If you are tuning in late in this series of articles, the subject is last week’s Dan Rather Reports HD Net show titled “Queen of The Road.” In this program, Dan Rather interviews trucker Desiree Wood regarding her experiences in training to drive the big rigs. Part 1 explores the actual law governing CDL training. Part 2 explores why the law is so lax and how Congress managed to create the situation while totally oblivious to the consequences. Part 3 is a personal account of my own experience with a CDL mill in 1991 – remarkably similar to Desiree’s. Part 4 is about my own experience with a carrier-owned ‘finishing’ school with some observations on changes over the years.
If you haven’t seen the Dan Rather Reports segment, you can now view it for free at Ask The Trucker. The owner of Ask The Trucker website, Allen Smith and his wife Donna, were instrumental in helping Desiree get some publicity for this timely safety and human rights issue. You can find TruckerDesiree here.
Today we’ll look at some of trainer Tom and trainee Desiree’s statements about the world of CDL training. Unfortunately, everything they said was true. There are tons of trainers out there like Tom who want to do the best possible job of training truckers – as a matter of personal pride, as a service to the students and as a safety issue for the benefit of the motoring public. And, a great many of them, perhaps the majority, end up leaving the field. They just cant prevail against the never-ending short-cuts made by those looking to pad the bottom line.
Something has happened in the trucking industry since deregulation: where once you had small companies, often family-owned who saw the company’s reputation as an extension of the family name, now you find huge loosely-confederated groups of investors calling the shots. Most of them have never been in a truck and wouldn't think of ever being involved in the business. Transport stocks used to be a staid, steady slow-return investment. Returns averaged less than 5%. Two years ago, returns were running around 18%. That’s because trucking was managed to make big profits, often at the expense of safety. Certainly at the expense of drivers! The big boys on Wall Street have gotten involved. The new managers see finance as their business, not trucking. Because the same investor groups are also invested in the main shippers there is no enthusiasm to raise freight rates to keep profits steady. Indeed, their involvement with both arms of the freight business leads them to initiate decision-making to keep rates low even in the face of inflation and high fuel prices – a clear conflict of interest.
Many top management people at the larger carriers will tell you, with some pride, that they operate on the Jack Welch principles of management. Although they have so far been unable to off-shore truckers (they’re still working on that), they HAVE attempted to off-shore all of the business they reasonably could. And the drivers are seen as the ‘cash cows’ in the system of dogs, cash cows and stars. What do you do with cows? You milk them. When you can finally manage to use foreign carriers to haul your brokered freight, those cash cow drivers will now be dogs – and they’ll be shoved out the door. The new breed of management is hired to do just that. They cry all the way to the bank.
According to the new management hired by most of the top carriers in the past ten years, wages were too high. The solution was to attrition the experienced drivers out as quickly as possible so they could be replaced by new trainees who would start work at a cheaper rate. In trucking, you don't lay them off – you starve them out. You just keep them on the road spending out-of-pocket to eat with not enough miles to make a reasonable paycheck and don't let them go home. Or, you can cheat them on their bonuses, knowing they arent likely to take you to small claims court because you, as the employer, can make their lives a living hell. Or, you say they had a complaint call – never verified, never backed up with a name and particulars. There are a million accusations you can make against a guy who’s not in sight and, by necessity, needs to make on-the-spot decisions. Make sure you develop a documented ‘pattern of poor past performance’ in case they fight back. Eventually, you’ll get a voluntary resignation and keep your Unemployment Compensation costs at a very low level. Sometimes, if you’re really feeling evil, you can turn in a bad DAC report on them to make it hard for them to find another job. And, now you need to train this driver’s replacement – just as fast as you can. With this revolving door, you sooner or later exhaust all of the available qualified applicants in an area. So, you lower your hiring standards.
Several years ago, in response to ‘the driver shortage’, there were programs instituted in prison systems to train truck drivers. This was apparently a federal effort: that should tell you what the federal government thinks of the transportation workforce. Most prison inmates have, at the very least, shown bad judgment. Is this who you want driving beside you on the interstate? As a group, they’re prone to drug abuse, violence and the entire range of social aberration. If you’re the carrier, can you imagine taking them out of prison, giving them over $100,000 worth of equipment and a load sometimes worth many hundreds of thousands of dollars and just tossing them the keys and saying, “see ya next week!” Would you want this person for a co-driver, one upon whom your life depends?
The carrier I worked for instituted a program, during one of their self-created ‘driver shortages’ to hire inner-city long-term unemployed. Whereas ten years before they wouldn't consider a new hire without a stellar, long-term work history, they now were hiring people who had never held a job and in many cases, were incapable of holding a job. They were also often incapable of being thoroughly trained. A great many good trainers quit training as they refused to sign their name to an unqualified driver. During that period of time I got a fleet message on the Qualcomm saying, “We are experiencing a number of injury claims due to falling out of the truck . . “ The company finally decided hiring from the bottom would never work and strengthened their standards somewhat. They have since, during this economic downturn, quit training drivers altogether.
Training is seen by the ‘new breed’ of management as a good place to cut costs. Based on this carrier’s former good reputation as a training company, new management felt safe in cutting the trainer’s pay to the level they could no longer keep experienced trainers. They finally were reduced to utilizing as trainers drivers who had first gotten in the truck three months before. These people were not remotely competent. At some time in the last few years, they cut the training school from 3 weeks to 2 weeks. Management also decided it wasn’t crucial that trainees be able to read a map or plan a route: they developed a new, high-tech, totally inadequate software system that would tell them what roads to take. It was a disaster as the mapping program it was built upon wasn't truck specific. As there are truck-specific programs commercially available, I cornered one of senior management (if you can call a twenty-something IT kid senior management) and asked him why the company didn't just buy one of the already marketed programs; certainly it would be cheaper than all of the truck damage, lost loads and drivers and continued upheaval throughout the system. He told me, with a haughty look (how dare I, a lowly truck driver, question their judgment?) that then it ‘couldn't be branded’! The entire fleet was in total chaos for months because some tech guru wanted to come up with a saleable software program! And, guess what? They DID sell that broken system to other fleets, whose drivers now suffer under it also. And, got several technology awards! What’s this got to do with driving a truck? Not much at all . . .but that’s where these managers have their heads while the industry sinks to impossibly low levels.
I can almost bet this was the same group who decided they could start training new students on ‘simulators’. I quickly learned not to call it the ‘million dollar video game’ but that’s exactly what it is. They used the excuse that younger students were ‘a different kind of learner.’ Using the simulators, they could cut road time even farther. Experts have stated that simulators will never take the place of expert road training, but that has been ignored completely. The lack of solid training shows out on the road in stupid mistakes, trucks rolled from taking curves too fast, failure to maintain their lane and other highly dangerous maneuvers. They also still send new drivers out as teams with other new drivers. This can lead to exactly the kinds of harassment problems Desiree speaks about. Safety? That’s what those banks of lawyers are kept on retainer for. If they’ve crossed all the ‘t's’ and dotted all the ‘i’s’, they usually win by superior legal firepower. They all belong to the same trade organization that lobbies in their interest, accepts government grants to perform research to support their pre-conceived suppositions and swears on a stack of DOT regulation green books that their sole concern is safety.
It’s a cut-throat business and they delight in seeing other carriers go down for the third time. They’ll even help hold them under. Because, ridding themselves of competition is the name of the game and allows them to grow larger. Yet, because they’ve developed this system within their trade organization/lobbying group, they all band together when Congress finally demands answers and, like Eddie Haskell, tell them their hands are tied . . drivers just aren't regulated enough! If they only had more regulations, then they’d be able to watch these drivers closer and these things wouldn't happen. Invariably, they get the new regs. And, more experienced drivers leave the field in disgust.
What can be done? For one thing, truckers and interested parties need to band together with the Owner-Operators Independent Drivers Association (OOIDA) – the only group that lobbies on the drivers’ behalf - and demand better requirements for driver training. Another useful idea is a graduated CDL with which there would be a training license and, after a certain amount of time or miles, a full CDL. That would assure that new trainees weren’t turned loose alone on the highways without a fully certified, experienced driver until they gained the competence to handle the truck correctly. It would drive costs and wages up. (Trucker wages are now lower than they were in 1980 in non-adjusted dollars.) And, trucking companies might lose the glitter that has attracted so many greedy investors if they were thus prevented from making a profit at the expense of drivers and the motoring public. It would certainly improve safety.
Take a lesson from the lobbying group the major carriers have formed and put our petty differences aside long enough to demand better. Do it for the great driving professionals who’ve been fighting this monster for years with no end in sight. And, for the motoring public. Everyone deserves the best safety standards we can give them, including ourselves.