Safety burden on professional truck drivers rests on us all

As we mark National Trucking Week (Sept. 7-13), it's time to reflect on redistributing the safety burden on professional truck driving.

When a heavy truck is involved in a road incident – a tractor-trailer jackknifes or there’s a rollover or crash – people can be quick to question the expertise and professionalism of the truck driver. Yes, professional truck drivers must take responsibility for transporting their vehicles and cargo safely, but they are only the most visible link in a supply chain that includes many others who also influence safety outcomes. Buyers, sellers, shippers, distributors, trucking companies and even consumers all need to share the cost of safety. If we continue to download these costs onto professional truck drivers, we’ll all suffer.

That may seem a somewhat negative way to draw attention to National Trucking Week, Sept. 7 to 13, but it’s meant as a wake-up call. Professional truck drivers contribute daily to our comfort and well-being – more, in fact, than any other occupation. Everything we use – our clothing, most of our food, the devices we rely on, the gasoline that powers our vehicles and buses (even your bicycle, if that’s your vehicle of choice) – came to us through the assistance of a professional truck driver. Tens of thousands of drivers deliver these goods safely and efficiently across B.C., Canada and North America without fail, and they deserve a tribute. We need them.

Unless something changes, however, there will soon be fewer and fewer professional truck drivers to rely on.

Driving a truck can be a satisfying and rewarding career, but it’s also tough. Professional truck drivers have to be flexible and tolerant enough to contend with hours of service regulations that stipulate how long to work and rest, the vagaries of weather and traffic, the demands and expectations of many different shippers, and “just in time” scheduling that maximizes productivity (but not necessarily their needs, including family time).

One thing that can and should change is the onus placed on some professional truck drivers to absorb the cost of delays over which they have no control and outside pressure to drive longer than is safe – or even legal.

Recently, Anne Ferro, then-administrator of the U.S. Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA), noted during an interview that the responsibility for safety needs to be more balanced and widely shared along the supply chain. Ms. Ferro suggested it’s essential for trucking companies to charge their customers rates that allow them to pay professional drivers for all their time on duty, including for delays at warehouses, border crossings, and terminals or when roads are closed. Individual drivers who are fully paid for their work are far less likely to try to make up losses suffered by delays and to drive when fatigued. For a leader of a regulatory agency as influential as the FMCSA, which sets rules for trucking companies and drivers operating in the US, to make such a strong connection between safety and the treatment of professional truck drivers by others is significant.

To further redistribute the safety burden, shippers should also be more publicly accountable for the trucking partners they choose. Shippers that look only for the lowest rates tend to contract with trucking companies that may cut safety corners. Instead of looking at rates and statistics for on-time deliveries only, shippers should ask questions about a trucking company’s safety programs, hiring and disciplinary practices, and deployment of technology to enhance safety practices, and generally educate themselves about all the underlying costs that contribute to a reasonable rate for transportation services. When crashes occur – which will happen regardless of how careful, prepared and safety-conscious trucking companies and professional drivers are – investigations regarding the cause need to extend beyond the trucking company involved to the customer.

Historically and all too frequently, the trucking industry and professional drivers have been at the mercy of shippers who tend to have greater power in the relationship due to the highly fragmented and competitive structure of the trucking industry. But the tide is changing: demand for trucking services is increasing as the industry struggles to attract and retain qualified and skilled professional drivers. Ms. Ferro also commented on this situation, recognizing an opportunity for trucking companies and owner-operators to stand tough and “shut out” shippers that abuse their services.

National Trucking Week is always a good time to reflect on the state of our industry and the role it plays in supporting our daily lives and to acknowledge the many men and women who are employed as professional drivers. To our great fortune, they take the responsibilities placed upon them seriously. Going forward, it would be even better to see others sharing those responsibilities fairly as well.

– BCTA, a member-based, non-profit, non-partisan advocacy organization, is the recognized voice of the provincial motor carrier industry, representing over 1,000 truck and motor coach fleets and over 250 suppliers to the industry. BCTA members operate over 13,000 vehicles, employ 26,000 people, and generate over $2 billion in revenue annually in the province.

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