Safety’s Price

In for-hire trucking applications, the feds found produce haulers and cold food fleets had the highest incident rates. Less-than-truckload and tank haulers were, on average, the safest.

One key factor contributing to the difference in safety performance is driver pay, say safety and industry experts. “Truckers who haul produce are among the lowest paid in the industry,” says Michael Belzer, author of Sweatshops on Wheels and an expert in transportation and industrial wages. “Conversely, LTL truckers receive some of the highest pay.”

Belzer, who has just completed another study on pay and safety, says trucking companies with higher pay scales may have lower incident rates because they attract and retain better drivers.

“Higher pay reduces turnover and increases age and experience,” Belzer says. “It becomes worth driving more carefully for many drivers because the job is better than it was before.” By contrast, a driver who makes very little and is paid on a per-mile basis must drive farther to earn enough money, Belzer says. That driver has an incentive to speed or to drive over his hours.

The Motor Carrier Industry Profile Study meshes many sources of safety statistics to rank trucking segments in nine safety categories. Officials from the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration and the Federal Highway Administration say their ongoing study has not yet addressed why segments perform as they do, although several load-specific factors may contribute to poor performance. In produce and cold food hauling, for example, perishable freight and a migrant work force might affect safety. Produce hauling has a higher share of older equipment and drivers who use English as a second language, and might for those reasons experience higher accident and out-of-service rates, but those angles haven’t been researched.


This chart shows three of the nine safety categories in which the Motor Carrier Industry Profile Study ranks trucking segments. The ranking is based on factors such as inspections, out-of-service rates and accident data.

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1=Safest 10=Least Safe

  1. Tank
  2. LTL
  3. Bulk
  4. Intermodal
  5. Large machinery
  6. Building materials
  7. Truckload
  8. Household goods
  9. Produce
  10. Cold food
  1. LTL
  2. Household goods
  3. Tank
  4. Cold food
  5. Bulk
  6. Produce
  7. Truckload
  8. Building materials
  9. Large machinery
  10. Intermodal
  1. LTL
  2. Tank
  3. Intermodal
  4. Household goods
  5. Large machinery
  6. Building materials
  7. Truckload
  8. Cold food
  9. Bulk
  10. Produce

John Sallak, director of safety and training for the Oregon Trucking Association, also sees other factors in the safety equation. Many LTL drivers are home every night and have established routes, both of which enhance safety. Petroleum drivers generally haul locally and have low turnover rates, contributing to the high safety rating of the tanker segment, Sallak says. On the other hand, produce haulers, who tend to be over-the-road drivers with unpredictable schedules, would likely be among the most unsafe.

Although the study has not yet drawn this conclusion, the link between pay and safety is well known to insurers, says Norris L. Beren, a consultant for Risk Reduction Education Inc. and a retired commercial insurance broker. “Pay is a matter of attitude,” Beren says. “When a company pays its drivers well, there are a lot of benefits. The driver can say, ‘I can earn a good wage and don’t have to kill myself. I don’t have to do things that may cause me to have a wreck.'”

Though he sees other factors at work, Sallak says pay is indeed a key issue in safety. “Someone who is paid by something other than the hour may have an incentive to work longer hours and push harder,” he says.

Fleets looking to improve safety by raising pay may achieve the desired results, but may also face the problem of pricing themselves out of the market. “Those companies that don’t pay as much can still be safe,” Sallak says. “They just have to have much better management in place.”

Belzer, a Wayne State University professor and academic director of the university’s Industrial Relations Program, is finalizing a safety study with trucking giant J.B. Hunt. Hunt’s average pay increased more than 10 cents per mile, which lowered the probability of crashes by 2 percent.

“But where the pay starts has a much bigger impact,” he says. The study suggests that a fleet can reduce crash probability by as much as 34 percent for a 10 percent increase in base pay.

Pay increases have other positive effects, Belzer says. J.B. Hunt’s drivers became more efficient, logging more miles per driver. Hunt’s higher wages improved turnover and attracted drivers who were married, older and more stable. The study also found that each year of tenure a driver has on the job reduces accident probability by 16 percent.

Belzer says the industry needs to ask some tough questions if it really wants to improve safety. “What can we do to draw people into the industry who will give us that reduction in crash rates?”

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