Safety First, Reducing Liability Second

While reducing liability is a plus, keeping people safe should be the primary goal of freight companies.

Mark Murrell

The worst time to realize your fleet’s safety program doesn’t measure up is when you’re answering attorneys’ questions in court or at a deposition.

Yet, even the best companies can find themselves in that uncomfortable position. If they do, one of the first places the plaintiffs' attorney will look for material to help their case is the fleet's safety training program.

In the process of working with fleets and insurance providers on driver training, it's found that issues that prove to be the most damning for fleets often occur when they don't give as much thought to their driving training program when they should. 

One significant trigger is evidence of insufficient or negligent training in the fleets’ own records. Claims specialists at leading insurance providers say that during the deposition process or in court, the plaintiff’s attorneys will often ask for the fleets’ training records.

“Attorneys have a checklist of things they ought to be requesting,” Don Huston, senior claims specialist with Sentry Insurance explains. “We’re seeing the records-request letters more often.”

Another potential trigger? Lack of evidence the training programs were ever implemented. No matter how good the program is, just because it exists doesn't mean it was ever implemented. Risk management experts explain that without something to verify training took place, courts will likely assume it never happened.

Implementation and documentation can be key to reducing a fleet’s legal liability. The primary purpose of good safety programs should be to keep workers, customers and the motoring public safe from harm. Since they can lower the numbers of injury claims and the amounts of potential damage, safety programs may also help fleets save money by keeping insurance rates steady. Safety programs can also improve recruitment and retention. After all, employees are more likely to go to work for and stay with companies that create and maintain safe work environments. Reaping all those benefits requires fleets take a more proactive approach to ensure their programs are as strong as they should be.

A good safety program:

  • Needs to be real with a strong plan of implementation.

        Too often fleets assume that when drivers pass their CDL exams and are granted a commercial driver’s license, they’ve received all of their required training.  “Frankly, what we don’t see enough of is any basic process for even basic formal driver training. The assumption is, ‘I’ve got a driver that’s passed his exam, he’s got a CDL’ and that’s enough to get him on the road,” says Daniel Grant, Sentry’s director of safety services for transportation.

        An effective program instills in drivers and employees that safety is not only a significant part of the company’s culture, but also an ongoing process. The program must give drivers the tools and best practices for being safe on the road and at pickup and delivery points. It needs to provide regular feedback to employee and employer about effectiveness in terms of improved safety performance.

        While some fleet managers might think holding a driver meeting and showing their drivers a training video is good enough, jurors can be convinced to look at the situation much differently.

  • Must have continuous implementation.

        Insurance companies say that one of the most common deficiencies in training programs is a lack of ongoing driver engagement. Safety policies may get a mention during the orientation session, but those meetings are also taken up by paperwork, such as forms drivers fill out to indicate where they want their paychecks deposited.

  • Ought to continue for all drivers, regardless of seniority, for as long as they work for the company.
  • Should remind and reinforce the lessons drivers learned in previous training sessions.

        It is found that training programs are the most effective when employees start to have the program's steps engrained in their thought processes. As just one example - when experienced drivers have received repeated courses on defensive driving, they’re more likely to apply that training in an emergency.

  • Be well-documented.

Shane Cutler, founder of Cutler Transportation Compliance Management Services (CTCMS), which provides risk assessment, driver training and regulatory compliance to freight-hauling companies, is adamant about documentation.

“Without the verified training in the files, you can only assume the company didn’t do what it was supposed to do,” he says. Record keeping in the form of training booklets that drivers sign at the beginning or end of the training session, and are quickly filed away won’t cut it.

Thorough, detail-rich recordkeeping should include details such as when the training took place and for how long. What kind of training did drivers receive and on what topics? Was there any measurement taken regarding the drivers’ understanding and retention of the material? If there were any subjects drivers needed to review or work on, what sort of follow-up was done?

When companies face liability claims, the ability to produce records demonstrating a serious, concerted effort in safety training can significantly reduce the amount of a potential settlement. The daily stresses and strains of running a business sometimes push the development and implementation of a good safety program to the background. Lack of attention can wind up making a weak or non-existent program a liability. More importantly, insufficient or non-existent training can become accidents waiting to happen.