Practical Drift: How Human Nature Causes Policy Failure


Policies and procedures are necessary for high-hazard industries like trucking. They add structure and consistency to operations to ensure the highest quality product or service is being delivered. Unfortunately, a lack of oversight by senior management can cause the company’s policies and procedures to deteriorate over time and lead to a phenomenon known as practical drift.

Practical drift is a term coined by Scott A. Snook in his book Friendly Fire . It occurs when an employee gradually diverges from written policies or procedures to the point where the employee’s maladaptive behavior becomes his or her norm. To illustrate this, consider a driver who decides checking the tire tread depths during his/her pre-trip inspection is too tedious and simply skips that step. If skipping the step results in no negative consequences, the behavior is reinforced and will most likely be repeated. This poses a serious risk to motor carriers because deviating from proper vehicle inspections can lead to costly business interruptions and, possibly, crashes.

Practical drift is not a new concept. The investigation into the space shuttle Columbia disaster found previous shuttle flights had experienced similar mechanical issues, but no one did anything about it. According to Rasmussen, “The investigation suggested that NASA had suffered from the same type of drift towards danger as the Challenger accident ten years earlier.”¹  Despite NASA’s reputation for high reliability and rigid structure, even it found itself victim to practical drift.

Motor carriers can avoid practical drift by being more engaged in employee performance and leveraging technology to monitor conformance to policies and procedures. Below is a brief list of technologies to aid in this effort.


Motor carriers can use ELDs to monitor a driver’s hours of service. When connected to other fleet management systems, ELDs can gather data on vehicle inspections, fuel economy, mileage, maintenance, and more.


Onboard cameras have proven effective in changing driver behavior and also in resolving claims. Footage can exonerate a safe driver involved in a non-preventable crash or provide evidence to indemnify claimants.


ECMs are valuable for monitoring hard braking, speeding, and other engine data which could show a driver in direct violation of company policy.


The SMS and the PSP are similar tools used to track roadside and moving violations as well as crash involvement. Motor carriers can use the SMS to monitor current drivers and the PSP to evaluate driver applicants.


  • Use technology to identify at-risk behaviors that could lead to future crashes (e.g., speeding).
  • Develop performance measures for employees and communicate those expectations.
  • Engage employees to gather feedback on ways to improve policies and procedures.
  • Enforce safety policies and hold employees accountable for violations.



Note: These lists are not intended to be all-inclusive.

The information in this article is provided as a courtesy of Great West Casualty Company and is part of the Value-Driven® Company program. Value-Driven Company was created to help educate and inform insureds so they can make better decisions, build a culture that values safety, and manage risk more effectively. To see what additional resources Great West Casualty Company can provide for its insureds, please contact your safety representative, or click below to find an agent. 

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This material is intended to be a broad overview of the subject matter and is provided for informational purposes only. Great West Casualty Company does not provide legal advice to its insureds, nor does it advise insureds on employment-related issues. Therefore, the subject matter is not intended to serve as legal or employment advice for any issue(s) that may arise in the operations of its insureds. Legal advice should always be sought from the insured’s legal counsel. Great West Casualty Company shall have neither liability nor responsibility to any person or entity with respect to any loss, action, or inaction alleged to be caused directly or indirectly as a result of the information contained herein.