Every so often, Stephen Swartz allows himself to speak in the patois of the people he studies, the red-blooded, diesel-fueled American truck drivers who fill the airwaves with colorful CB banter while hauling everything from frozen foods to scrap metal. Swartz can “keep the hammer down” when it comes to conversation with this crowd, which explains his regular guest appearances on Sirius XM Radio’s Road Dog Trucking News.
What would make a nationwide audience of truck drivers listen to a college professor? They’re not tuning in for intel on speed traps or the best diners along Route 66. During a given show, Swartz, an associate professor of supply chain management in Auburn University’s Raymond J. Harbert College of Business, will weigh in on a variety of issues connected to the business of trucking. He might offer tips to help drivers maximize fuel and “dollar per mile” efficiency or demystify the findings of a government-funded safety study.
When drivers aren’t learning from him, he’s learning about them. Swartz studies their attitudes and behavior as part of his examination of “the man-machine interface,” the relationship between truckers and the tractor trailers they use to transport cargo on the nation’s highways. Much of Swartz’s research interests focus on preventing interfaces between a fully-loaded semi and, say, a child-laden minivan whose driver insists on merging into a tight space in front of it at 45 mph without considering the physics problem posed for the 80,000-pound vehicle traveling 60 mph.
A 2013 study by the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute revealed that car drivers are either fully or partly at fault in 81 percent of accidents involving semi-trailer trucks, but Swartz said it’s still important to change the way drivers think and behave when it comes to safety. “Nobody’s making money when the truck is on the hook,” Swartz said, referring to the giant tow trucks used to pull trailers out of ditches. “The most profitable trucking companies are also the safest.”
Swartz’s current research taps into his interests in behavioral science and business analytics.
“I’m developing intellectual property that can be used to assess precursors to better and more ethical behavior among truck drivers,” he said. “It’s a predictive analytics toolkit that will enable companies to assess how safe their drivers will be. There are very few people doing the kind of research I’m doing.”
Call if a Myers-Briggs for the big rigs. Swartz has amassed numerous hours of interviews and surveys from 1,500 drivers. Swartz is particularly interested in how driver attitudes about safety are shaped. How do drivers’ inherent views of right and wrong shape their behavior with regard to speeding or tailgating? What role does their peer group, whether it’s family or fellow drivers, play in their adherence to or disregard of rules of the road?
“The human is the weakest link in the safety chain,” Swartz said. “We’re talking about high responsibility with minimal supervision. What are the penalties for making the wrong decision? Loss of life.”