The Right Attitude
Adelaide-based long distance refrigerated carrier Bob Fountain Transport is pioneering DriverSafe profiling of new and existing employees. The spin-off is a lower insurance excess and improved road safety.
Story by Paul Sullivan
Bob Fountain Transport (BFT) has travelled a long way down the path of workplace improvement since adopting TruckSafe in 1998 - in particular the implementation of staged runs, satellite vehicle tracking and DriverSafe profiling. It's an added cost, but that's the price of progress.
BFT carry prime contract produce and chilled freight, plus some general, along the demanding Adelaide-Brisbane-Adelaide corridor. For fatigue management, the company offers drivers' accommodation at each end, with changeover stations at Broken Hill and Bogabilla.
A team of local workers are also employed at each end to load and unload.
Only one B-Double operates as a two-up team, which is the drivers' preference.
General manager Julie Platt says the changeover schedules, plus a rented cabin and motel en-route, are an additional overhead but the company is copping it sweet. She believes the days are numbered for operators who resist the momentum for safety-driven cultural change in the industry.
"You can't stick your head in the sand and hope the pressure for change will go away," she warns, "I do think the process has to be gradual, however - you can't change everything overnight.
"Even a few small changes in work practices will set the ball rolling and, if you haven't already, you need to start now."
Initially, BFT faced apprehension from its drivers. Staged runs limit their earnings capacity.
"We compromised by paying half the lost leg of our staged runs. We didn't want to lose our best drivers - you've got to work with them," she explains.
"They understand fatigue is an issue we take very seriously - for example, if we are a subcontractor looking a bit weary, we'll put one of our drivers in for part of the run."
Managing director Bob Fountain is passionate about his business and staff. He lives and breathes the transport industry. It's a tough game, but he insists the rewards add up to more than just dollars and cents.
So you can understand why Fountain shakes his head as he describes the hefty insurance premium hikes heaped on long haul refrigerated carriers. He believes suppliers should adopt a "boots and all" approach to trucking; not pick and choose the profitable sectors.
"If fridge vans are a higher risk, insurance companies need to work with the operators - not discriminate against them. If there's one flower in the garden and you nurture it, maybe the others will come through as well," he reasons.
Sterling Risk Services (SRS), who are underwritten by Lloyds of London, proved a breath of fresh air. Risk manager John Bottomley was impressed by the company's commitment to safety and encouraged BFT to adopt its Good Management Program (GMP).
Stringent driver recruitment practices are a key element of the GMP initiative. Julie Platt describes the process, which begins on placing a vacancy advert in the local newspaper.
"We state from the outset that applicants will face rigorous risk assessments. It puts some people off, but they are the ones you don't want to employ anyway," she explains.
Job seekers who pass the phone interview are asked to bring along a resume, references, license and logbook history. Applicants must also arrive smartly dressed and well groomed.
A driver declaration, RTA/transport agency histories, criminal background checks and a medical test for diabetes are also an employment pre-requisite.
"We give them an on-road assessment and a knowledge test when they arrive, which includes questions like how often should you drain the air tanks?" she continues.
Short-listed candidates are then asked to undergo PaQS (People and Quality Solutions) testing.
PaQS-ARM tests are an element of DriverSafe - an initiative pioneered by the South Australian Road Transport Association (SARTA) and funded by the Motor Accidents Commission. It measures drivers' attitudes to safety, risk avoidance and stress against national competency standards.
"I thought it was a load of rubbish at first. How can a questionnaire tell you whether a driver is suitable or not?" Platt asks.
Since then she's been happy to be proved wrong. One driver known to the company appeared well qualified on paper, but the test highlighted and confirmed suspicions of his high-risk attitude. He didn't get the job.
BFT didn't stop at driver recruitment. Existing drivers were put through the same process of knowledge tests and DriverSafe to assess their training needs and attitudes to risk.
Each BFT driver attended a full day assessment and training workshop. Risk traits identified by the exercise are highlighted to the drivers, who are then asked to write down their own action plan.
'Problem' drivers are provided with self-educational booklets, CDs and videos that include simple safety messages.
"Educating staff pays off ten fold. Bob has one driver who he drove two-up with years ago - they go back a long way - but he still went through the whole process," adds Platt. "There were no exceptions."
Employer support is crucial, but the onus is on the driver to change. SARTA executive director Steve Shearer says DriverSafe is based on fundamental psychology. It measures risk-taking behaviour, tolerance to stress and personal responsibility for safety.
"It compares each driver to the profile of the general population. Pointing out their poor attitude to risk is enough motivation for most drivers to modify their behaviour. It gets all over all the male macho crap."
"Any rational person would respond to it, because we all want to retire safe and healthy."
Shearer likens the process to a motorcyclist, who has just secured their licence. Inexperienced riders who push too hard and experience a near miss get a reality check. Most modify their behaviour and start backing-off.
"DriverSafe is a similar concept. Only a crazy bastard is comfortable with high risk behaviour once it is staring them in the face," he says.
Julie Platt is impressed with the results. One BFT local driver failed the DriverSafe assessment (scoring less than 35) and his insurance excess doubled. After debriefing, he was told to return for re-testing in three months.
"He came back from the second test beaming and told me he'd passed. His score and attitude to work had improved incredibly," she says.
"It's a lot of extra paperwork, but it gets results. A lot of drivers walk away, but those people will never fit in here. We've got some of the best and most experienced drivers in the industry," she says.
Now the company is in a position to explore means of attracting young people into the trucking industry and promoting career opportunities in local schools. BFT already employ three apprentice diesel mechanics in its workshop.
Bob Fountain wants to take the driver psychology element further by introducing a low cost, nationally recognized system to acknowledge and reward drivers' skills and experience. He insists it's essential for a genuine cultural change.
"Drivers want a pat on the back, but generally don't get one. A certification scheme will help develop the drivers and give them something tangible to show for their efforts.
"I was a driver for 20 years and did six million kilometers, but I've nothing to show for it except a license. We need a career progression program that recognizes milestones - such as five years or a million kilometers safe driving; and so on.
"It's also a certificate of achievement you can take anywhere to demonstrate your credentials as a professional driver.
"Operators could retain their best drivers by offering dollar incentives for attaining each level."
Although Bob Fountain is full of drive and enthusiasm to develop the idea, he's looking for expressions of support and help for its implementation. It could supplement existing New Apprenticeship and Transport & Distribution Qualifications.
Recruiting and retaining good professional drivers also requires the right equipment on the road. BFT reckon their Kenworths are worth dollars in the pay packet when it comes to attracting and retaining good drivers.
Bob Fountain runs a mix of road-trains and B-doubles; including a handful of tow operators.
The fleet comprises of T604 and T904 conventional roadtrains, plus K-series Kenworths pulling the B-double trailers. All the trucks are equipped with GPS tracking and are powered by 600hp rated Caterpillar engines.
"Fatigue-wise, the extra power makes the driver more comfortable and the driving easier traveling up and down hills," observes Julie Platt.
"Kenworths are the toughest truck around and we travel on some of the hardest routes you'll find. It's built for the drivers; a home-away-from-home complete with fridges and everything."
Clearly, the combination of the right systems, people and equipment is working. BFT has grown enormously in the last year, on the back of its reputation for reliable and personal service in both Adelaide and Brisbane.
Bob Fountain is now grappling customer pressure to extend the fleet's services further along the Eastern Seaboard.
"You have to have everything 100 percent. We know the Adelaide-Brisbane run and our clients. If you branch out elsewhere and there's a problem, it also reflects on your core business," he says.
"We won't expand into other areas until we're confident we can deliver."
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