Author: Chad Murrell
There are many challenges in Agribusiness. Whether your company markets commodities, sells and/or applies agricultural inputs, or provides a niche product or service, you know that margins are narrow, competition is fierce, weather is unpredictable and several trends are forcing agribusinesses to adapt, innovate or fall behind. Among those challenges are emerging markets, technological advances and changing consumer demands, as well as greater consolidation and mergers.
One such trend, which has become an increasing concern for agribusinesses, is the rapidly rising cost of insurance. Premiums are increasing at historically high rates. Insurance carriers are tightening their risk appetite, resulting in more non-renewals. In particular, auto insurance rates have shifted upwards in the last few years as automobile parts, repair costs and replacement costs have increased, due to inflationary pressures and the unavailability of key components.
Another factor driving up the cost of insurance is the rising number of traffic collisions and deaths. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration announced recently that an estimated 42,795 people died in motor vehicle traffic crashes in 2022, a 0.3% decrease from 2021.1 While this decrease is encouraging, the fatality rate has risen 18% since 2019, pre-pandemic.2 Experts point to increases in distracted driving, as well as an increase in higher-powered, larger vehicles on the roadways and increased speeding. In 2021, speeding contributed to 29% of all traffic fatalities.3
Federal and state governments are implementing various initiatives aimed at making the roads safer. All the same, transportation incidents — which include tractor overturns and roadway crashes — were the leading cause of death for farmers and farm workers. How can we in agribusiness do our part to make our roads and highways safer for us and for the general public?
Dashboard cameras and telematics
Several technological advances can reduce crashes and help control the cost of insurance. Many fleet managers are taking advantage of proven technology, including inward- and outward-facing cameras, telematics, collision avoidance technology and preventive maintenance to help reduce their overall cost of risk.
Dashboard cameras enable a company to record a video of a crash to possibly place the liability onto the other driver. Telematics gives fleet managers the opportunity to identify high-risk drivers — drivers who are consistently brake hard, change lanes abruptly, accelerate quickly, etc. Many telematics systems provide in-cab alerts to drivers, including automated coaching and other behavior-based interventions.
More recently, sophisticated collision-avoidance and drowsy-driving warning systems using artificial intelligence (AI) are now available. Most new vehicles have some of these features, including lane-departure warnings, forward-collision warning with autobrake, blind-spot monitoring and assist, and drowsy- or distracted-driver warning. With the introduction of AI, systems can now recognize pedestrians and cyclists, road signs and other objects in the roadway or along the roadway that present a hazard to the driver. The costs of these systems vary widely, and some may not make sense in many situations; however, dash cams and many basic telematics systems are affordable and are cost effective if they prevent even one collision.
Hiring and retaining safe, experienced, competent drivers
Tools are available to help companies hire safe drivers. The US Department of Transportation (DOT) and Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration's (FMCSA) Pre-Employment Screening Program (PSP) helps carriers make more informed hiring decisions by providing secure, electronic access to a commercial driver's five-year crash and three-year inspection history from the FMCSA Motor Carrier Management Information System (MCMIS). This access is in addition to pulling a new driver's motor vehicle report (MVR).
In addition, the FMCSA's Drug & Alcohol Clearinghouse is a secure, online database that gives employers and other authorized users real-time information about commercial driver's license (CDL) and commercial learner's permit (CLP) holders' drug and alcohol program violations. These tools provide a clearer picture of a potential driver's prior performance, which is a good indicator of their future performance.
A company can do several cost-effective things to retain good drivers, including:
- Compensating drivers competitively
- Communicating expectations with your drivers
- Celebrating good driver performance
- Creating a safe and reliable work environment
- Investing in training
- Connecting safety with the company culture
- Asking for and acting on driver feedback
- Building a true team by showing that the company values drivers' contributions to the success of the company
- Embracing technology to help connect with your drivers
Monitoring your DOT Safety Measurement System scores
It's important to monitor your company's DOT Safety Measurement System (SMS) scores for several reasons. Fleet managers and supervisors need to know what violations their drivers have received, as well as the results of roadside inspections. Monitoring your scores allows you to implement programs or training to address the types of violations your drivers are receiving. It's also important to identify and correct any errors in your record.
Carrier enforcement monitors this score to prioritize inspections and to alert them when a review of your records and programs is in order. Insurance carriers monitor this score when determining premiums, etc.
If you do identify an error in your DOT SMS score, or if one of your drivers is involved in a non-preventable crash, you're encouraged to request a review from the FMCSA through their DataQs system at dataqs.fmcsa.dot.gov.
Holding drivers and supervisors accountable
Having effective fleet safety programs, policies and procedures is the first step. Making sure those materials are communicated, reviewed, followed and followed up on — and that accountability is placed on those individuals tasked with implementing them — is what makes those materials effective. Managers and supervisors should hold their drivers accountable for their safety performance; and managers and supervisors should be held accountable for how well they accomplish this task.
Training, observing and coaching are key elements of a manager's or supervisor's job. These elements involve giving drivers the tools and information they need to be successful. Training drivers on behavior-based defensive driving habits, observing drivers on the road to ensure they follow their training, and correcting and coaching drivers when they're not following the training are other key ingredients for a comprehensive fleet safety program.
Train all supervisors and managers on the required DOT reasonable suspicion training. Unless you're an owner-operator employing yourself as the only driver, you must ensure that all supervisors designated to supervise CDL drivers undergo this one-time, two-hour DOT training. The training includes at least one hour of alcohol misuse training and one hour of controlled substance use training, which enable supervisors to recognize signs of drug and alcohol use that support reasonable suspicion testing.
Incentivizing drivers will reward acceptable behaviors and outcomes, and holding them accountable will reinforce corrective actions to reduce unacceptable behaviors. It's a big job, and it's what differentiates world-class organizations from the rest.
Why commercial auto insurance costs more now
Commercial auto insurance is an essential yet complex cost center for trucking fleets. Rising rates in the commercial insurance market pose a challenge to motor carriers of all sizes and sectors, regardless of safety records. Volatile and increasing insurance premiums have created a very challenging operating environment for motor carriers. The American Transportation Research Institute's (ATRI) 2021 annual An Analysis of the Operational Costs of Trucking report found that insurance premium costs per mile increased overall by 30% during the last ten years, from $0.067 to $0.087.4
The ATRI report points to many factors driving this recent increase. Industry-wide trends in truck-involved crash frequency and severity certainly play a role in insurance rate trends. Industry growth presents additional challenges. The industry-wide expansion of fleets and the driver workforce has increased exposure to risk and introduces additional uncertainty into risk projections for motor carriers and insurers alike.
Economic conditions within the insurance industry have contributed to rate increases as well. Incurred losses for insurers of commercial vehicles grew annually between 2015 and 2019.4 In response, insurers are reallocating coverage capacity to less-risky sectors, with some companies leaving the market altogether and others reducing offered coverage limits.
Declines in capacity and competition in the commercial auto insurance market exert additional upward pressure on rates. Reductions in the coverage limits insurers offer also force carriers to seek other sources of coverage or to operate with greater exposure to nuclear verdicts.
Industry experts as well as the findings in this report suggest that carriers should consider all safety-related matters and expenses — in addition to insurance — as part of a total cost of risk. This comprehensive approach enables carriers to organize costs more effectively for the long term by emphasizing the impacts that all cost centers have on safety and the relationships between them.