Tough love

Jet Express
Dayton, Ohio
Uses safety indicators to identify problem drivers quickly, bolstering risk management efforts and allowing the carrier to retain and manage drivers who might otherwise be headed for termination.

Jeff Davis occasionally might hire a driver you wouldn’t touch, and he sometimes keeps drivers you might have fired.

It’s not that Davis – vice president of safety and human resources for Dayton, Ohio-based Jet Express – is indifferent about safety. Far from it. Rather, he’s so confident in the truckload carrier’s driver safety performance program that he can tolerate drivers with some blemishes – as long as they are willing to be managed closely.

“What we’re trying to do is use the whole safety process as a retention tool,” Davis says.

Rethinking retention is a big concern not just for Davis but for his boss as well. Kevin Burch, president of the 350-driver regional truckload carrier, currently chairs the Truckload Carriers Association’s Recruitment and Retention Human Resources Committee.

While many carriers might focus on the end result in their safety programs – disciplining or terminating drivers for crashes, for example – Jet Express has developed a process for selecting drivers who need attention and for establishing accountability for them. Davis calls it “listening to the dialogue” of the driver’s safety performance.

“A driver’s behavior is speaking to the company,” Davis says. “And as an industry, we haven’t been very good listeners.”

This approach to safety management has evolved at Jet Express over the past several years; it wasn’t a program that Davis, Burch or anyone else announced all at once. The key elements of identifying drivers with bad habits and following up with them quickly and regularly are simple enough, but for many carriers it becomes just too easy to manage drivers only when safety failures occur, Davis says. Ongoing measurements establish accountability with the driver. “If carriers react just to the safety event, they are condoning acts that led to it.”

Jet Express uses data from five principal sources to isolate drivers needing help: Motor vehicle records (MVRs), roadside inspections, road observations, Global Positioning System tracking and engine electronic control modules (ECMs).

Speedy intervention
Davis puts great stock in MVRs because they provide early warning of behaviors that can be corrected before the driver has a crash or other major safety lapse. MVRs also isolate a habit Davis views as the root of many safety and compliance problems: speeding. Jet Express has found a correlation between accident rates and speeding violations and warnings in MVRs.

Several years ago, Jet Express set out to further verify the conclusion of numerous studies that speeding by truck drivers led to unsafe behaviors. So the company took two drivers and, over a five-day period, observed them over the same section of I-75 at the same time of day. The only difference was that one truck drove at 65 mph, while the other drove at 55 mph. Davis and his team observed more brake applications (an indicator of rear-end collision risk) and lane changes (increasing the risk of sideswiping crashes) for the faster truck. The safety implications of speeding are most worrisome, but it also can lead to greater scrutiny in the area of regulatory compliance, Davis says. For example, many roadside inspections are triggered by moving violations.

Jet Express runs fleetwide MVRs every six months – twice as often as required by federal regulations. Drivers who have two or more moving violations on their records within the most recent three years go into the carrier’s check program, which triggers monthly MVR checks until the company determines that the driver consistently has shown that he corrected his behavior. Jet Express charges a driver on the check program $50 a year to cover the cost of the monthly MVR checks. But the company doesn’t just hold the driver accountable; it also assigns the driver a company manager who takes responsibility for training and mentoring.

Likewise, the carrier checks its detailed SafeStat data online frequently and counsels drivers who show up with problems. “We respond to every roadside inspection one way or another,” Davis says. If the problems are severe or frequent, those drivers also get assigned a manager for training and remedial action. ECM data pulled at the end of a run or during vehicle service helps the carrier identify problems with excessive speed or hard braking. Jet Express also follows up on road observations conducted by a third-party company and by internal staff. Each nondriving employee receives $1 per road observation of a Jet Express driver. Burch himself often completes the most reports each quarter, Davis says.

Burch also is directly involved in the driver safety performance program. Senior managers throughout the company – not just those in the safety department – serve as mentors, and each typically works with one or two drivers at any given time. Involving senior management as mentors and everyone as members of the road observation team accomplishes more than just driver improvement; it means that in a very concrete way, safety becomes everyone’s job.

“A safety culture is individual people working for the common goal for safe movement of freight,” Davis says. “You don’t build a safety culture through meetings, you build it by getting involved with the driver.”

Senior Jet Express managers work with individual drivers in person and by telephone to develop corrective actions based on the nature, frequency and severity of their poor performance. Some drivers might receive only remedial training or have the speed governors on their truck reined in. Others might face GPS tracking – Jet Express uses GPS routinely only in certain lanes – if constant observation is deemed necessary, and an electronic logs module in addition to paper logs if hours-of-service compliance is a problem.

Davis has found that drivers generally appreciate the attention and care enough to improve. Moving violations, for example, are clear and specific indicators of performance “just like a batting average on a baseball card.” Measuring drivers against their peers encourages personal accountability. “We ask, ‘Why do you have two speeding violations when 140 drivers don’t have any?’ That’s effective peer pressure.”

Safety as retention
Managing problem drivers rather than cutting them loose works at Jet Express because the drivers with weak performance are the exception to the rule. “You are putting a few bad apples into a crystal-clear pond,” Davis says. Some drivers have bad habits, but they aren’t doomed to be bad drivers. “You can intervene and change the way they think.”

Considering the costs and disruptions involved in recruiting, hiring, retraining, orientation and an adjustment period, Davis believes $5,000 to $7,000 is a solid figure for the cost of turnover by a single driver. “With intervention, we can do it a lot cheaper.”

But it’s not just the cost. Given the long-term outlook for driver availability, carriers can’t afford to simply let drivers drift until their bad habits inevitably lead to termination, Davis contends. Many drivers would be willing to get better – if their carriers would just insist they do so and show them how. “It never ceases to amaze me. The response level of these guys is incredible.”

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