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Sticker Shock

By on May 3, 2010
RoadKing Mag

For decades, many tractor-trailers have sported a decal with a message asking for feedback. A simple question, “How’s my driving?” and a toll-free number to answer are offered to others on the road.
Before the proliferation of cell phones and near-perfect cell signals along America’s highways, motorists would have to  pull off the road and find a phone at a truckstop to lodge a complaint. By the time they reached the call center operator with their comments, the trucker in question could be 100 miles down the road and the caller’s memory of the incident would be clouded.

Now, with every motorist and passenger packing a reliable cell phone, professional drivers can expect to get more feedback — both negative and positive — from their four-wheeled neighbors on the asphalt.

Real-time complaints
With improved 800 number reporting technology, Jim Powers, president of Powerline Freight Systems Inc., Chandler, Ind., says he can now talk to one of his drivers about a complaint while he’s still in the cab.
“I don’t talk to them while they’re driving, but I get a message to them to pull over and give me a call,’’ Powers says. Then he can play the audio, and the complaint suddenly takes on more meaning for the driver.

While 800 number reporting services have been around for about 20 years, both the frequency of calls and the quality of information has increased rapidly over the past several years. Real-time reporting means eagle-eyed motorists can provide loads of specific information about the habits of truck drivers that can be quickly conveyed back to the truckers.

Professional drivers, who at one time may have discounted the calls invited by bright decals on the back of their rigs, now have more cause for concern. Callers today are asked to stay on the line and report if the truck driver is wearing a safety belt, talking on a phone, eating, reading a newspaper or doing anything that would result in a violation of the carrier’s safety policies.

The complete complaint call is zipped into a recorded computer file and transmitted to the trucking company, which can then review the call with the driver.

Calls to the trucking companies’ 800 number services are up 20 percent over the past five years, and are providing valuable information about drivers, according to Gale Blackburn, vice president of marketing for Drivers’ Alert, based in Lighthouse Point, Fla. The company’s call center takes 45,000 calls per month. Trained screeners and a review process weed out calls with unreliable information. As a result, the reports and recorded calls turned over to the trucking companies carry some real weight.

Acts as deterrent
Blackburn says one trucking company client is certain that every driver who has logged three complaints will eventually have a traffic crash. Adding the decals to the trucks acts as a deterrent to reckless driving, Blackburn says, noting that  the State of Georgia Department of Administrative Services reported a 21 percent decrease in crashes in its first three months of using the service.

Utah-based C.R. England Co. has seen an increase in calls since it started an in-house decal program for its fleet of 3,600 trailers five years ago, according to Dustin England, the safety director. England believes real-time reporting from cell phone-toting passengers is yielding better information that can be used to correct a driver’s bad habits.

At first drivers didn’t like the 800 number program, and the company would find decal numbers obscured by drivers in an attempt to avoid facing complaints, England says. But there is a grudging acceptance now. The company gives some benefit of the doubt to its professional drivers, and uses the calls only as one of many measures of driver safety.

“If a driver gets a call once every couple of years, it’s not a big deal. If we start to see a pattern, that’s when we become worried,’’ England says. “If we continue to get calls from different people in different locations, it’s clearly the driver’s issue.’’

The company considers a pattern of complaints when evaluating a driver with employment issues, but has never terminated somebody based on those observations. “We always have to be careful how we use this information,’’ England says.

Fair, unbiased

England also contracts with the Tampa, Fla.-based Is My Driving Safe? for professional monitoring of its drivers. The service employs mostly retired and off-duty police or State Patrol officers to perform random checks of truckers, noting their speed, following distance and habits that might impact safety.

These reports, frequently now accompanied by dash cam observations, are seen by some in the trucking industry as fairer, unbiased assessments than motorist complaints, which may be fueled by road rage or a lack of understanding about safe truck driving. Is My Driving Safe? founder Ryan McDonald believes dash cam observation may one day be as prevalent as the 800 number services.

McDonald estimates that about 45 percent of the rigs on America’s roadways carry 800 number decals. By comparison, his company’s relatively new Target Surveillance Program fields 100 monitors, 30 of them with dash cam capability. While trucking companies often pay for the decal programs on a per-truck basis, the target monitoring is paid for on a per-report basis.

“Like anything else you buy, if you want every bell and whistle on it, you have to pay for the luxury,’’ says Dave Taylor, compliance coordinator for 200 drivers for Nestle Foods, Allentown, Pa.

Powerline’s Jim Powers is intrigued by the dash cam surveillance idea, but he wants to take it one step further for his 133-truck fleet.

“My goal is to put an onboard camera on all of my trucks, and I’m actively looking for the technology where I can do it at a reasonable cost,’’ says Powers. “We’re constantly pounding safety into drivers’ heads every week.’’

It’s not all bad
In fact, drivers are just as concerned with safety, and even that gets noticed. Several trucking companies surveyed said that between 10 and 40 percent of the calls they receive from the decals are complimentary toward their drivers. They say it’s somewhat surprising how many people will get on their cell phones to say a trucker was courteous on the road.

Some companies give drivers certificates of appreciation when they get a complimentary call. Some post the transcripts of the positive calls on a bulletin board at company headquarters. Still, discovering that there are people on the road who appreciate their skills has to be any driver’s greatest reward.

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