Behaviour-based safety management is ‘old school,’ Schneider exec says

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DALLAS, Texas — Fleet safety programs that focus on driver behaviour are ineffective, as it’s an individual’s beliefs that drive their behaviour and in some cases those beliefs must be reshaped before any meaningful outcome is achieved.

That was the thought-provoking message from Don Osterberg, vice-president, safety and driver training with Schneider National when he addressed an audience on distracted driving at the American Trucking Associations Management Conference and Exhibition.

“I believe behaviour-based safety management is old school,” he said. “If you want to attack it at the root cause, it’s at the belief level that we store what is really relevant. Your beliefs shape your attitudes, which shape your habits, which shape your behaviour. If you’re focused on behaviour, you’re already too late. You have to address the beliefs.”

Osterberg said people behave in accordance to the people they believe themselves to be. “If we know we’re undisciplined, if we know we cut corners, if we know we’re prone to averse behaviours, we will behave that way,” he explained. “And those beliefs are stored at the subconscious level. The challenge then is to reprogram people, to reprogram their beliefs. That’s not easy but it’s not impossible to do.”

Specifically addressing the issue of distracted driving, Osterberg said it’s not enough too simply create policies. Safety leaders must make the message personal and instill in drivers the belief that things like using cell phones while driving is wrong. At Schneider, drivers are required to sign a business card-sized pledge that reads: ‘Because I am a disciplined, safety-conscious professional, I lead by example and maintain constant situational awareness while driving.’

“They sign it, tape it to the steering wheel of their truck and it’s something they see every time they get in,” Osterberg said. “If you have people sign their name to something, they tend to read it and tend to feel they have made a commitment.”

Still, when you run a fleet the size of Schneider National’s, not everyone is going to buy into any policy. Osterberg is under no illusions that the carrier’s strict distracted driving rules aren’t regularly broken, yet he says that’s no reason not to have a policy.

“I will tell you candidly that our no cell phone policy is violated in my company every day. I know that it is,” he admitted. “If you strive for perfection and won’t create a policy that you can’t perfectly enforce, I would argue you are missing an opportunity to at least influence the behaviour of a significant number of your associates. The existence of a policy alone will have a deterrent effect on the behaviour of many of your associates.”

Osterberg cited a study that found the presence alone of a policy against cell phone use was enough to influence the behaviour of at least some drivers.

In Schneider’s case, the carrier’s distracted driving policies have a history that can be traced right back to the company’s formation 75 years ago. At that time, founder Al Schneider preached: “Nothing we do is worth hurting ourselves or others.”

The company was focusing on distracted driving even before it became a mainstream issue. It banned the use of all cell phones while driving back in 1998.

“I think that was a very forward-looking policy to have in place back then, because I don’t think we even understood the effects of distracted driving in 1998,” Osterberg said of the policy that predated his employment at the company.

In 2005, Schneider National used axle sensors on its tractors to blank out the screens of its in-cab mobile communications systems when the trucks were in motion. In 2009, the company increased the severity of violating its distracted driving policies, making using a cell phone while driving a fireable offence.

Meanwhile, the company has developed policies for non-driving staff aimed at making it easier for drivers to stay focused on the job at hand. Drivers’ cell phone numbers are not given to customer service staff, so drivers don’t have to worry about receiving calls from anxious office staff looking for information on the status of a delivery.

And when a prospective new hire calls the driver recruitment department from a cell phone, recruiters are advised to instruct them to park some place safe and call back.

“We spend a lot of money to make that phone ring and there are a lot of organizations that say ‘I really need to have this conversation,’ but think about the message we send to that driver, who isn’t even one of our drivers yet,” Osterberg said. “A lot of them probably don’t (call back) but in my view, that’s okay. That’s walking the talk.”

The company is taking a look at some emerging technologies that disable cell phones while the vehicle is in motion, however Osterberg doesn’t think they’re “ready for prime time” just yet.

But invasive technologies like cell phone signal jammers may not be required if a carrier is able to instill in its drivers a belief that distracted driving is just plain wrong. Osterberg said he himself has taken “the pledge” to not use a phone while driving, and he hopes everyone else in the organization is equally vigilant.

“You can’t say ‘I’m going to cut back on distracted driving; I’m going to talk on my cell phone less’,” he pointed out. “What I have come to learn is, this is an all-or-nothing proposition. You have to make the commitment to say ‘I will not do it’ and then hold yourself accountable to that standard. It’s the only thing in my experience that works.”

Finally, Osterberg said he would like to see the US as a country to develop a national safety culture. And he left attendees with this poignant message: “In 2009, 3,380 people were killed in truck-involved crashes. We do a lot of celebrating in these venues – and I’m not being critical of our friends at ATA – saying, we’ve never been safer as an industry. And while that may be true, I frankly find that may be interesting but irrelevant. Because I know 3,380 is levels of magnitude too many. We have to do better than that. We have to hold ourselves collectively to a higher standard. We have to, as a society, say it’s unacceptable that we kill nearly 100 people every day in traffic crashes.”

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