay up to date by pulling records regularly and proactively pushing alerts to fleets of changes to a driver’s record.
The company said that use of a monitoring service can help identify drivers with even one serious traffic citation so the fleet can conduct proactive training to stop a poor behavior from becoming a habit. It can also identify patterns of lesser violations that may indicate an increased risk for the driver and fleet.
In addition, carriers should create company policies on what is considered an acceptable driving record, and how to achieve them. These should include:
- Scoring MVRs.
- Setting standards on coaching, refresher training and when other corrective actions are triggered rather than going straight to discipline.
- Communicating company policies to drivers and instilling the attitude that coaching is a positive.
- Assigning the role of carrying out the fleet’s MVR policy – and enforcement of it.
- Having goals on how to get drivers back on track to assist them in saving their carriers and preventing crashes.
Approaching non-CDL drivers with the same approach to monitoring is also essential to a fleet’s safety. They, too, can develop habits that increase overall fleet risk and should be treated with the same professionalism as a CDL holder.
Not knowing is not a defense and failing to stay current with driver records creates a heightened risk for fleets, exposing them to higher insurance premiums and potentially nuclear verdicts should an incident occur.