Since the late 1950s, Leavitt’s Freight Service has been committed to the transportation of engineered wood products and other commodities on the West Coast and throughout the United States. The fleet’s work includes job-site deliveries, customer yard deliveries, multiple pickups or drop-offs, full truckload or partial shipments, and load widths up to 15-feet and load lengths up to 135 feet.
Part of Central Oregon Truck Company, a Daseke, Inc. operating company, and headquartered in Springfield, Ore., Leavitt’s flatbed trailers transport utility poles and other long loads.
The company recently adopted SmartDrive, a video-based safety program, which was driven by its philosophy that driver safety is paramount.
Leavitt’s selection process included a pilot phase in which the SmartDrive program was evaluated and eventually selected.
Work Truck visited with Leavitt’s to learn a little bit more about their operation and their success with the SmartDrive system.
Leavitt’s has achieved significant results with the SmartDrive program in its first 12 months of full deployment. Leavitt’s outfitted its fleet with both SmartDrive 360 and Extended Recording to identify and capture high-risk driving maneuvers and enable more effective coaching to improve safety and operational efficiency.
As a result of adopting the SmartDrive program, Leavitt’s experienced:
- An 88% improvement in its SmartDrive Safety Score.
- A 10% improvement in preventable crash rate per million miles driven.
- Eleven driver exonerations.
- The lowest annual loss ratio in company history.
“SmartDrive has further ingrained safety into our company culture, and the results have validated it,” said Billy Dover, senior risk manager at Leavitt’s. “Before SmartDrive, we were paying out on claims where we knew we should have been exonerated. During the last 12 months, our loss ratio has been roughly 11%, as compared to 55% over the prior four years.”
Operating a Flatbed Fleet
The Leavitt’s fleet is predominantly Kenworth 660s and 680s and the Freightliner Cascadia.
The fleet consists of 14 boom trucks that support the transportation of utility poles. “This is our flagship fleet, we cut our teeth on these trucks,” Dover said.
Leavitt’s operates a dedicated fleet, which is essential for emergency response and getting communities back up and running after disasters strike, such as Hurricane Sandy and the Paradise Fire in California.
Additionally, it operates 20 maxi trucks that haul up to 105,000 pounds, 78 semi-trucks (traditionally an 8-axle combo), some 4-axle 53-foot trailers), and 1 Hostler nicknamed the “Goat.”
About 80% of the fleet’s miles are through the I-5 corridor, although it does do some runs throughout the 48 states depending on emergency response needs due to hurricanes, fire, etc.
Leavitt’s prides itself in its ability to get its truck drivers home far more often than the industry standard, with most coming home at least once a week.
The Leavitt’s facility was built in 1969 and currently occupies 7.3 acres.
“Fortunately, we do not see troubles with the flatbed industry. Our markets are still up. I think that while tariffs are playing in the general flatbed industry, we don’t participate in the import/export market. We do domestic material, so we aren’t affected as much,” noted Ron Riddle, CEO of Leavitt’s.
One factor helping the company stay on top? Relationships with its customers.
“We are a 61-year old company. We have been our largest customer’s transportation provider for more than 50 years. We’ve been our second-largest customer’s transportation provider 35 years. We look for long-term relationships. We aren’t after what’s hot today or what’s hot tomorrow. We like consistency. We see that in our freight model that we look for. We want longevity in our customer base and it’s paid off,” Riddle said.
Leavitt’s is part of the first responders when it comes to disasters, including fires and hurricanes.
“When major disasters happen, we communicate with our other customers that we are gearing up our trucks to handle those events. And they understand. If it were your home, you’d want us out there getting the utility poles back up and running,” Riddle said.
Utility poles are a smaller part of Leavitt’s flatbed hauling than it used to be.
“Rail has been a big part of this change. We’ve had to evolve with the industry. Utility poles used to be 80% of our market, but now are about 30% of our market,” Riddle added.
Leavitt’s has had to adjust to the market.
“To combat this, we’ve tried to grow within our existing fleet. Figure out what you do, do it well, and be the best at it. When the pole market started to change, we started working with our existing customers to see what we could do to better benefit and help them,” Riddle said.
And longevity is key to this. The relationship Leavitt’s has cultivated helps its customers understand their needs will still be met during a disaster situation.
Alleviating Driver Concerns
When it comes it comes to cameras, the fear of being constantly monitored and management watching their every move still concerns drivers.
“I can’t say all of our drivers are on board, but more and more are accepting of it as they see the positive benefits,” Dover said. Additionally, the SmartDrive camera system cannot be viewed live, so that helps with many privacy concerns.
One idea that helps is that Riddle refuses to ask his drivers to do anything he wouldn’t do himself. So, he installed the SmartDrive camera system – including the cab-facing camera – in his vehicle.
“I met with some new hires today in orientation and explained to them we would never ask you to do something we wouldn’t do. So, if I expect them to have an inward-facing camera in their truck then I need to have one in my car,” Riddle said.
He recounted a story about the first time he got in his car after the camera was installed, cell phone in hand. “I looked up, saw the camera, and put down my phone. It’s a mindset change, and the cameras help,” Riddle added.
Having been a driver helps his drivers be more receptive to his ideas and leadership.
“I drove for 10 years over-the-road. Then I worked as a yard foreman for about a year. Then our receptionist was on maternity leave, so I answered the phone. It was supposed to be just a three-month deal, but I stayed on and worked my way through to my current position,” Riddle said.
“My entire dispatch staff, except for one person, was promoted from within,” Riddle said.
Seeing Drivers Clearly
SmartDrive 360 allows fleets to view up to four cameras simultaneously for maximum insight to risk. The Extended Recording option offers even more protection and is ideal for low-impact collisions, compliance, and security incidents.
“Long-load carriers have their own set of unique safety challenges, which makes it even more important for fleet managers to understand what drivers are encountering on the road to reduce incidents and costs,” said Steve Mitgang, SmartDrive CEO. “Leavitt’s is a pioneer within the trucking industry, and we are honored to provide an extra level of protection to the fleet’s drivers, which is already improving its bottom line.”
Leavitt’s performs its camera installation on-site, and Dover has had no issues using and installing the cameras on its mixed fleet. “Our technicians took the SmartDrive training and install, inspect and maintain our cameras with no issues. We want to make sure our cameras are always working,” Dover said.
When implementing a program such as SmartDrive, fleets do need to be aware that there is going to be an investment in time as well as money.
“When we went into this program, our rollout pricing included staffing up front,” Dover said. “I factored in a full staff position to help. You need staffing to support this kind of program. If anyone makes a mistake in a rollout like this, it’s not factoring in the staffing.”
Maintaining a Specialized Fleet
Leavitt’s utilizes a mix of in-house and outsourced maintenance.
The company used to own all its trucks but is transitioning to a leased fleet due to an effort, spearheaded by Riddle, to reduce the overall age of the company’s fleet.
“We are now at an average age of 3.2 years for our trucks, We’ve made quite a transition in the past five years. We are leasing our new trucks at four years/500,000 miles. We are outsourcing our OEM warranty work, so we are outsourcing more maintenance work than ever before,” Dover said. “We’ve cut back our in-house maintenance work by about 40%. Leasing is going to be our future.”
Leavitt’s owns its trailers and does some custom fabrication in-house.
“And, because of our bunks and log trailers, we still have quite a bit of fabrication and repair work we do in-house when compared with some companies. In the big picture, we’re going to see more and more of our maintenance work outsourced,” Dover said.
The fleet also made a significant change to its maintenance operations.
“We turned our maintenance shop into a profit center earlier this year, which makes you do things a little differently. We reorganized, and our shop charges the same rates as the external shop, so it makes them compete,” Dover said.
Another change to the fleet is driver-focused.
“We used to operate a mixed fleet of 13 speeds, but we operate all automatic trucks. We’re finding that had a huge impact on our fuel economy. The biggest pushes to make this change were fuel efficiency and reliability, but driver fatigue and the overall wishes of our driver pool influenced the change as well,” Dover explained.
Even with the integration into Daseke and changeover to leasing, some things may change, but Leavitt’s plans to continue with its mixed fleet of Kenworth and Freightliner trucks.
Increasing Costs of Insurance
Insurance is one thing that can make or break a trucking company such as Leavitt’s, and solid improved safety performance is the only thing that can impact that.
“Insurance – both workers comp and truck insurance – if you can’t control them, then you can’t stay in business. It’s a big concern. We have regular reports for our insurance companies. Starting in 2013, we asked for an underwriter to come to our office, and I give them a presentation to convince them we are a good bet,” Dover said.
Over the past five years, Leavitt’s shaved off about $2 million in premiums between both workers comp and insurance. And SmartDrive is a big part of that savings.
“Insurance is going to go up, even when you have a good safety program. Now we have historical performance data that shows we are improving,” Dover explained.
Utilizing Driver Coaching
The SmartDrive coaching programs allow the fleet to dig into events for specific, prescriptive coaching. The video shows where drivers are excelling and areas they need to work on.
During a mock coaching session, Leavitt’s safety supervisor, Craig Brown, walked through a recent event that was triggered, watching the video with the driver, discussing what happened and why, and coming up with additional training plans, if needed.
Video allows the person coaching the driver to look at the possible infractions and dig into whether it is something that needs to be addressed through a list of severity rankings compared with other infractions.
“We quickly came to appreciate SmartDrive 360 with Extended Recording as it captured incidents other providers did not. As a result, we’ve already seen a decrease in our preventable crash frequency per million miles,” Dover added. “The SmartDrive platform has proven invaluable at pinpointing driving behavior deficiencies, which allow us to coach our drivers constructively and support ongoing safety improvement. We coach 100% of coachable events daily, and the SmartDrive coaching workflow makes it easy, even when drivers are on the road.”
Promoting Driver Retention
Leavitt’s has a stringent safety program and hiring criteria, which may scare some drivers off. But the drivers that make it through are better drivers for the company.
“Most big companies talk a big game about safety but aren’t willing to invest the money that it takes,” Dover said.
John Bonds has been a driver with Leavitt’s since 2016. He heard about the company through a friend who had been driving for the freight hauler. “Flatbed drivers are the cool guys,” Bonds commented. “When you pass a flatbed truck, you have to look and see what they are hauling; it could be just about anything.”
Leavitt’s is noticing the “driver shortage.”
“Our single biggest challenge is staffing. We are experiencing a staffing shortfall, which prompted our driver finishing program and our Visa drivers,” Dover said. “Because of what we do, it compounds the problem. Home time is a huge issue. There aren’t enough people coming in at the bottom of the pipeline. The quality of the work you do, and the pay also come into play.”
Leavitt’s works to ensure it is keeping company drivers happy, holding a quarterly driver roundtable led by Riddle.
“He’ll have a Saturday morning and gather any available drivers and talk with no agenda. Early on, cameras were a big issue. But the fact Ron was a driver and supported it went a long way toward their acceptance,” Dover explained.
Just feeling heard can go a long way toward creating a happy driver culture in a fleet.
“Ron has held every job in this company over the past 30 years. He understands what our employees and drivers do,” Dover said.
Leavitt’s also likes to promote from within the company.
“When listening to the dispatchers, it’s not uncommon to hear them give the drivers specific advice about where to park, whom to talk to, or other info because they’ve been there already,” Riddle said.
Another fun way Leavitt’s works toward keeping its drivers happy: they can have dogs under 50 pounds. Trucking can be lonely, and having a canine companion helps impact.
When it comes to hiring, Leavitt’s takes its more personal approach one step further.
“For our driver interviews, we ask our married drivers to bring their spouse to the interview. Anyone involved in trucking knows it’s a family job. There is not a single person in that truck. He or she likely has a family, a spouse, possibly kids. I was in the military for 25 years, so I have a sense of understanding if your family is not backing you 100%, it’s not possible. Trucking is the same, possibly even harder. If your family is not on board, you aren’t going to be successful as a truck driver,” Dover said.
The company awards its drivers for safe driving through an internal recognition program, as well.
Leavitt’s also created a specialized Finishing Program, ensuring drivers complete thorough training and testing before going solo. The company continues to require ongoing training and testing throughout a driver’s employment.
This year, it also started its EB3 Driver Program, hiring drivers who have their VISA. The EB3 program is still in its infancy, but Dover noted it’s started very successfully.
The Bottom Line
Advice from Leavitt’s CEO about getting started with a video-based driver safety program? It comes down to three simple words.
“Just do it,” Riddle said. “I honestly dragged my feet for close to a year because there is an investment. But there is a turning point. I’m responsible for the bottom line of our numbers. It quickly became evident that it would pay for itself. If you truly have a safety culture, you must do this. It opened up our eyes to what was happening.”