Rich Wilson’s ‘state of the industry’; and MCSAC apnea update

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Rich WilsonYou’re likely to remember Rich Wilson (pictured), former owner-operator and current regulatory manager with the Trans Products/Trans Services company, for his part in the Truck Driver Social Media Convention last fall, where he urged the drivers and owner-operators in attendance really be a part of the regulatory process — on the front end, in the planning stages, before the regs were written and codified and, well, gained staying power.

Wilson himself was at the Motor Carrier Safety Advisory and Medical Review Board joint sleep apnea subcommittee meeting in Washington last week, where he reports committee members worked at drafting language for potential official medical guidance on the sleep apnea condition. The upshot of the subcomittee’s conclusions? “It’s not looking positive for the industry,” Wilson says. “The BMI [screening] standard is likely to be between 31 and 35. The last number I really heard talk of was 31. That was probably going to be the guideline. They tended to lean toward 33 for a while – and a size 17 neck.”

As committee members debated standards, Wilson says, the general consensus was that a sleep apnea diagnosis would be a “disqualifiable diagnosis with a stand-down,” meaning a driver diagnosed with the condition would be required to undergo treatment to be reinstated. The next meeting of the full MCSAC committee Feb. 6-9 will see further action on the issue, Wilson notes. Watch for details about it to emerge at MCSAC’s website.

More broadly, Wilson’s thinking on where the industry is today is reflected in the analysis that follows, a sort of state-of-the-industry that began as a response to another post put up for discussion on the LinkedIn business networking site. I thought I’d throw it out there for you, as it contains clear indications as to why he thinks the sleep apnea debate will be a net negative for the business of trucking. He gets into what he sees developing in the realms of safety and opportunity, given the current unsettled regulatory environment and perhaps equally unsettled economy. My question for you: Is he correct? Are we in fact headed down a path that leads ultimately to no improvement in “conditions, pay, rewards, trust and attitudes toward drivers”? His full commentary follows.

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I think that the major players in our industry are taking a “sit back and see” attitude to future regulations, including estimates of how they will affect their bottom lines. With hours of service changes, potential EOBR mandates, driver medical qualifications changes and the institution of the National Registry of Certified Medical Examiners (among which I think some are good and some unnecessary), how will the bottom line be affected?

Example: The new restart provision ultimately means fewer available hours of work time, more equipment, and more support personnel and, ultimately, more drivers will be needed to deal with the same logistical tonnage. The two 1 a.m. to 5 a.m. provisions will create more heavy truck traffic during the already cluttered rush hour traffic jam, placing more trucks in the currently overburdened infrastructure, and cause increased crash rates by just adding additional trucks to the highways. Take into consideration that I did not mention any more revenue generated, just more trucks and drivers to haul the same amount of product. Some smaller carriers and owner-operators will feel the pressures, and try to adapt, but I can see a culture developing of violators just trying to survive.

Point 1: This is not a safe culture, either.

Point 2: More trucks mean more drivers, of course, and there is a discernible shortage of “qualified” drivers today. Average ages of over-the-road drivers have been getting higher and higher and in the last seven years and have increased from 47 to almost 53. Look at the numbers — it’s not older drivers entering our industry; it’s the phenomenon of the current drivers getting older and not many new drivers coming into the industry to replace them. These same 50+ drivers are slowly being shuffled out of the industry by more stringent medical standards as well. If you get rid of all your turkeys, you’ll not have any for Thanksgiving! If you get rid of all the older drivers and don’t replace them, you’re going to have a bunch of empty seats.

This brings up Point 3: Carriers have to fill the seats of the additional trucks, likewise the trucks vacated by the older drivers. Our industry, considered in total, has a weak training and mentoring system now! The so-called “CDL-mill” companies that generate more actual dollars from the company truck driver training schools than they do from freight in some cases have a 15 percent success rate putting those drivers in their trucks. At the same time, there’s in the neighborhood of a 4 percent retention rate for those same drivers that survive or stay with the carriers past the 274-day average retention period. This means they are collecting unpaid educational fees from more than 81 percent of the trainees that don’t make it. Those drivers are paying for the balance owed for the schooling, because of contractual agreements made when entering the school for another four to five years. Oh yeah, this encourages students to stay with the companies. So now we are still not filling the empty seats, or we are filling them with less-qualified or inadequately trained drivers. The larger companies will have to lower standards and place drivers behind the wheel quicker to keep the fleets moving and meet the proposed new regulations.

Point 4: These additional regulations are being implemented to lower crash and fatality rates, and, let’s be frank, to appease P.A.T.T., C.R.A.S.H., the DOT, FMCSA, NTSB and Advocates for Highway Safety we as an industry have reduced the crash and fatality rates over many years and have learned to live with the current regulations. They have shoved CSA at us, making drivers more accountable, and we have listened and adapted — and it’s working.

Regulations that will result in more traffic to move the same tonnage, less qualified and trained drivers to haul it, and fewer drivers in aggregate as CSA scores will force carriers to remove problem drivers to prevent an “intervention” is no formula for safety improvement. It will do nothing but increase crashes and fatalities and totally eradicate all the improvements we have accomplished by trying to improve the industry, as well as provide additional ammunition for the advocacy groups to further restrict our industry.

Improving conditions, pay, rewards, trust and attitudes toward drivers begins with the companies being able to afford improvements. I don’t see an atmosphere right now allowing that, or any company taking a chance with pending rules and unknowns venturing in a new direction for driver improvement. I see a recipe for disaster created by the burden of new regulations, and additional costs to the carriers to comply. One of the first cuts in an economically strapped company is resources for safety, and cutting safety will improve nothing.
–Rich Wilson, Regulatory Manager, Trans Products / Trans Services