The Wages of Negligence

These days, one rarely hears the cliché “You get what you pay for.” Every transportation professional knows that drivers, in particular, are rarely compensated for the true value of their work, at least in our society. But this reality provides little comfort to defendants. When their $7-an-hour driver kills or maims a passenger or pedestrian, they can hardly tell a box of jurors, “What do you expect for seven dollars an hour?!”

The inability to place our workforce in perspective in the courtroom presents an unusual enigma: In all or most states, motorcoach operators are classified as “common carriers,” held to “the highest standard of care.” Thus, as a legal and regulatory matter, their drivers must be held to such standards. The cliché “you cannot get blood from a stone” does not apply in the courtroom. Woe be the defendant whose attorney argues it.

Wages and Accidents

In scores of cases I have examined, certain themes are common to certain types of accidents and incidents. One of the most common to almost all types of incidents is the low wages paid to the driver involved. Such incidents appear to occur far less regularly in systems where starting salaries are comparatively higher, and largely as a consequence, turnover rates comparatively lower. Low wages (and high turnover) also have numerous multiplier effects – for example, uneven training and an unwillingness to invest in it. (It is far more costly to train one driver at a time, which excessive turnover, particularly in small systems, necessitates.) But again, one gets what one pays for.

When submitting applications for insurance, operators typically cite examples and evidence establishing them as low risks. More enlightened underwriters modify their premiums accordingly, apart from merely basing them on the applicants’ track records. Where it applies, applicants would be well-advised to cite their starting drivers’ salaries, and turnover rates. They would also be well-advised to find and use insurance carriers who care about such things. Not all carriers do.

Wages and Competition

One of the commercial dynamics which tends to suppress drivers’ salaries is the naïve structure of competitive bidding in most agency contracts and purchase orders. With many cost components (like vehicle and fuel costs) the same or similar for all bidders, operators are often forced to compete largely on the basis of drivers’ salaries. This is often the case even in demand-responsive paratransit service, where differences between the best and worst driver can translate into as much as 30 percent differences in efficiency – even while drivers’ salaries, whatever they are, generally comprise less than 30 percent of overall costs. Unfortunately, most purchasers of service are unable to “do the math.” In motorcoach operations, where routes are relatively simple, and layover time plentiful, the difference between the best and worst drivers does not manifest itself in efficiency terms. Instead, it manifests itself in safety and liability.

As a consultant to a number of lead agencies, I have always tried to factor drivers’ salaries into the bid evaluation and scoring process. In the past, I have often integrated such considerations into Requests for Proposals indirectly – for example, by awarding more points, in certain categories, for higher starting salaries. In a current statewide project, I actually proposed establishing a minimum salary as a formal requirement, and examining the Region’s economic environment to determine what it would take to attract and retain drivers capable of delivering service according to the standards which system designers and managers can devise and articulate. By the time this article is published, this state may actually have endorsed such an approach as a policy matter. Regardless, when motorcoach operators attend pre-bid conferences, and submit their comments on the RFP, they would be well-served to suggest such a provision. This is one sure way to mitigate the worst element of low-balling.

Wages and Costs

In modern America, things happen largely because they can, and do not happen largely because they do not have to. Unless and until we make factors like drivers’ wages matter, they will continue to not matter. Unless and until insurance carriers mirror this reality, and incorporate it meaningfully and regularly into their premium derivations, they will continue to experience the fact that, at least for them, one indeed does get what one pays for.

If all this is not yet another argument for raising motorcoach fares, it should become one. The costs of low wages include lower productivity, more turnover, more training, more accidents and incidents, more body work, more lawsuits, more management time spent on deposition and trial testimony (and thinking about and agonizing over them), higher damage awards and, in some cases, higher insurance premiums. To a certain point, the higher drivers’ salaries are, the lower are total operating costs. All things considered, paying drivers decent wages is a bargain.


Publications: National Bus Trader.