BEWARE the high-risk driver, Markel warns

BANFF, Alta. –Trucking companies have at least a one in three chance of interviewing a high-risk driver every time they look for new talent.

That’s according to Rick Geller, director of safety and signature services for Markel Insurance. The good news, the insurance rep says, is that companies already have most of the tools they need to improve their odds of getting responsible, professional drivers.

Speaking before delegates to the 2010 Alberta Motor Transport Association Management Conference in Banff, Geller described high-risk drivers as those who engage consistently in unsafe driving behaviour such as speeding, tailgating, running red lights and hopping from lane to lane, practices he says increase significantly the probability of being involved in a crash.

Geller breaks these high-risk drivers into two categories he says are easy to identify: those who refuse to take responsibility -always finding someone else to blame, and those who either delay reporting violations and collisions or who don’t report them at all. The second type is worse for carriers ultimately, he says, because their actions could lead to personal injury lawsuits well after the fact, seemingly out of left field, perhaps even after the driver is no longer with the company.

Making the situation worse, he says, is the fact that carriers are generally reactive in their response to high-risk driver issues, responding only after crashes and other incidents have happened – and he points to two typical responses to such incidents: “Yell at the driver and put him back behind the wheel, or fire him.”

Geller says the decision over which course of action to take is driven typically by the severity of the crash, a factor he says shouldn’t even be a consideration in managing driver performance. Why not? Because, he says, similar actions by different drivers can have wildly different outcomes depending on other circumstances.

To illustrate the point, he outlines a scenario in which two trucks slide on ice in succession, cross the centre line and end up in the ditch, with the first truck only suffering damage to itself but the second also taking out an oncoming vehicle that happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

“Both drivers did exactly the same thing,” Geller says, “but one was lucky and one wasn’t. Why are we handling the drivers differently? Why does the severity of the crash factor in how we’re going to manage the driver’s performance going forward?”

Geller also points to what he says is a distinct lack of understanding between preventability and liability. “In its simplest form,” he says, “if I’m going through a green light and get hit by someone running the red light, it’s their fault.”

But preventability means that, even though the traffic light may be green, the driver should be thinking about possible actions he or she could take that could prevent a crash from happening in the first place.

“At the end of the day,” Geller says, “if the six o’clock news is showing a broken school bus, a bunch of hurt kiddies and ambulances, people don’t care whose fault it was. They want to know how it can be prevented.”

Being a professional driver, he says, means you’re expected to take into account and make allowances for the mistakes of others.

“They need to be watching when they’re out there,” he says.

The best way to fight the scourge of high-risk drivers, Geller says, is for owners to adopt a more proactive approach that concentrates on monitoring violations continuously combined with remedial training. But not just any remedial training.

“Remedial training is usually used as discipline,” he says. “You’ve messed up so you’re going to PDIC (the Professional Driver Improvement Course).” The problem, he says, is that – since the driver who ends up in such a situation is typically the type who won’t take responsibility -a sudden epiphany on his or her part is “simply not going to happen.”

By focusing instead on an ongoing process of measurement and intervention, Geller says, a carrier can avoid most of the risks connected to high-risk drivers. It doesn’t have to be a big hassle or a huge expense, either, since much of what’s needed is already at hand.

“You have an opportunity to really utilize a lot of information that’s already within the four walls of your building,” Geller says. “All it requires is looking at existing information through a different lens.”

Collecting the information that can help identify a potential bad apple, he says, can be done by paying close attention to such things as driver’s abstracts, onboard recording devices, violation notices, inspection reports, loss registers and even customer complaints. Carrier profiles and engine downloads -which can record info such as hard braking incidents, RPM and top speed – can also be useful.

Armed with this information, a carrier can help take care of what Geller says is the cause of 93% of major crashes: the human factor or, as the old joke goes, “the nut behind the wheel.”

According to Geller, such human issues include recognition errors (driver inattention or distraction), wrong decisions (speeding, underestimating the gap in front of the vehicle, driving when tired), performance errors (caused, perhaps, by a driver not being familiar with the equipment), and critical nonperformance issues he describes as “medical issues like black-outs, where at a critical moment the driver did nothing.”

While it may seem that figuring out which driver is going to succumb to a “human factor” requires psychic abilities on the carrier’s part, Geller says the best way to make such predictions is to keep track of moving violations.

“What we found was that, while crashes could be indicative of bad behaviour,” he says, “they could also be indicative of just being in the wrong spot at the wrong time.” On the other hand, Geller says that, over time, the data collected from moving violations is without question the best predictor of future crash involvement.

According to Markel’s data, about 28% of all drivers fall into the various high-risk categories, with approximately 5% at the highest risk level. Statistics show, for example, that a driver who picks up a careless driving violation (what Markel calls High-Risk Driver Category 1) is 325% more likely to have a crash in the next 12 months. Category 2 offenses such as improper turn or improper/ erratic lane change violations up the potential accident ante by 100% or more.

The good news, Geller says, is that a company already has this info on-hand, if it only chooses to use it. “You’ve got this violation,” Geller says, “so let’s use it as a wake-up call to help make your drivers the best they can possibly be. Let’s categorize those high-risk drivers in your fleet.”

And don’t forget to count personal vehicle violations.

“There seems to be a notion out there that drivers can drive one way in their personal car,” Geller says, “and then when they get behind the wheel of a commercial vehicle this magical transformation takes place and they now become safe drivers. I don’t care if it’s their car, your truck or grandma’s moped, a violation is a violation -they all count.”

Once its high-risk drivers have been identified, Geller says, a carrier then has some choices to make: it can simply maintain the status quo and hope for the best, it can fire the high-risk drivers, deal with specific issues and drivers, or look at its own practices as a carrier.

Geller recommends a strategy by which a carrier deals with the highest risk drivers first, and not necessarily by turfing them all out. But by concentrating initially on the drivers with the worst potential for incidents, Geller says, the carrier not only puts the spotlight where it’s needed the most, it also makes the process easier to handle.

“Five is a more manageable number than 100,” he says. “You want to get at the rest fairly quickly, but the pressing urgency isn’t there.”

And while firing some high-risk drivers may b
e the best course of action, Geller notes that drivers are also a precious commodity, so “If you have a chance to salvage that (high-risk) driver then why not?” He points out that most high-risk drivers “don’t have horns, they don’t breathe fire, they’re just ordinary people trying to make a living but they’ve let bad habits creep in. It happens to all of us.”

As far as intervention is concerned, Geller says taking advantage of remedial training programs offers ways for a carrier to not only identify and weed out the safety-averse drivers in an organization, but also to work with the ones deemed salvageable. Most importantly, Geller says, “it provides the opportunity for management involvement before the crash happens.”

Remedial training should be more than a few hours in a classroom, though.

“Most of these drivers require a defensive driving course that has a hands-on, in-cab component,” Geller says. “You normally have to have someone get into the cab with them and do a really good over-the-road evaluation -two-and-a-half to three hours’ worth -and then have someone who has the skills coach and mentor these drivers.”

Another strategy Geller says should be in a carrier’s defensive arsenal against high-risk drivers is written criteria for drivers. “And let’s not just shoot for the lowest common denominator, let’s pretend we’re writing a letter to Santa Claus -what does our ideal driver look like?” When a carrier figures out what it’s looking for in a driver, Geller says, it has a much better chance of finding it.

Geller also stresses the importance of requalifying drivers annually, to ensure they still meet the company’s standards.

“If he qualifies, that’s perfect,” he says, and if the driver has slipped “you have to provide the training regardless of the amount of experience they bring. If you don’t provide the training they get it from 65,000 ‘truck stop lawyers’ out there and they usually learn exactly the wrong thing.”

And if the driver doesn’t meet your standards, Geller says, it’s on his or her shoulders.

“You’ve got your criteria; it’s his responsibility to make sure he meets it.” He says carriers should make sure drivers understand they’re expected to get back into the position where they qualify. “Provide the training and guidance,” he says, “but don’t take ownership.”

On the other hand, Geller acknowledges that there can be legitimate times when a carrier wants to deviate from its criteria, for whatever reason, but at least then it’s “a business decision as to how far you want to deviate and, if you are going to deviate, then what’s your plan? Are you just going to hire the guy and then throw him out there or are you going to do something to bring that driver up to the level he needs to be at?”

The bottom line, of course, is the bottom line -and while paying strict attention to minimizing the threat posed by high-risk drivers may seem like a lot of time and effort spent concentrating on things that may not have happened and which may not happen at all -Geller says it can also pay off financially through lower insurance costs and reduced administration and human resources costs.

“It’s very important that you make sure people understand the impact,” he says. “You can stop the bleeding, and it’s a lot easier to not spend a dollar than it is to earn one.”

There’s no magic formula for all of this, Geller admits, but he stresses that a high-risk driver strategy has benefits beyond the balance sheet, by letting the carrier maximize its driver and safety resources and, by becoming known throughout the industry for high standards, becoming an employer of choice for good, professional drivers.

“Drivers are funny creatures,” Geller says, “and when the perception gets out there that the drivers at a particular company are sub-standard, your better drivers don’t want to be associated with it.” Geller says it doesn’t matter if that perception is true or not, but that the perception becomes reality.

Truck News is Canada's leading trucking newspaper - news and information for trucking companies, owner/operators, truck drivers and logistics professionals working in the Canadian trucking industry.

Have your say

This is a moderated forum. Comments will no longer be published unless they are accompanied by a first and last name and a verifiable email address. (Today's Trucking will not publish or share the email address.) Profane language and content deemed to be libelous, racist, or threatening in nature will not be published under any circumstances.