Avery Vise

Verify but trust?

Avery Untitled 1The quest for driver quality is the constant in trucking

Everything involving the commercial truck has changed fundamentally in the past 100 years with one exception: The driver. Yes, people have changed superficially, but human nature hasn’t. Some people you can trust with any task; others you have to watch constantly.

For a century, our magazine has reflected contradictory industry attitudes concerning truck drivers. During its first couple of years, Commercial Car Journal, as our magazine was known until 1982, mocked drivers as mostly well-intentioned idiots in a series of humorous editorial cartoons that showed drivers filling leaky radiators with muddy water to plug leaks, parking trucks in pools of oil to keep the tires soft, driving close to the curb to shave the ragged edges off tires and so on.

While these were jokes, CCJ’s serious editorial coverage wasn’t much different. For example, the magazine begged truck owners in an April 15, 1912 editorial to use recording devices on their trucks because drivers couldn’t be trusted. “It would seem apparent that even a tyro would appreciate that it is folly of the worse kind to pay $3,000 or $4,000 for a car and hand it over to a $12 a week dub to smash at his own sweet pleasure,” the editorial stated.

Has this sentiment truly changed all that much in 99 years? Implicit throughout the pages of CCJ over the past century is the notion that the weakest part of the truck often is the “nut behind the wheel.” Consider all the regulations, components, devices and information systems that have been devised to prevent or counteract serious driver error and neglect. You might trust certain individual drivers but perhaps not the community as a whole.

Most are neither knights nor nuts.

While this might be what we think about drivers, it’s certainly not what we say about them. The trucking industry has actively fought a mostly negative public image of its drivers. Even portrayals of drivers that many people within trucking cherish are hardly positive. Consider the classic song “Six Days on the Road,” released nearly 50 years ago. It paints a portrait of a hard-driving pill-popping cowboy – albeit one who yearns to make it home to his family.

The industry’s strategy has been to trumpet the “best of the best,” as is the case with America’s Road Team and other driver recognition programs. We honor drivers with impeccable safety records over many years and the very deserving heroes who put themselves in harm’s way to help others. We designate a week each year to highlight the vital role drivers play in American society. Truck drivers are the knights of the road, the salt of the earth. That’s our story, and we’re sticking to it.

Truck drivers aren’t uniformly wonderful, of course. As with any community, drivers surely fall along a bell curve with some truly wretched individuals at one end and some near-perfect professionals at the other. For public consumption, however, we accentuate the positive and eliminate the negative.

What is messy is the in-between. Your drivers are neither useless nor perfect. Most probably would be willing and even eager to do the reasonable things you ask of them if they understood why those things are important and believed that you likewise are willing to accommodate their reasonable requests. If you can’t trust drivers, could it be that they don’t trust you?

Some fleet owners presume the worst from drivers and leverage technology to minimize the damage. This approach has limits, however. For example, you can rely on tire pressure monitoring systems, but unless the driver visually inspects the tires, you could miss damage that will cause a big problem down the road.

Technology is an essential tool, and regulators and juries increasingly demand it anyway. But it’s no substitute for drivers who truly take ownership in the condition of their equipment and the safety and efficiency of their driving. Figure out how to achieve that, and you will solve a problem that has plagued trucking for at least a century.

Avery vise is Editorial Director of Commercial Carrier Journal.

E-mail avise@ccjmagazine.com.