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Bigger trucking companies can afford to invest in safety programs.
With only a few very prominent exceptions, America’s largest trucking companies are also its safest—witness. Some carriers boast less than one accident per million miles driven; Several others have comparable accident rates. The most successful companies invest heavily in safety training and promotion; and routinely recognize and reward employees for distinguished safety records. At the other end of the scale, among the 100 companies with safety records so abominable they have triggered alerts from the United States Department of Transportation, 80% have fewer than five drivers, and they naturally devote all of their resources to keeping their drivers and trucks on the road. Even if analysis disqualified because of intra-state operations, all eight of the remaining top ten companies would satisfy the equation (bigger) = (safer) and least in respect to stats and safety concerns.
In all trucking companies, profit and loss drive company interests and this sometimes causes them to disregard safety in smaller companies. The bigger the company, the more it must invest in safety to keep insurance and labor costs in line; and, of course, they achieve economies-of-scale, because statistics naturally tend to improve as sample sizes increase. In big companies, vehicle damage and operator injuries cost more than strict adherence to safety guidelines. Training programs cost less than workers’ compensation and personal injury settlements. Keeping just one trailer or tractor out of service costs a big company thousands in lost revenue each day, because the trailer normally remains in service around the clock while the company runs three eight-hour shifts. Moreover, because the top ten companies own their own trucks and pay their drivers hourly wages, they maintain tight supervision of vehicle maintenance, reducing the risk of accidents due to equipment failure; and they similarly minimize their risk of accidents due to driver fatigue by refusing to pay overtime. Hourly-wage drivers have little if any incentive to push themselves and their trucks beyond the Hours of Service limits.
Four frequent offenders
The exceptions proving the rule, four of America’s top 100 trucking companies have become notorious for violating safety guidelines and exploiting their drivers. Those trucking companies appear on drivers’ watch-lists, because they routinely encourage drivers to violate hours and equipment safety guidelines, and they are rumored to advise drivers to falsify their logbooks. Their statistics support drivers’ claims of abuse and exploitation: All four have shown rising fatality rates over the last ten years despite industry-wide declines in fatal accidents. Even more revealing, statistics show fatalities per number of power units steadily have increased in these companies. The most frequent and flagrant among the four decidedly dangerous carriers, over the last decade has sustained an industry-worst one fatality for every 400 trucks in service. That number translates to one fatality for every half-million miles, and it contrasts sharply with safest company benchmark—less than one accident per million miles.
Employment and compensation affect safety records.
Those companies known to repeatedly violate safety guidelines prefer to hire owner-operators as independent contractors, paying them by the mile. A cursory examination of cents-per-mile suggests independent contractors represent the industry’s income elite while company drivers are little more than pedal-pushing drones. One company pays $0.91 per mile to its long-haul owner operators, and their rates can go up if they stay contracted with the company for more than three years. Company drivers among the top 100 truckers, by contrast, earn only $0.25 per mile.
One key variable turns the contrast on its head, though. Company drivers do not deduct taxes and operating expenses from their per-mile compensation; independents do. The latest, most accurate studies indicate owner-operators net only $0.07 per mile even with contractors paying their insurance, highway taxes, and tolls. Therefore, they have overwhelming incentive to log as many miles as they can. A company driver averages 125,000 miles per year; an independent typically logs nearly 200,000 miles. Company drivers average forty-one hours every workweek; owner-operators average sixty hours per week. The correlations among time, miles, and accident rates are clear.