Trucking industry sees increase in automatic transmissions, safety features

In 2016, Decker ordered hundreds of new Peterbilts, a majority of which had automatic transmissions

-Messenger photo by Chad Thompson
A Decker driver steers one of the company’s semi-trailer trucks towards the inspection lane at Decker Truck Line recently.

Semi-trailer trucks with automatic transmissions are becoming more common than ever in the trucking industry, particularly at Decker Truck Line Inc. in Fort Dodge, according to Brad Baade, the company’s chief operating officer.

Baade reports that more than 90 percent of the company’s fleet have automatic transmissions.

Michael Erritt, vice president of operations, said that number has spiked within the last couple years.

“A lot of trucking companies are going to that,” Erritt said. “At the same time, there are a lot of drivers who prefer manual.”

Baade said about 50 of Decker’s trucks are manual.

In 2016, Decker ordered hundreds of new Peterbilts, a majority of which had automatic transmissions.

Bringing in more trucks with automatic transmissions is just one way the company is working through a trucker shortage.

“The availability of drivers is pretty tight,” Erritt said. “But on the flipside, the demand for trucks is going up. We are fighting the driver shortage battle.”

At the same time, Baade said the company has high standards for its drivers.

“With all the leads we get, we hire less than 1 percent of drivers,” Baade said. “At the end of the week, we hire less than 1 percent. We are very selective.”

Baade added, “We like to hire professional drivers. Our qualifications are probably a little more stringent than some other trucking companies out there.”

Decker trucks haul fresh meat, wall board, steel, and lumber, among a variety of other products.

Erritt said driver salary has increased substantially in recent years.

“We have done more with our multiple pay packages,” he said. “We have adjusted them twice. We put in guaranteed pay, more home time, and dedicated lanes.”

Dedicated lanes mean going to the same customer repeatedly.

“Pay for drivers has gone up percentage wise in the last year more than it has the last 10,” Erritt said.

Electronic logs have become standard within the past year, although Decker has been employing them for multiple years.

Baade said that change impacted older drivers.

“Electronic logs have probably driven some drivers out of the market, which has probably added somewhat to the driver shortage,” Baade said.

Younger drivers are starting to take the wheel.

At Decker, the average age of a trucker is 49. Across the industry it’s estimated at 53. In 2016 the average age was estimated at 57.

Safety is always a top priority for the company, Tammy O’Tool, vice president of administration said.

Smart Drive is a program that turns on when specific events occur, according to Rick George, vice president of safety.

“If someone alleges we have been in an accident, it tells us how accurate the story is,” George said.

George said it records events when it’s triggered.

“Hard braking, quick lane changes, shocks, or if someone runs into us,” George said.

O’Tool said the device doesn’t record at all times.

George said safety features continue to evolve.

“We provide drivers additional training, giving them a new hire orientation, what we expect from them,” George said. “We have ongoing training. The electronic logs, lane departure, adaptive cruise control, all of those things help make the driver a better, safer driver.”

George said the benefits of adaptive cruise control are evident.

“It works in conjunction with cruise control,” George said. “It has a sensor, it looks out ahead of the truck and if it sees you coming up on an object at a high rate of speed, it will turn the cruise off and apply the brakes as needed to avoid a collision.”

George said a crash was recently avoided thanks to the technology of adaptive cruise control.

The company has also instituted a safety pledge for its drivers.

“It’s what we expect from everyone at Decker Truck Line,” George said. “To promote safety for our people and the general public living and playing in our work space, which is the highway. It starts from the top down.”

In terms of any self-driving trucks, George said it will be a long time before Decker implements those.

“I think there will always be a need for drivers,” George said. “The first mile and the last mile will always require truck drivers”

Erritt is encouraged with the company’s progress.

“We are seeing definite improvements with our turnover, with our accidents,” he said. “Everything is trending in the right direction.”

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