Willing to be good

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Drivers fall into three categories. Good drivers are the solid professionals, and there are fewer of them each year. Average drivers are just that. They do a fair job, but aren’t the most productive or efficient in operating their equipment. And poor drivers are those who are just passing through your operation in a never-ending series of jobs.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if you could hire only good drivers and leave the average and poor ones for others? But your company probably doesn’t pay the kind of money it would take to provide your choice of driver for each vacancy. Most carriers must hire the drivers who show up at their door. Most will be average or poor, almost by definition: drivers who jump from job to job are rarely good. If you want good drivers, you must develop them from your supply of average and poor drivers.

The trucking industry has focused on improving driver performance largely through technology. Need to slow drivers down? Govern the engine. But forcing a driver to change behavior often leads to circumvention, unintended consequences and higher driver turnover.

Suppose, for example, that a fleet governs its engines at 63 miles per hour. Some drivers will find mechanics who will help them circumvent the speed cap. To avoid discovery, a driver will go to great lengths to ensure that the tractor is never serviced by the company’s maintenance shop. Maintenance costs for that tractor increase. Many other drivers won’t try to circumvent the governed speed. They will just leave for a company that pays less attention to speed. So while governing your trucks at 63 surely will bring benefits in fuel economy and elsewhere, you will pay a price for choosing to force drivers to accept a certain speed.

A better approach is to improve driver performance through the driver’s willing participation. Technology can help, provided drivers view technology as a tool and not a shackle.

For a truckload carrier, route planning is probably the single biggest opportunity for driver improvement. A good route plan determines the best roads to take to achieve good speed while minimizing miles. It takes into account fueling at low cost locations and setting realistic goals on where and by when to deliver the load on time.

Many carriers have implemented fuel optimization programs. A computer sends instructions to the driver as to the shortest route and designates where the driver should stop for fuel and how many gallons to purchase. Some even restrict the driver fuel cards to only the designated stops.

One can only imagine how popular it is with drivers to take away choice in their fuel stops. I predict that “No Forced Fuel Network” will start appearing in driver recruitment advertisements as regularly as “No Forced Dispatch.”

A better approach is to work with drivers to train them on the importance of route planning. A good route plan makes drivers lives easier by making them more productive. When I was involved in operations, I had an experienced driver on workers’ comp lay out the best routes on our major lanes, including the best places to fuel in terms of quality of the truck stop and prices. We kept this list updated through a Route of the Month contest in our newsletter. The winners were the routes that struck the right balance between miles and road conditions.

These routes were extremely popular because they were designed by fellow drivers. Even experienced drivers asked for copies. They realized that if they followed a route they probably would see other drivers from our company. They also knew that the suggested fuel stops would have good food, friendly service and clean showers.

The contest inspired drivers and dispatchers to consider routing. Drivers on new lanes would call dispatchers to seek their opinions. The off-route mileage and cost of fuel came down. Did we achieve the lowest possible operating cost that a fuel optimization program promises? Probably not. But we did make a serious dent in fuel costs while achieving one of the lowest driver turnover rates in the industry.