The trucking industry is catching up with other industries in recognizing that workers' health and well-being travel directly to the bottom line. Only in the past few years has the cynicism and skepticism about taking care of a driver's body and mind -- a holistic approach -- started to dissipate. Fleets are offering drivers health and fitness programs, wellness programs, spouse support programs, and other attitude-adjustment perks that have been de rigueur in other industries.

This change of attitude by management is the result of several matters coming together at once. According to Mike Skousen, executive administrator at C.R. England & Sons in Salt Lake City, driver turnover is the main catalyst for change. As his company tripled in size since the early 1990s, it had to try radical methods to retain top drivers.

Company officials decided to spend $6 million on a driver training center that may be the most advanced in the trucking industry. The facility not only handles training, but has amenities like a dry cleaner, a barber shop, and an open-to-the public restaurant that Skousen claims is one of the best in the area. "We wanted to build a second-to-none driver center, and combating driver turnover was our main interest," he says. "It costs $3,000 to $4,000 to train a driver, and keeping drivers is crucial in a low margin business."

The center was opened last November, and Skousen says that they're just starting to see positive results in driver retention.

While driver retention is one issue fueling the move toward treating drivers better, another is research in the area of fatigue. "The fatigue study has uncapped an appreciation of alertness, which is tied to wellness," says Joel Dandrea, director of driver training and development at the American Trucking Assns. "Companies are realizing that a healthy driver is a safer and more productive driver."

"Fitness leads to more alertness, reduces stress and back problems, and enables you to get a more restful sleep. Our interest at OMC (Office of Motor Carriers) is highway safety, and we're looking at driver fitness as a way to improve it," says Jerry Robin, project manager for OMC.

Around the time that Robin was looking at ways to improve driver fitness, business entrepreneur Jeff Abrams had been talking to a family friend who was a truck driver. The driver complained that he didn't get enough exercise because he couldn't find parking facilities near gymnasiums along his route. Abrams soon discovered that his friend wasn't alone; many truck drivers felt that way, especially younger ones.

To Abrams, the answer was Rolling Strong, a network of gyms he built at truckstops. Currently, three facilities are available along heavily traveled I-40 (Little Rock, Oklahoma City, and Knoxville); Abrams hopes to have a dozen along this route by the end of the year. His plans also include 100 gyms along other Interstates within five years. Response from drivers has been excellent, says Abrams, who pitches to fleet owners that exercise can reduce health claim costs, lower worker's compensation claims, combat fatigue, and lead to greater driver retention.

Proponents believe that hard numbers to back up these claims will be available soon. Five-hundred drivers are part of the Truck Stop Fitness Facility Study, a cooperative effort between ATA's Trucking Research Institute and the Federal Highway Administration. Drivers receive free Rolling Strong memberships in exchange for participating in the year-long study. "We also want to see if (truckstop) gyms are economically viable," says OMC's Robin.

Improving a driver's physical well-being is only part of the driver retention solution. Mental health is also important. A recent driver satisfaction survey showed that the one thing drivers wanted more than anything else was to be home for important family events. "If a driver asks to be home at a certain time, we try to honor his request," says Skousen. "We even fly drivers home, if necessary."

The importance of drivers' input in other aspects of the business, such as spec'ing equipment, is also being recognized. Adds Skousen: "We're all discovering what it means to treat drivers well. There are many ways to do it."

Senate approval shifts action to House

The attention of the trucking industry has turned to the U.S. House of Representatives, where the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee approved a six-year, $181-billion highway funding bill last month.

Earlier, the Senate approved a $173-billion highway bill that increases expenditures by 38% compared with the previous ISTEA (Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act) legislation. This was accomplished without any new taxes on trucking, including the 15-year Heavy Vehicle Use Tax proposed by Sen. John Chafee (R-R.I.).

The Senate bill is larger than that originally proposed and closer to the House version. This will make it easier to achieve a compromise package when the two houses reconcile their versions. The additional money in the Senate bill includes $26 billion from the 1993 fuel increase of 4.3 cents/gal.

Optimists say the House could begin its work on the bill before the Easter recess. With few obstacles anticipated, it should finish work on the measure later this month. The bill would then go to a House-Senate conference to iron out any remaining differences.

However, chances for passing the legislation before the current ISTEA extension is up on May 1 is slim. Rep. Bud Shuster (R-Pa.), chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, said that May 25, Memorial Day, is a likely date for sending a compromise package to President Clinton for his signature.

The final bill must fit within the President's overall budget proposal in order for him to sign it.

Wendy R. Leavitt has joined FLEET OWNER as senior technology editor and market development manager, publisher Thomas W. Duncan has announced. She will be based in Bellevue, Wash.

Leavitt brings nearly 20 years of trucking industry experience to her new position. Most recently, she served as technology editor of Truck Fleet Management, a monthly industry magazine, and editor of its companion bimonthly publication, Trucking Technology. Prior to that, she held a series of managerial positions with Kenworth Truck Co., including 10 years as manager of advertising and public relations. Leavitt also served as safety and compliance manager in Kenworth's engineering department.

A summa cum laude graduate of Western Washington University, with undergraduate and master's degrees in English and art history, Leavitt began her career as an editor and production manager for Edmark Associates, specializing in educational materials for children and adults with special learning needs. She also was a writing instructor at Western Washington University.

In her new position, Leavitt will produce monthly bylined feature articles, news stories, reports on new products, and a column for FLEET OWNER. In addition, she will contribute to FLEET OWNER Online, the publication's Web site (www.fleetowner.com). She will also help uncover and pursue new market opportunities with the potential to enhance existing products or grow new ones. Leavitt will also be involved in developing intracorporate business synergies.

Clean air Rep. John Ensign (R-Nev.) has introduced legislation providing tax incentives to encourage the conversion to clean-burning fuels such as natural gas, propane, and methanol. If enacted, the measure would provide a tax credit of 50 cents for every gallon of clean-burning fuel purchased.

Out of service Revised out-of-service criteria for roadside inspections, which went into effect the beginning of April, are now available from the Commercial Vehicle Safety Alliance (CVSA). The document, which is free for members and costs $20 for nonmembers, can be obtained by writing to CVSA at 5430 Grosvenor Lane, Suite 130, Bethesda, Md. 20814.

Brakes top the list Faulty brakes were the primary reason carriers were placed out of service during roadside inspections, OMC reports. Brake defects accounted for 24.4% of the violations in 1995, and 23.3% in 1996. Out-of-adjustment brakes were the second most frequent violation, accounting for nearly 18% of all citations. Other common citations included defective lights, tires, and suspension systems.

RR crossing DOT has proposed that truck drivers who violate railroad/highway grade crossing laws be disqualified, and that motor carriers that permit drivers to violate such laws be fined. Comments on this issue must be received on or before May 1, 1998. DOT reports that such accidents killed 615 and injured 1,961.

Brake contaminants NHTSA has killed a proposal that would have required that trucks, buses, and truck tractors be equipped with an automatic means of removing moisture and other contaminants from air brake systems. The proposal also would have deleted existing requirements for a supply reservoir.

In concert with Wabash National, Freightliner Corp. has unveiled a new tractor-semitrailer combination that advances safety performance while also increasing payload capacity.

The Argosy Safety Concept Vehicle, introduced at the company's annual dealer meeting March 3 in Palm Springs, Calif., is an integrated, low-profile tractor-trailer that achieves up to 15% greater gross weight (to 90,000 lb. GVW) and an equivalent gain in cubic capacity. Instead of the standard 53-ft. trailer, the safety concept design incorporates a 58-ft. trailer designed by Wabash National with a shorter cab. The overall length of the vehicle is 69.5 ft., which is shorter than most conventional tractors with single or double trailers on the roads today.

The greater payload capacity means less space on the roads is used for freight transport. The six-axle vehicle design is proven to better distribute loads so there is less weight impact on the roads and thus a 3% reduction in road wear and tear, while still meeting federal bridge laws.

The Argosy concept incorporates an array of leading-edge safety features. The low-profile design combined with wide-track axles results in performance improvements, including 15% greater rollover resistance, 24% greater resistance to load transfer, and more stable lane changes. The combination's electronic axle control and 6-ft. kingpin setting also allow improved corner maneuverability.

Low-profile tires combine with a dropped frame height to increase the trailer's payload capacity vertically. The 110-BBC tractor employs a 40-in. mid-axle setting for the front axle and has a 183-in. wheelbase. The high-cube trailer has an interior load height of 10 ft., 1.5 in., yet retains an overall height of 13 ft., 6.5 in. Other safety features include an Eaton-Vorad collision warning system.

Bering Truck Corp. has signed an agreement with Hyundai Motor Co. to import, distribute, and manufacture a new line of Class 3-8 commercial trucks in the North American market. The new line will be unveiled at the American Truck Dealers' 35th annual convention, April 25-28 in Nashville. The first public display is slated for the International Truck Show in Las Vegas, May 13-15.

The date for launch of retail sales is October 1 for Class 5 and daycab tractors. Class 6-7 cargo trucks will launch in mid-November, and heavy-duty vocational models will come on line a year from now.

The Bering brand will combine Hyundai chassis and cabovers with American-made engines, transmissions, clutches, and axles. In the beginning, the vehicles will be built by Hyundai at its Chunju Plant to Bering's specifications, and then imported. In 1999, Bering will manufacture Classes 7-8 at a new facility in Front Royal, Va., and import the other classes.

"We are excited to work with Hyundai, a manufacturer truly on the technological cutting edge in the commercial vehicle industry," says William R. Anderson Jr., the president of Bering. "Not only is it part of the Hyundai Business Group known for its strengths in research and development, ground and ocean transportation, engineering, electronics, and many heavy-duty industries, Hyundai also is the world's largest manufacturer of commercial vehicle containers and chassis."

Anderson said Bering will "niche market" its product line, with the initial focus on all states east of the Mississippi. Niches for the heavy-duty line include vocational markets such as regional applications and construction. The units will be daycabs. The medium-duty focus will be on delivery operations and specialty applications.

The trucks will carry the Bering identification, which draws its name from the Bering Strait -- where Asia and North America come together. They will also carry the Hyundai badge.

Although it has no dealers, Bering hopes to ink at least 40 franchises by the end of the year.