A new report from the American Transportation Research Institute paints a dire picture of what trucking companies are facing in 2020 and beyond. While the standard inflation rate for the overall economy over the past 10 years has been 1.7%, and the rate for the healthcare industry has been 2.9%, the average verdict against a trucking outfit whose driver has been involved in an accident has gone up 51.7%. Accordingly, the cost of insuring trucks has, since 2013, increased by 17%.
The ATRI study points to plaintiffs’ attorneys as the main driver of this staggering growth in the size and frequency of verdicts. There is, however, some evidence that fleets bear at least a small share of the responsibility. In the single year from 2017 to 2018, the number of trucks weighing between 10,001 and 14,000 pounds that were involved in a fatal accident went up by 4.6%. For bigger trucks, ones weighing over 26,000 pounds, the increase was 1.6.%.
Several factors are at play here. For one, lawyers are eying bigger prizes for their plaintiffs because of highly publicized “nuclear” verdicts, those exceeding $10 million. Outside investors are even getting in on the action, treating court cases against fleets like speculative commodities. There are even numerous cases where outright fraud has been brought to light, like the case of a lawyer in New Orleans who teamed up with a conman to hire confederates to deliberately cause collisions. The two then paid “witnesses” in another vehicle to describe the crash as entirely the fault of the truck driver.
Meanwhile, the trucking industry has been dealing with a major shortage of drivers for over a decade, as older drivers retire without younger people stepping up take over their jobs. This shortage puts immense pressure on fleet managers both to get more out of their remaining drivers and to expedite onboarding processes for new ones. Add to this the difficulty of ensuring drivers keep their attention on the road and off distracting devices like smartphones, and it’s clear why the number of accidents is increasing.
While the industry-wide insurance crisis is beyond the capacity of any single trucking company to combat, there are strategies fleet managers can implement to keep their own rates down. And, collectively, these practices may go some way toward bringing about a more friendly insurance environment for fleets in the future.
Catching Conmen on Camera
One of the most direct ways fleets are using technology to protect themselves from nuclear verdicts is to install cameras on their vehicles. The fraudulence of the New Orleans case described above was brought to light by cameras which recorded the incident—both from inside the truck and from a distant vantage outside a Burger King. The footage clearly showed that there were two cars, not one, involved in the incident, and it caught the drivers of one of those cars deliberately causing the collision, while those in the other car followed close behind so they could later give their false account to authorities.
The attorney for the trucking company later said, “Those cameras right there saved between $150,000 and $200,000 just by capturing the fraud and us not having to go and defend it.”
Not every case is as clear-cut as this but having video footage of an accident certainly helps in deciding whether to settle a case out of court. And the fewer the settlements—or verdicts for that matter—the better the company’s safety record, the lower the insurance rates.
Cameras covering the areas surrounding a vehicle can protect drivers from being faulted for accidents when they were doing everything right. But cameras pointed at the drivers can be an excellent tool for training those drivers to do everything right in the first place.
Machine learning programs are now being trained to monitor trucks for behaviors like tailgating, cutting turns too short, rolling stops, and even failing to buckle a safety belt. Pattern-recognition software can learn to tell the difference between a driver scratching her ear and that same driver lifting a piece of food to her mouth—or a smartphone to her ear. If the system detects any of these behaviors, an alert is sent to the driver so he or she can make an immediate correction.
While training programs based on cameras and artificial intelligence may sound like a good way to infuriate older drivers and discourage younger ones from ever bothering to get their CDLs, many trucking companies are finding ways to successfully deploy these technologies without losing buy-in from their drivers. One key is to frame goals in terms of positives instead of negatives, so that the focus is on rewarding drivers for better scores rather than on punishing them for every last infractions.
Another key is to share the benefits that come from improved safety records. One way to do this would be to have drivers compete for the highest score and then give the winners a monetary reward. This kind of digital monitoring and instant feedback is, surprisingly enough, appealing to members of the new generation brought up on a steady diet of video games and social media. And this is exactly the generation fleets would most like to recruit from.
Automated Safety Systems and Self-Driving Trucks
Collision avoidance and self-braking systems are already standard features on new vehicles, and it looks like these are only the beginning. While fully autonomous trucks—with no human on board—are probably close to a decade away, trucks that essentially drive themselves but with humans on board as backups are much closer to becoming a reality.
Since the final technological hurdles to trucks going autonomous involve safety issues, especially those arising under rare conditions, it may seem counterintuitive to suggest self-driving trucks are going to be safer. But a large percentage of accidents are caused by reckless, fatigued, or distracted driving. These factors won’t play a role with autonomous vehicles.
There will still be accidents after self-trucks have taken over the roads, but most experts believe they will be far less frequent. What kind of deals fleets will be able to strike with insurance companies remains to be seen. What insurers love, though, is the predictability of safe bet, and machines have a good chance of delivering just that kind of predictability.
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