Truck Safety Summit Edmondson Screenshot 1

Safety discussion: Spotlight on 'What's Working' in truck safety

Nov. 2, 2020
FMCSA hosts question-and-answer panel featuring Edmondson, J&M Tank Lines' vice president of safety, compliance

This article first appeared in the October issue of Bulk Transporter magazine.

Dave Edmondson, vice president of safety and compliance at J&M Tank Lines, shared his views on truck and highway safety in the “What’s Working II” question-and-answer session held during the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration’s virtual Trucking Safety Summit in August. 

The  insightful discussion, which focused on successes in safety and best practices, included Brett Sant, senior vice president of safety and risk management at Knight-Swift Transportation; and Ingrid Brown, principal of Rollin’ B and a company driver with Fleenor Brothers; and was moderated by FMCSA senior advisor Shannon Watson.

Questions and answers are edited, and some are paraphrased, for space and clarity.

Watson: How have you shown that increased training changes driver behavior?

Edmondson: “One of the things that I found through colleagues was a program that empowered the driver that, if he got himself into a situation where he didn’t feel comfortable, where someone was asking him to do something out of the norm, any type of safety situation like that, we’ve empowered the driver to call an All-Stop. Everybody takes a minute to reflect, he calls somebody, it usually starts with his driver manager or dispatcher, and we talk the situation through. And they’re welcome to do that at any time, day or night. We empower the driver so much, each of the drivers in orientation gets my cell phone number, and like I tell them in orientation, I would rather talk through the situation at 2 a.m. than at 2:15 p.m., when we’re getting calls saying something bad has happened. So that is something that really helps—simply empowering the drive to have that ability.”

Sant: Knight-Swift focuses on driver competency because drivers are the most important part of the equation. The company seeks drivers who are “conscientious, confident and capable,” but it’s the carrier’s responsibility to empower the driver with critical training, resources and support they need to be successful. “You really do need to individualize it,” he said. “Not all individuals are the same, and if you are going to train people, you should think of it as an individualized thing and you should think about it as an ongoing process.”

Edmondson, adding to Sant’s point: “We’ve started to where the majority of our safety training or orientation is done online before the driver even steps foot through our doors. With the COVID-19 situation, what that’s allowed us to do is, we get that stuff out of the way and then when they get into orientation, we can focus on how J&M operates, and we can train them right then and there, instead of going through the five days of what I call the ‘must-dos.’

“(And) with COVID-19, what we’ve done is identify where we have multiple loads going, and instead of putting a driver with a trainee in the same truck, what we’re having them do is shadow in another truck. That way the trainee is getting his hands on multiple loads a day, vs. where he would only maybe see one or two loads a day.”

Brown: Drivers make the company safe, not the other way around. So training is an important tool, and it doesn’t happen only in a classroom. It occurs through lessons learned on the highway, and from veteran drivers.

Sant: Keep things small. Each individual driver matters in roadway safety, so don’t think collectively, regardless of fleet size. Connectivity and support are vital, as is creating ownership, which comes with responsibility.

Edmondson: “We’re not near the size of Brett’s company, but I like to think of us as the right size because we have that ability to do one-on-one. If we get an issue with a certain driver, if we feel we need to do, we can send our head driver trainer straight to that driver, and correct the situation. (And) to Ingrid’s point, we’ve got quite a few of our drivers that have very long tenure with us, and those guys are looked at as role models as well, and they’re looked up to. There are a couple of guys in our company who, if I have a question about something, I’ll give them a call. And you need to identify those folks in your company and get them with the newer people. And they tend to identify themselves.”

Watson: Dave, you’ve said there’s a difference between compliance and safety. What does that mean, and how does that awareness improve safety at J&M?

Edmondson: “There are the rules and regulations that you have to follow, and everybody has to be compliant. But simply being compliant doesn’t make you safe. We can do the minimum things and be compliant but going that extra distance to train drivers, communicate with them, empower them, hold them accountable when you need to know and leverage technology, is what makes you safe, or empowers the driver to make the company safe.”

Sant: A lot of companies focus on compliance and not the real issues that cause crashes. Many factors and variables are at play on the highway, so drivers have to be able to focus, and understand what behaviors are critical to achieving safe outcomes. There are no guarantees, so control the controllable factors, like speed, going the right speed for the conditions, managing space and following distances, distractions and fatigue. “Those are really the things that, to me, define a good driver,” Sant said.

Edmondson: “Even though Ingrid’s one truck, and we’re 400 and Brett’s multi-thousand, across the board, the foundation starts with the driver. And it starts with hiring the right driver. We all have our minimum requirements, but are we hiring the minimum, or are we setting the bar a little higher? Yes, this is the absolute minimum we will take, but we want that guy who’s going to continually make the good decisions. And in your foundation, when you look at a driver’s application, they’re MVR, their DAC employment, or whatever it is you use, you can see that foundation that they’ve made for themselves, and do you want to hire that person?”

Jim Mullen, former FMCSA acting administrator (who briefly joined the session): If the driver makes the company safe, how do you make sure the driver has all the necessary tools to stay safe, including onboarding practices, training and technology?

Sant: Knight-Swift conducts a deliberate vetting process that has included hair testing for Knight and Swift drivers since the companies merged in 2017. “We did that knowing full well that we were going to end up with a lot more empty trucks,” Sant said. “And so that discipline to do the things that we know lead to safe outcomes, even if it means parking a truck along a fence, is really critical for a fleet.”

Edmondson: “It was told to me a long time ago that we’re the only industry that will take an application over the phone or online, totally vet the driver without seeing him, other than talking to him a little bit, and hand him the keys to a $200,000 piece of equipment and bet the company on it.

“Throughout my career, the one thing that you have to do is, one, lay the foundation by the driver,” he continued. “Secondly, the biggest thing you can do for a driver … (is) show the driver that you care about them. Once you establish that culture in your company, that you truly care about the driver, and how his safety and well-being is for him and you, that makes you both successful. That is the No. 1 thing someone can do.”

Watson: What have you done to create ownership and accountability with drivers?

Sant: Discipline starts with commitment at the top of the company, and everyone must be sincerely aligned with values and objectives. Talk with people coming in about expectations, and make sure those expectations are met through frequent communication, which can’t be one-way. Drivers must stay connected.

Edmondson: “One of the things I’ve tried to do is let the driver know that we, as corporate or at the terminal level, are there to serve the driver, and you have to have that servant attitude. For lack of a better term, they’re your customer. They’re the face of your company, they’re the ones who are out there generating the revenue, to ensure guys like myself, who are overhead, get a paycheck. And we try to identify their role. Everybody in the company has a role in safety, whether they believe it or not. From the recruiter to the payroll clerk, everybody has a role in safety that they play. And if you get your folks to understand their role in safety, it helps them help the driver, to make him successful so that we all continue to receive paychecks.”

Watson: Dave, how did the Tracy Morgan crash (involving a truck driver who drove 800 miles from his home in Georgia to his workplace in Delaware before attempting to driver farther north with no sleep, according to the National Transportation Safety Board) change practices in your company?

Edmondson: “We require our drivers to live within an hours’ drive of the terminal they’re going to be based out of. It’s just a good practice. You don’t want a guy having to drive two or three hours to get to the terminal, get into his truck and then start his day.”

Watson: Do you use simulator training? If so, do you see a benefit?

Sant: Knight-Swift is using simulators. The key is to find the right application where the technology makes sense, perhaps in speeding up the time frame for developing competency in a particular skill. The carrier sees value in using simulators to help new drivers be better prepared when they first get behind the wheel.

Edmondson: “We’re not using simulator training. I just don’t think it’s quite there yet. I know it’s out there but I personally don’t think it’s as realistic as we need it right now. One of the things that I’m really excited about, that some of the folks in the tank truck industry are doing, is virtual reality training. It doesn’t focus so much on the driving part, but it focuses on the tasks, and that has got a lot of good promise.”  ■