SPECIAL REPORT: FMCSA links high driver turnover rate to crash incidents

| 7/2/2004

The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration suggests that carriers and shippers can play an important role to reduce crashes, thereby lessening the high turnover rate of qualified truck drivers.

America's shortage of qualified drivers has usually been attributed to growth in business, drivers who retire or leave the profession, and fewer young people choosing commercial driving as a career.

In recent years, however, job-hopping that is sometimes linked to the number of accidents has emerged as another crucial factor, the FMCSA's Office of Research and Technology reported in a study. Also known as "churning," high rates of turnover in the industry account for as much as 80 percent of the demand for commercial operators experienced by some carriers at any given time, the federal agency said.

"The study verifies what we have known for years," said Todd Spencer, OOIDA's executive vice president. "The most important person in trucking is the driver. Those carriers that go through drivers like oats go through a horse will never be any safer than trial lawyers force them to be through lawsuits and the FMCSA through enforcement actions.

"Carriers that recognize drivers as assets don't have turnover problems because of their focus on better pay, benefits and working conditions."

In addition to the substantial costs of recruitment and training that result from high driver turnover rates, the greatest impact of job-hopping may be in the area of safety, the FMCSA's report said.

"It may be concluded from the results of this research that a significant relationship exists between job change rate and crash involvement," the FMCSA report said. "There is evidence that drivers, whose (verified) employment history indicates that they have averaged more than two jobs with different carriers each year for a period of two years or more deserve special scrutiny during the hiring process to determine whether there are mitigating circumstances that have placed the individual in an increased-risk category."

The purpose of this study was to gain a better understanding of the extent to which truck crashes during long-haul, over-the-road operations can be linked to churning among commercial drivers, and to identify strategies with the greatest potential to improve driver retention and safety.

Study design

The first step in the study was to plan and carry out analyses of data found in the Motor Carrier Management Information System that could quantify the relationship between job change rates and crash experience among for-hire drivers engaged in interstate commerce.

Next, a review of the technical literature was conducted to gain more knowledge about why drivers change jobs, and how job-hopping might be reduced through strategies other than simply an increase in driver compensation.

Finally, case studies with major stakeholders in the industry were performed to ensure that diverse points of view and as many sources of potential solutions as possible would receive consideration in this work.

MCMIS analysis

By comparing the CDL program database with the Motor Carrier Management Information System database, the analyses established a relationship between a driver's annual job change rate, monitored over a period of at least two years, and the level of crash experience.

It was found that a CMV driver with two or more different jobs had a higher risk of being crash-involved than a CMV driver with less than two different jobs or a more stable employment history.

"This increased risk is gradual at first, then accelerates as the job change rate increases. For example, if a driver has averaged three or more jobs with different carriers each year, during an employment history that is two years or longer, the calculated odds of being crash-involved reached a level that is more than twice as high as they are for drivers with lower job change rates," FMCSA said.

The study identified several areas where specific changes hold the potential to improve driver retention and safety: selection and hiring; training procedures; dispatch operations; working conditions for long-haul operators; safety-related rewards and incentives; and improving perceptions of the truck driving profession.

Selection and hiring

The demand for qualified truck drivers has placed a burden on companies' recruiters. It has been reported that there is such a demand for truck drivers that some recruiters will hire unqualified drivers, if the alternative is having trucks sit idle in their lots.

Information also suggested that drivers attain satisfaction from a sense of achievement and recognition, and that key factors influencing how long a driver remains with an employer are steadiness of work, level of pay and benefits, company support while on the road, genuine respect from management, and amount of home time. While all these efforts are time-consuming and expensive, in the long run they are more cost-effective than having to recruit and hire again, the study said.

Working conditions for long-haul operators

Driving a truck, especially long-haul, is a difficult lifestyle. There are long and irregular hours, poor living conditions on the road, and large amounts of time away from home.

"Often these conditions are exacerbated by poor treatment from shippers, receivers, and even their own company personnel," FMCSA said.

There is strong evidence of a link between the economic and scheduling pressures on drivers and crashes and violations of hours-of-service regulations. Analyses of how working conditions affect safety revealed that truckers who drive in excess of HOS regulations, young drivers and interstate drivers are the most likely to have an increased relative risk of crash involvement.

"Addressing the poor working conditions that contribute to driver turnover and safety problems is an urgent need in the industry. To a degree, larger and more comfortable sleeper berths, which are found in newer model tractors, may help as will more and better rest areas with greater capacity for safely parking tractor-trailers," the study said.

"Also, modest reductions in transit times may be achieved through company-provided conveniences such as electronic toll passes. Finally, an essential component in reducing the exposure of long-haul truckers to those working conditions that pose the most serious risks to health and safety is more effective monitoring and more stringent enforcement of carrier compliance with HOS regulations."

Driver training procedures

The study also suggested the most progressive training programs offer drivers the advancement potential to other positions, whether it be in management or sales. If drivers receive such training, they are less likely to change jobs. Although driving may remain a driver's primary task, other jobs such as training or crash investigation could be a part of a career path.

A comprehensive training program that not only addresses technical and safety requirements, but also devotes attention to lifestyle issues and to the personal challenges truckers face in their profession conveys a message that the company cares about them and wants them to succeed, the study said.

"The payoff carriers can anticipate from providing this level of training not only includes gains in safety and productivity, but also results in drivers who feel more committed to the company," FMCSA added.

Dispatcher operations

Dispatchers or fleet managers find and assign loads to drivers and provide the logistics to coordinate loads from origin to destination for their assigned fleets. Dispatchers are measured by their performance, and the only way to achieve successful performance is for each dispatcher to work as closely as he can with his assigned team of truckers.

"There is, however, a high turnover rate among dispatchers that creates a situation in which dispatchers often do not know the drivers personally," the study said. "Furthermore, available research indicates that the behaviors of dispatchers are a key influence on a driver's satisfaction and likelihood of remaining with a particular carrier."

The FMCSA also pointed to another study that found that dispatcher responsiveness - the degree of action taken by a dispatcher to follow through and resolve driver issues - is important for reducing driver turnover.

"Carriers should be encouraged to re-evaluate the number of drivers that can effectively be managed by a single dispatcher," the study said. "Finally, training for dispatchers should incorporate human relations issues to better understand both the truckers' concerns and their job demands."

Safety-Related Rewards and Incentives

Research indicates that a commitment to safety from management carries over to drivers. Companies surveyed said that since their safety incentive programs were initiated, the incidence of insurance claims, workers' compensation claims, and crashes have been reduced by 65 percent.

Many safety-related incentive programs include recognition for passing certain milestones for "accident-free" miles driven. Safety bonuses also are very popular. For some carriers, bonuses are earned through a point system, which transfers to bonus money that gets included in their paychecks. Other carriers reward drivers who are crash free for a full year with a savings bond.

"It would be expected that incentive programs that offer progressively increasing safety bonuses for longer periods of crash-free operation would give drivers a material reason for staying with their employers rather than moving to another place of work, where they would have to start again to accumulate safety credits," the study said.

Improving Perceptions of the Profession

Evidence indicates that public perceptions of the truck driving profession today are ambivalent. In a recent survey, the overall view of drivers of large trucks was positive for 80 percent of the public.

"Improved perceptions of the profession depend not only on the public, but also on the attitudes of the drivers themselves," the study said.

"It has been reported that a good driver attitude about his employer can be expected to result from limiting office turnover (i.e., retaining good dispatchers), pursuing deliver-friendly freight practices that reduce loading and unloading requirements for drivers, having management staff accessible to address driver grievances, developing non-pay incentives, and providing training and orientation programs that focus on `30 days at a time' for each new hire."

-by Dick Larsen, senior editor

Dick can be reached via e-mail at dick_larsen@landlinemag.com