A fleet worried about distracted driving should implement a program that targets those behaviors. (Photo: Getty Images)

A fleet worried about distracted driving should implement a program that targets those behaviors. (Photo: Getty Images)

Safety remains top of mind for work truck fleets, but no safety initiative is complete without a frank assessment of your drivers’ skills and habits behind the wheel — whether they are operating a company-owned truck or van or their own vehicle.

Work Truck met with seven fleet safety experts to learn how to build an assessment program to identify at-risk drivers, how to make your safety initiative a companywide priority, and how partnering with training and technology providers can take it to the next level. Here are 12 critical components to consider when you are developing your program:

1. Make Safety a Priority 

Safety typically ranks among the top priorities for fleet managers and owners of fleet-based businesses. Element Financial’s biannual survey of fleet clients found that more than 60% rated “risk and safety” as their No. 1 priority, far outpacing such concerns as data management, cost-cutting, and fuel economy.

“No fleet manager in their right mind would say they’re not concerned,” said Matt Betz, vice president of fleet channels for SambaSafety. “What they do about it is really telling. How do you enforce your policy? Do you even have a policy?”

The nature of service fleets heightens their exposure, noted Craig Bonham, vice president of Safe Fleet’s work truck division. Owners and operators know the safe operation of the vehicles is only one component. Any failure to secure cargo and equipment can just as easily pose a threat.

“They need to be cognizant not just of the driver’s behavior but things that can happen in their environment,” Bonham said.

Upfits, modifications, trailers, and loads make off-road practice another critical factor for truck and van safety, adds Chris Villella, vice president, strategic relationship management for CEI. If you are serious about preventing accidents, he said, hands-on training should be a priority as well.

“If your driver is not used to driving in a metro area, and they have never driven that type of vehicle before, you have all kinds of reasons to talk about experience,” he said.

It has been a long time since Rich Tillotson worked with a work truck fleet for which safety was not a priority.

But the vice president of sales and business development for Corporate Claims Management (CCM) agrees their liability is heightened, and knows a failure to identify and remediate at-risk drivers can result in the type of lawsuit that can bring down a company.

If you fear safety assessments could alienate valuable driver-employees, Tillotson said, you need a new excuse.

“If they have a history, but you want to keep them employed, demonstrate that you took aggressive, proactive action to get them under control,” he said.

If driver assessment is a priority, Jodie Varner advises fleets to make objective-setting a priority as well. The director of business development for Fleet Response suggested identifying and working toward realistic goals, such as counseling 100% of high-risk drivers or running annual motor vehicle records (MVRs) on 100% of drivers.

For work truck fleets in the early stages of developing an assessment program, Varner adds, identifying at-risk drivers can be an accomplishment unto itself.

“It’s a tool that empowers those in the field to do a better job,” she said. “Now there’s visibility. That’s a success.”

Fleets interested in making safety a priority should make sure that message is consistent across the organization.

“If management, from top to bottom, doesn’t believe in driver safety and setting corporate priorities around it, the system simply fails,” said Matt Lewis, video sales manager for the work truck division at Safe Fleet, which specializes in onboard monitoring. “That’s true whether a fleet is monitoring incidents on their own or they partner with a third-party.”

Rich Lacey, senior vice president of product and engineering at SambaSafety, said fleet managers and business owners can begin to build a driver assessment program on their own. But he encourages them to seek out partners who can improve and automate it.

“Occasionally we meet potential customers who simply ‘don’t want to know’ about risk and safety. But those types are not ready to be customers,” Lacey said. “This is driven by the belief that rolling out a comprehensive safety program is difficult. With the right partners, it does not have to be.”

2. Write a Safety Policy

Prioritization of driver safety is made tangible by written policy, and it needs to be specific, according to Varner. She suggested listing the steps the company will take to make safety a priority as well as corrective actions.

“From a high level, you want to have a fleet safety policy that puts together an action plan, your risk tolerance — including what ‘high-risk’ means — and what actions you will take,” she said.

When Betz screens drivers on behalf of fleet clients, he categorizes them as “Green,” “Yellow,” or “Red” based upon available data. “Green” drivers are considered the least risky, having accrued less than six points on SambaSafety’s scale. But he leaves the variables up to the client.

“Each company can set its thresholds,” he explained. “For some, a speeding ticket is worth two points. But another fleet might be cracking down on speeding, so they’ll double that.”

Laying out a clear, detailed safety policy is critical to success, Lacey adds, and it takes the guesswork out of compliance and enforcement for drivers, managers, and owners.

“One of the biggest things we can do is help put a structure around your driver safety program,” he said. “We can very quickly determine which drivers are inside and outside of your policy.”

Villella added that buy-in across the organization will help ensure employees remain aware of any policy changes.

3. Stay Vigilant with MVRs

With a priority on driver safety in place and a policy to match, the assessment itself can begin. There is no better first step than pulling each driver’s motor vehicle record (MVR). The MVR should include an entry for every moving violation and reported collision each driver has compiled for the past several years.

There are only two problems: First, MVRs are not a federal record. So if you operate in two or more states or you hire drivers from outside your home state, your report-pulling efforts can quickly multiply. Second, if you only access each driver’s MVR when they are hired, you may never be aware of incidents that occur shortly before or any time after they join your team.

CEI’s Villella advises owners and managers of work truck fleets to pull MVRs when each driver is hired and then at least once a year thereafter. For enhanced vigilance and confidence, he suggested partnering with a company that offers “continuous” MVR monitoring and will alert you whenever a new derogatory entry appears on one of your drivers’ records.

Fleet Response’s Varner noted that those operating a smaller fleet may be able to run MVRs through their insurance provider. But interpretation is another pursuit entirely, particularly for those operating in multiple states.

“The real pain of running MVRs is understanding the results,” she said. “They may have different formats and can be confusing to look at. With a partner, you are looking at their data, and it’s pretty straightforward.” Tillotson noted that incidents of suspended or revoked licenses are on the rise as courts use driving status to compel individuals to pay child support and alimony.

“There has been more prolific support among municipalities to enforce social issues. You may find they have no tickets and no accidents, but they’re still driving without a license.”

4. Don't Forget CSA Scores

SambaSafety’s Betz advises fleet managers to not overlook the importance of federal Compliance, Safety, Accountability (CSA) infractions. Fleet safety experts may weigh the importance of MVRs against CSAs differently, but Betz believes both are necessary to paint a complete picture of the risk each driver presents.

“A high CSA score means a high likelihood he will get pulled over, and at a certain point level, he’s going to get yanked from the truck,” Betz said.

Because companies that hire fleets are putting a greater emphasis on their partners’ overall CSA scores, he adds, failing to monitor them can create a competitive disadvantage.

“They’ll negotiate some carriers down or eliminate candidates,” Betz said.

5. Combat Drowsy & Distracted Driving 

Bad driving habits increase the chances of a collision, but an employee’s predilection toward texting while driving or hitting the road with too little rest will not always be reflected in their MVR and CSA score.

In February, the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety identified drowsiness as a factor in up to 9.5% of all examined crashes. For crashes that involved injury, airbag deployment, or significant property damage, drowsiness was cited in up to 10.8% of cases. 

Distraction caused by mobile devices is a menace, said Villella, and should be outlawed by your driver safety program. Citing a recent Esurance survey, he also advised fleet managers to make drivers aware that the collision-avoidance systems built into many newer vehicles can also create distractions. 

Nearly two-thirds (64%) of respondents who owned forward-collision or lane departure-avoidance systems reported being occasionally or frequently distracted, compared with 55% of drivers whose vehicles did not have those features. Respondents blamed the extra buttons and frequent visual and auditory alerts for ruining their concentration.

“Distracted driving is a big topic, and it should be taken into account,” Villella said.

6. Consider All Data Sources

Varner of Fleet Response advised work truck fleets to be open to the possibilities offered by data sources beyond state and federal reports and scores. Telematics and cameras can document the vehicle’s movement and the driver’s behavior. Complaints from customers should be attributed to and discussed with individual drivers. Non-customers who respond to your “1-800 How’s My Driving?” bumper stickers should be taken seriously. Even remediation can be documented.

“You can record safety meetings and driver meetings to document your enforcement,” Varner said. “When you sit down with a driver, and you record that, it becomes an HR tool.”

The key to enforcement is objectivity. Every driver must follow the same policy and be subject to the same remediation. (Photo: Getty Images)

The key to enforcement is objectivity. Every driver must follow the same policy and be subject to the same remediation. (Photo: Getty Images)

7. Have Drivers Self-Report

Villella points to self-reporting as an often-overlooked but potentially valuable component of a driver assessment program. You can make it your policy that driver-employees who are involved in an accident or are cited for speeding outside of work hours report themselves the next day.

“The stricter the policy, the better. Fleet managers have control over that policy and the means to get some of that risk under control,” he said.

8. Deploy Telematics 

For a complete, unbiased record of a vehicle’s location and speed at any given moment, telematics is hard to beat. Today’s systems can flag violations relating to aggressive driving behaviors — including sudden starts and stops and hard cornering — as well as seatbelt and cellphone use and undue idling. This allows companies to better assign individualized training.

With enough data, Villella said, fleet safety experts can even predict, to some degree of accuracy, which drivers are likely to cause your fleet’s next collision.

“We use telematics data to identify incorrigible, high-risk drivers. You don’t have to wait for an accident to occur before that driver undergoes remediation,” Villella said.

9. Utilize In-Vehicle Video

Dashcams are not just for law enforcement anymore. At SambaSafety, Betz works with fleet managers to cover every angle necessary to prevent unforced errors and document drivers’ workdays — for better or worse.

“Telematics tells you what the vehicle is doing. The video overlay can prove guilt or innocence,” Betz said, noting that the mere presence of a camera can improve driver behavior — at least in the short term. “After one or two weeks, it becomes the norm to revert back to old habits, and we’ll see a spike in corrective actions.”

Bonham advises fleet managers to consider the vehicle and application when designing a camera setup. All components, including bolt-on equipment, should be taken into consideration to avoid creating danger zones or blind spots.

“A waste disposal unit might have six cameras and a DVR onboard, whereas a pickup truck with a spreader might just get a forward-facing and rear backup camera,” he said.

10. Hold Drivers Accountable

The experts agree that the key to enforcement is objectivity. Every driver must follow the same policy and be subject to the same remediation. Because software has no bias, Lacey said, it offers little room for human error — or forgiveness.

“Ultimately, it’s better for the employee because everyone is evaluated on the same criteria, free from subjectivity and emotion,” he said.

Varner has worked with companies that make employees cover the cost of their own remedial training to “put the onus on drivers to make sure they want to improve.” Lewis is a big believer in “scorecarding,” ranking drivers from best to worst to bring out their competitive spirits. But don’t ask either expert to tell you whom you should and shouldn’t terminate.

“‘Hey, you should let this guy go’ is not really a portion of the conversation we’re in,” Lewis said. “That is up to the policy the company sets.”

11. Positive Enforcement

Though he agrees that every driver should follow the same rules, Tillotson encourages managers and owners to avoid subjecting all drivers to discipline for the behavior of a few. Lecturing drivers as a group or putting every driver through remedial training will alienate those who don’t deserve it.

“If you have the capability of continual feedback, monitor everybody and recognize the people who are doing it right,” Tillotson said. “You’re trying to change the behavioral pattern of an adult. You don’t do that with a whip and a chair.”

Betz agrees, having consulted with his daughter, who earned a Ph.D. in industrial-organizational psychology. “She will tell you that positive reinforcement is 10 times more powerful than negative action,” he said.

12. Take Advantage of Branding

If your drivers and customers are not reason enough to make safety a priority, Bonham said, the fact that your company’s name and logo are plastered all over your vehicles should be. A serious incident can lead to bad publicity.

But vehicles can also be billboards for safety. If you have placed a premium on the well-being of your drivers and the motorists and customers with whom they share the road, why not broadcast it?

“The bottom line is that that you as a company have to make it known that safety is a priority. Display that, and your employees will pick up on that and try to comply,” Tillotson said. “You paid a lot of money to buy that vehicle and put your name on it. Use it to let everyone know you are concerned about their safety.” 

Related: Understanding Regulatory Compliance

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