It is raining hard. Looking across the crowded terminal lot, the safety director watches from his office window as the headlights of the company tractor play across the side of a service bay and temporarily turn to gold the black pools of water collecting in every low spot of the gravel parking area. “What a miserable night for a long run,” he thinks to himself. “I hope that new driver is as good as he seems to be. There is a lot more riding on that trip than one load, even if it is a delivery for one of our biggest customers.”

Those same truck lights also briefly illuminate the ceiling of the back office, where a clerk sees them and voices her own worries aloud. “I hope that driver's job history paperwork arrived,” she says to no one in particular. “I'd better look into that tomorrow and make sure everything is OK.”

Maneuvering around the ramp to the southbound Interstate, the driver likewise offers his private hopes to the dark and empty cab. “Boy, I sure need this lousy job,” he says. “I hope they don't find out about that string of problems back in 1999. What a mess. I hope the recruiter just believed me when I said I took some time off from driving that year.”

Sadly, carriers today can no longer afford the luxury of “just believing” job candidates and hoping for the best, driver shortage or no. The risks and related costs of laissez-faire hiring practices, even when cloaked in good intentions, have simply gotten too high.

“Spending big dollars on driver recruiting and scrimping on driver screening is penny-wise and pound-foolish,” warns Derek Hinton, director of DAC Services (www.dacservices.com), based in Tulsa. The 20-year old company offers driver screening reports plus DOT-compliant drug and alcohol testing services to the transportation industry, including 95% of the top 100 carriers, and maintains an employment history file that includes more than 4 million drivers.

“Today, the penalties for negligent hiring are so ruinous that they can cost a carrier the entire company,” Hinton says. “I have participated in a great many depositions since joining DAC in 1984, and it is a miserable experience for a safety director to be asked by an attorney, ‘What in the world were you thinking? Were you just hoping to save a few dollars by taking screening shortcuts?”

Compliance is not enough

The Federal Motor Carrier Regulations spell out in detail what is required of fleets when it comes to qualifying new drivers and monitoring driver performance. However, studying the rules and procedures (detailed in Title 49 — Transportation, Chapter III, Subchapter B, Parts 391 through 398) can seem like just another tedious paperwork drill.

“People will complain that the driver screening and performance regulations are a paperwork exercise that does not translate into improved fleet safety, but we disagree,” says Robert Watkins, vice president of the Transportation Safety Division of Consolidated Safety Services, Inc. (CSS) based in Fairfax, VA. (www.consolidatedsafety.com). The company offers commercial vehicle inspection, drug and alcohol testing, accident investigation, expert witness, Motor Carrier Regulations compliance reviews and safety assessments to the transportation industry. CSS also notes that they are “the DOT for the DoD (Dept. of Defense),” helping to ensure the safe and efficient movement of freight, munitions and passengers for the DoD.

“Carriers do not have accidents; their individual drivers have accidents,” Watkins observes. “In our experience, the carriers that do a good job screening and monitoring drivers according to the regulations have better safety records than fleets who do not take these responsibilities as seriously. Some carriers fail to understand that the regulations are actually ready-to-use tools,” Watkins adds, “tools that provide them with a structure — the policies, systems, procedures and authority — they require to establish and maintain a good driver screening and monitoring program.

“When we do a compliance audit of a carrier, we look at what the carrier really does,” Watkins explains. “We look for what we call ‘compliance by design,’ versus going through empty paperwork exercises that signal a cursory program with form but no substance. A fleet may be technically compliant but still have some very serious liability issues. They may not have a perceived accident problem or a high driver turnover rate, but their procedures are leaving them exposed to the risk of costly civil or even criminal penalties.”

Hinton agrees. “Meeting the minimum DOT requirements is not a shield from negligent hiring actions,” he says. “Regulatory compliance on paper does not absolve carriers from their larger responsibilities for safety. Safety, not paperwork, is the primary goal of the regulations.”

New security concerns, new regulations

Since Sept. 11, concerns about local and national security are adding even more weight and purpose to the driver screening process and new language to screening regulations. “Prior to Sept. 11, we looked at driver screening practices in terms of highway safety and protection of a carrier's assets,” recalls Hinton. “Fleets came to us to help them make sure they were not hiring problem drivers — people with bad accident records, those who might abuse or even abandon the company's equipment or otherwise damage the company's business or reputation. Now, carriers are asking, ‘is this job candidate a security risk?’

“Section 1012 of the Patriot Act requires additional security risk reviews for anyone seeking, upgrading or transferring a hazardous-materials endorsement on a commercial driver's license,” he explains. “An FBI check is now part of the hazardous-materials endorsement, for example, and the DOT has a study under way to evaluate requiring a Transportation Worker Identity Card (TWIC) for drivers who have access to secured areas, such as airports or seaports. We expect to see additional security-driven measures implemented in the future and are working to make sure we will be ready for them.”

The good with the bad

Aggressive driver screening programs are not just about avoiding trouble and its related costs, however. There are also many potential benefits for fleets that consider rigorous hiring practices to be an important element of good fleet management.

“There is a very positive side to good hiring and screening practices,” says Hinton. “For example, carriers that do a careful job hiring drivers right from the start report lower turnover rates and better productivity.”

“Some carriers definitely use their hiring programs to help give them a competitive advantage,” agrees Watkins. “One of our customers, a fuel oil delivery fleet, has big seasonal swings in its business. During the winter, they typically add more than 100 drivers to their regular team of 12 truck operators who work year-round. The company wanted to improve the safety record of their temporary drivers, so they asked the full-time drivers to help create a mentoring and monitoring program in which the regular drivers worked with the seasonal drivers. Together, they cut the accident rate in half.”

It's no wonder that savvy fleets, today more than ever, are leveraging their mandatory investments in driver screening and monitoring to net returns beyond regulatory compliance.

“All carriers are required to comply with the DOT driver qualification regulations,” observes one manager. “It's an investment in time and money we all have to make, an entry-level minimum. The thing is, good drivers are also good business, plain and simple. So why wouldn't every fleet want to treat hiring compliance programs as a springboard to building a better and more profitable operation?”

Why indeed?

Screening IN the best

Building a winning team begins with good recruiting and hiring. Whether it is for truck operators or for NFL players, the process is basically the same.

Sit down on the bench at a bowl game beside Rick Thompson, college scouting coordinator for the New Orleans Saints, for example, and listen to what he has to say. Like other professional recruiters, Thompson will tell you that hiring well is the invisible first play of a winning season. “NFL football is a tough business because you are only as good as your last game,” Thompson says. “We have 16 weekends a season, 16 three-hour time frames in which to be successful. You live and die by those three-hour periods regardless of all the work that went before.

“In 2000, we began using an assessment tool from Scheig Associates to help us evaluate ball players. Now we try to test all the players we are interested in prior to the start of the draft,“ he continues. “Sometimes it just confirms what we've learned in other ways, sometimes it gives us additional insights. Among other things, we use the assessment results as flags to help us spot under- or over-achievers — that is, players who are not hard workers and are performing below their potential and players who may not have the raw talent, but consistently work hard, play hard and give 100 percent.”

The assessment tool Thompson uses for the New Orleans Saints was developed by Scheig Associates, Inc. of Gig Harbor, WA (www.ischeig.com). Like the Hiring and Performance Systems Scheig has created for the business community, the NFL Players assessment is 100% job-specific, developed by working with recognized top performers to identify the characteristics that make them so good at that particular job. “The test for players is so specialized that we don't even administer it to kickers or punters,” says Thompson.

Many fleets that don't have the need for linebackers, however, are also finding the Scheig tools of help in building winning organizations. Roehl Transport, Inc. of Marshfield, WI, for example, has utilized the Scheig Safety and Performance Assessment for Long-Haul Drivers for several years. The 40 year-old, over-the-road carrier has one of the top DOT compliance ratings in the industry and a driver turnover rate well below the norm.

“We have about 1,400 drivers and a significant number of them are students new to the industry,” says Bob Rader, executive vice president for Roehl. “Before any new driver gets the keys to a truck, we do a great deal of additional driver training. It is a significant commitment of time and resources, so we wanted a tool that would help us to identify the prospective drivers who had the greatest likelihood of success within our company.

“In our experience, job candidates who score low on the Scheig assessment also tend to have other issues, such as difficulty with our road test or an unwillingness to accept and adhere to company policies and procedures during training,” he explains. “Now we use the assessment in combination with other formal and informal evaluations. It has helped us to save the time and money we might have spent in the past on training individuals who were not well-suited to the trucking industry or the driving profession.”

“What Roehl, like other carriers, is really looking for is good people who have the aptitude to learn and are willing to work within our system,” Rader adds. “No tool or set of tools will solve all your hiring problems overnight, but we feel like we are doing a better job bringing the right people into our business.”

The TLA Journal

The Truckload Academy Journal is a publication of the Truckload Carriers Assn. (TCA) designed to help fleets create vibrant and profitable knowledge-based organizations through a strengthened commitment to ongoing learning. The Journal appears quarterly in FLEET OWNER magazine and is also mailed to members of the TCA. It is made possible through the sponsorship of TMW Systems Inc. and the production support of FLEET OWNER.

Where to look: tips from the pros

You catch more when you know where to look. Just ask any fly fisherman or employee qualification expert. Unlike many fishermen, however, hiring professionals are eager to share what they've learned over the years. Here are a few of their driver screening and monitoring tips:

  • Investigate any gaps in an employment history; don't just accept a candidate's explanation.

  • Check previous drug and alcohol testing results. If you hire a driver who tested positive or refused to be tested in the past and has not been treated by a Substance Abuse Professional (SAP), then it becomes your legal responsibility to refer him or her for treatment — even if they passed your own drug and alcohol screening test.

  • Many drivers routinely change jobs. If a candidate is currently working for another company, ask how he or she is handling the time off to apply for work with your fleet. If they are hiding the time from the current employer by falsifying their logbook, they will probably do the same thing to you.

  • Review and then maintain a chronological record of driving violations or other incidents. Repetitive violations can signal the need for specific training or function as a warning of problems to come.

  • Read your drivers' Vehicle Inspection Reports (DVIRs). If a driver routinely records no equipment problems, then you have a personnel problem, because things do go wrong on trucks. The driver may not be doing the required pre-trip inspections.

  • Compare your roadside inspection reports for the past 90 days against the DVIRs and vehicle maintenance records for the same period. Check to see if drivers also listed the same defects in their reports and then made sure they were corrected.

  • A driver's past performance is the best indicator of his or her future performance.