Case Study

Should I Hire This Driver - Or Not?

If you have to ask the question, you already know the answer. (And asking your insurance agent to make the call does not take you off the hook.)

On April 22, 2015 seven nursing students heading eastbound in two vehicles on I-16 west of Savannah, Ga. in stop-and-go traffic when a tractor-trailer traveling at 68 mph failed to slow and crashed into an SUV and then a car. The car burst into flames. Five of the students died at the scene. The Georgia Southern University students were on their way to a hospital for their final clinical rotation of their first year of nursing school.

The rig’s driver, John Wayne Johnson of Total Transportation, a subsidiary of US Xpress, claims he was awake at the time of the 6 a.m. accident even though he had driven through the night but has no idea why he didn’t slow down.

During an investigation for a civil suit filed against Total Transportation of Ridgeland, Miss., it was discovered that Johnson had been fired from at least one previous driving job. In that instance, he fell asleep at the wheel and crashed his truck, totaling the vehicle.

Yet, knowing this, Total Transportation still hired Johnson.

“The company’s safety director said he didn’t have a good excuse for why they hired him,” said Bob Cheeley, attorney for the victims’ families.

At the heart of this issue, is the well-documented driver shortage that shows no signs of improving any time soon. Demographics and economics are conspiring against fleet operators. Fewer individuals are entering the industry while at the same time freight is strengthening.

If drivers can be secured there are profits to be made. Trucking firms are doing whatever they can to attract new drivers. Cheeley believes this is the reason Total Transportation hired Johnson.

“They were trying to fill as many trucks with as many drivers to grow the company as rapidly as possible,” he said.

Bottom line v smart decisions

Recruiting budgets are on the rise. Sign-on bonuses, driver perks and benefits are all increasing as motor carriers compete not only for freight, but for the drivers they need to pull those loads.

This environment makes it tempting to hire drivers you know you shouldn’t. Don’t do it. Deep down we know the old saying to be true: “Decisions have consequences.”

Think about your equipment. If you make bad decisions in the maintenance garage, you’ll be sorry in the long run. When you stretch out the time between your PMs, run too long on your tires, don’t freshen the vehicle fluids when needed, adjust the brakes, replace bulbs, what happens? Your equipment becomes less reliable.

Eventually you will face mechanical breakdowns – you’ll start piling up vehicle-out-of-service citations, maybe even costly accidents. Decisions have consequences.

It is no different with your driver hiring decisions. Decisions about which drivers you hire – or don’t – will have consequences. Over time, this is a certainty. Gambling against the odds simply doesn’t pay off. Poor hiring decisions can have the worst possible consequences and put your entire company at risk.

That was certainly the case for Total Transportation and parent US Xpress. On April, 20, the families of four of the five victims announced they had secured substantial settlements in their civil suit against the company. An attorney for one family said their settlement was $14 million.

Read the driving hiring standards guide

Your insurance company provides you with Recommended Driver Hiring Standards. This is a risk management guide and should be taken seriously. When you are deciding whether to hire a driver and his driving record causes concerns, it’s tempting, even commonplace, to send the MVR to your insurance agent and ask for their guidance. This seems prudent but it’s not a good idea for a number of reasons.

During the underwriting process, an insurance carrier tries to evaluate the totality of your risk and thus generate a premium amount that will allow for them to pay incurred claims and also generate required profits. If the premiums are too low, the carrier suffers financial loss and eventually goes out of business or withdraws from writing trucking risks. If the rates are too high, the insurance company will not be successful in attracting and retaining truckers as clients. Properly pricing to the market is the balancing act of any business. The problem with insurance is it’s impossible to determine the true costs of providing the coverage until after the policy has expired. Sometimes, years after.

So the underwriter tries to navigate down the road by looking in his rearview mirror. What do we mean by this? Underwriters have to predict the future by looking at past experience. They have a number of tools to do so. One of the most accurate tools is the driver’s MVR. But don’t ask the agent - or the company - to approve a particular driver based on their driving record.

Insurance professionals should not comment on a motor carrier’s specific driver hiring decisions because employment decisions must be made solely at the employer’s discretion. In fact, it’s a violation of the Federal Fair Credit Reporting Act if insurance agents make a determination that affects the employability of an individual based upon a consumer report such as an MVR.

With that being said, it should always be the shared goal of the insurance carrier and the motor carrier to comply with the stated driver guidelines regarding experience, moving violations, years of holding a valid CDL and so on. We use the term "guidelines" because that is what they are, a guide. They are rarely enforceable terms in the insurance contract. Nor should they be.

Final decision rests with fleet owner

Ultimately the fleet owner must conduct their business the best way they see fit, and the insurance company will react accordingly by evaluating the risk and the losses and setting appropriate premiums for a new policy or renewal.

The reason why insurance companies are such sticklers for clean MVRs is twofold:

  1. The worse the MVR, the more likely the driver is to have an incident that will cost you and the insurance company money.
  2. The better the MVR, the easier it is to defend the driver and your company in court and thus limit damage awards.

Here is the question you never want to hear: “Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, do you think it was a reasonable decision on the part of this motor carrier to hire this particular driver, knowing how poor his driving record was?”

Johnson, company charged with vehicular homicide

That exact question rings in the ears of Total Transportation officials. On June 15, a grand jury indicted driver Johnson and the president of Total Transportation on five counts of first-degree vehicular homicide.

Total Transportation’s role in the incident has grown more complicated after a company deposition revealed that Johnson traveled all night by bus from Shreveport, La. to the company’s terminal in Ridgeland. There, instead of leaving at 7 a.m., as planned, he left at 5 p.m. because it took that long to secure his load. He then drove all night in an attempt to meet his delivery deadline – a clear recipe for the potential disaster that ultimately happened.

This is a horrific lesson for Total Transportation – costly on many levels. Other fleet owners should take heed.

Remember: Consistently hiring drivers with clean MVRs while closely monitoring your drivers’ records throughout the year - not just taking a peek at insurance renewal time - will put you in the best possible position if you ever suffer a bad claim that must be defended in court.

It’s often not easy to make the good decision - especially when you have empty trucks and freight piling on loading docks. But even one short-sighted decision to hire a driver with a poor driving record may cost you dearly, as this tragic story reminds us. Repeated bad decision-making over time invariably will result in poor CSA scores and is exceedingly likely to result in poor insurance claims history with resulting higher insurance rates.

These consequences should always be considered whenever you find yourself asking the question, “Should I hire this driver, or not?