NASHVILLE. Garth Pitzel will tell you that in the 1990s, as Bison Transport grew into one of North America’s largest fleets by adding over 100 trucks a year, the company aimed just to be “compliant” with safety regulations while focusing more on how to deliver customer freight on time, every time.

Yet Pitzel, Bison’s director of safety and driver development, said that mindset left the carrier with a 35% to 40% driver turnover rate along with insurance claims that fluctuated in “extreme peaks and valleys,” leaving Bison at “the mercy of results” which “affected our insurance rates terribly.”

To change that situation, Bison embarked on a broad safety culture change in 2001 that at its heart focused on getting its drivers home safely after every trip.

“It’s about caring; demonstrating respect for your people by caring for their safety,” Pitzel explained during a presentation here at the 2017 Truckload Carriers Association (TCA) annual meeting. “At the end of the day, you are making decisions first and foremost focused on the safety of your people.”

That mindset is one reason he said Bison maintains one of the best trucking safety records in North America. For example, last year, it placed first in the 100 million mile category in the annual Safe Fleet Award competition organized by the American Trucking Associations: the sixth year in a row Bison has received first place.

“The results that make these achievements possible do not happen on their own,” Pitzel noted. "It takes every driver and staff member supporting our culture of safety to obtain these incredible results by making the right decisions each and every day over each mile they drive.”

Other results Pitzel tagged to Bison’s safety culture overhaul include:

  • A turnover rate that is now 20% with only 6% of that caused by safety issues. “The number one reasons drivers used to leave us was because of our safety culture; now it is the number one reason they join us,” he noted.
  • A “flat-lining” of insurance costs to where the difference between a “good” and “bad” year is measured in tenths of pennies.
  • The ability to raise its insurance deductible from $2,500 to over $100,000 per truck. “And we’re $1 million ahead on that decision,” he said.
  • The ability to cut driver orientation time from five days down to two.
  • A decline in “loss of control” accident costs from $110,000 to $120,000 per incident to $30,000. “That’s all due to driving slower,” he pointed out.
  • As of Dec. 31, 2016, the payment of $27 million in driver safety bonuses since the company began its culture shift.

Pitzel emphasized that none of this happened overnight and that the “defining moment” for Bison’s new safety culture stance came in 2005 when it won a third place award for its safety record. “That gave us credibility for our program; all of a sudden we’re getting results that everyone, but especially our drivers, could see,” he explained.

So how is Bison’s safety culture structured? Pitzel broke it down into several key beliefs:

The right to decide: everyone, from drivers to back office staff, is responsible for performing their tasks safely. If they cannot, they have the authority to stop that particular work. “Everyone is accountable for getting everyone home safely,” he said.

Training vs. skills development: Rather than providing training aimed at compliance, Bison invests in skill development to bring drivers up to its standards. “In 2015, 42% of the drivers we brought on board did not meet our hiring standard and in 2016 it was 37%,” Pitzel said. “But that is what skills development allows you to do; it allows you to support the individual to make improvements before accidents happen, not after.”

Creating safety counsellors: Those are managers who help drivers get through the tough spots and help them fix problems. “We’ve gotten away from the ‘three strikes and you’re out’ mentality,” Pitzel noted. “We have drivers still with us that were involved in major crashes. But it’s about how do we support you and make you better so that doesn’t happen again and doesn’t create more risk for our business.”

Measuring risk: Back in 2005, Bison adopted a system that presaged the development of the Compliance Safety Accountability (CSA) program introduced in the U.S. seven years ago; with low, medium, high, and extreme risk levels assigned to drivers. It identified what drivers not only needed the most attention but what kind of attention as well, Pitzel added. “Coaching is about getting someone to do what they already know how to do, while training gets someone to do what they do not know how to do,” he explained. Bison also started using virtual training simulators in 2002 to help with risk management as well. “We had one driver who was great but had a terrible time backing up; so we gave her extended simulator time to practice and she became an expert at it,” Pitzel noted.

Driver retention: Nothing has a greater impact on Bison’s safety culture than driver retention, Pitzel said. “It is the single most important item in my job. Because do you want a driver whose strengths and weaknesses you know? Or do you want to keep replacing them with new drivers who are complete unknowns?” Bison also has found that the highest risk of an accident for a new driver is within the first six months, with the “sweet spot” for safe driving between 18 months and six years of tenure. “After six years some complacency sets in; that’s where our focus on skills development becomes even more valuable.”

Recognition: Award, be they certificates, jackets, or monetary bonuses, are all vital to reinforcing Bison’s safety culture, Pitzel stressed. “I personally sign every safety achievement certificate; no rubber stamps, and the impact of that is unbelievable. The little things absolutely make a difference,” he added. Last year, some 772 out of Bison’s 1,850 drivers scored some sort of safety award. “That’s absolutely a key thing in supporting our safety culture,” he said.