A trip down to Mercer town

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We think there’s a misunderstanding about CSA out there in the law enforcement community that’s hurting the driver.” –Dale Corum, general manager, Mercer Transportation Co.

Just about every year, right before the Mid America Trucking Show gets rolling, I take an hour or so to slip over and visit Mercer Transportation Co. and chat with Dale Corum, the fleet’s general manager for over three decades.

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Typically, we talk about how the flatbed freight business is doing and the big issues of the day affecting Mercer’s corps of hard working owner-operators.

In terms of the former, things are great. Demand has outstripped capacity for the first time in a LONG time, Corum (at right) told me, with the number of loads Mercer's hauled in each of the last three weeks exceeding the company’s best week ever – a record set back in September 2008.

“For every load we move, we’re missing two others because we don’t have the trucks to haul them,” he said. “Military goods is still the top freight we haul,, followed by machinery and building materials, especially steel. The [residential] housing market is still a few years away from recovery but we’re seeing a big revival in commercial construction – that’s what’s driving the demand for building materials.”

In terms of freight by region, the West Coast is still struggling but on the whole freight is plentiful across the U.S. right now, Corum reports – an upswing that’s been gaining strength since January of last year. “There’s a lot of freight out there right now,” he added.

That also means Mercer is back in position to beef up its fleet – something the carrier hasn’t been able to do in a long while. At the end of 2009, for example, the company numbered 1,641 owner-operator trucks in its ranks – and number that’s now up to 1,950. Corum said Mercer and would like to be at 2,200 by the end of 2011 and is beefing up its recruiting efforts to get there. “At this point in time we need more trucks than ever,” he stressed.

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Yet this is precisely the moment when a big “other shoe” is dropping on carriers like Mercer, Corum said – the new Compliance Safety Accountability (CSA) set of rules developed by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA).

About 2% to 3% of Mercer’s owner-operators are being affected by the new rules, he said, but not in the way many may think.

“We’ve had to part ways with drivers that just a year ago we wouldn’t have had a conversation with,” Corum told me. “They don’t have money issues; they don’t have accidents; and they don’t have speeding tickets.”

What they DO have, however, are older trucks and law enforcement personnel are pulling them over more frequently for inspections on the suspicion that more safety problems are likely to found on an older model truck versus a new one. “But for most of our guys, the inspection comes back clean, so the officer gives them a warning for going over the speed limit – a justification for pulling them over,” Corum said.

Here’s the kicker: in 50% of these cases that Mercer’s been dealing with, those warnings are for going 1 to 5 miles per hour over the posted speed limit. In the past, such a warning wouldn’t be a big deal to a driver. But under CSA, these warnings affect their CSA scores – and that affects their employability for carriers.

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“We have our own ‘internal’ CSA scoring system so we can stay ahead of the ‘eight ball, so we really don’t have a problem – year over year, we’re among the top five safest fleets in the U.S.,” Corum explained. “The real issue is that misconception about the impact of warnings. In the past, they weren’t an issue – now, however, they are huge – and there’s no vehicle for a driver to plead their case on citations either, much less correct errors.”

He thinks this particular issue is not only going to worsen things from a driver recruiting and retention perspective, just as the ongoing freight revival is heightening demand for drivers, but could potentially lead to a larger safety issue for the industry down the road.

“Across the industry, many owner-operators could get let go due to poor CSA scores – most due to equipment maintenance issues,” he explained. “For many during the rough times, they put off performing regular maintenance to survive and now that’s coming back to bite them. For others, they’ve gotten to many ‘warnings’ and that’s affected their CSA scores.”

Corum is worried that many my then go out and try to survive on their own – trying to win business by offering low rates, forcing them to cut back farther on equipment upkeep. “It’s an unintended ‘side effect’ of CSA – the possibility of having more unsafe trucks on the road,” he said.

That’s an unsettling scenario, to say the very least – and it’s just one more challenge the industry needs help addressing if it’s going to haul all the freight being piled higher and higher on its doorstep.

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