To better address safety issues as they come up on the road, drivers have to be alert. It is crucial, therefore, for the trucking industry to tackle driver fatigue, something it is doing with the hours of service regulations. Data from the American Transportation Research Institute indicates that motor carriers, operating under the current hours-of-service rule in all of 2004, posted lower recordable accident rates and lower injury rates per million miles than in years before the rule was issued.
The data, which represents more than 100,000 drivers operating more than 10.5 billion fuel tax miles, showed recordable accidents per million miles fell to .68 in 2004, down from .71 a year earlier. The total injury rate, meanwhile, declined to .94 injuries per million miles, down from 1.07 injuries per million miles in 2003.
Beote personally doesn’t drive too many overnight shifts any more, but he is one driver who definitely supports the current hours of service regulations. “You need to be alert to keep track of your surroundings at all times—to know what’s to your left and to your right at all times,” he says. “And if you’re out of hours, you should take care of yourself. You certainly don’t want to exceed your hours because it will affect your driving.”
Besides the human element—which is probably the most important—the other key to driver safety is the truck itself. Driving a truck is nothing like a car, as a number of factors, including greater weights, higher centers of gravity, difficulty maintaining speeds on upgrades, wider turning radii and longer required braking distances, combine to make trucks far more dangerous.
The sheer size and weight of the trucks themselves is often the biggest safety concern. Heavy tractor-trailers tend to have a higher center of gravity because the extra weight is typically stacked vertically. This higher center of gravity increases the chance of rollovers, makes trucks accelerate slower and causes difficulty maintaining speeds on upgrades. And, statistics show that the greater the weight, the higher the risk of a fatal accident. According to the University of Michigan’s Transportation Research Institute, as truck weights go up from 65,000 pounds to 80,000 pounds, the risk of a fatal accident goes up 50 percent.
Also, truck and trailer configurations play a big role in safe driving. Among food haulers, refrigeration units add noise that can hamper a driver’s ability to hear certain things that can signal a potential accident. Truck lengths have also gotten longer. Only about 20-25 years ago, most truck trailers were no more than 42 feet in length. Today’s trailers can go up to 53 feet in length, and some companies haul double or triple trailers. These vehicles require the drivers to place added attention when stopping and speeding up, for example.
Hauling food-grade products in tanker trucks is especially precarious, according to Jeff St. Pierre, vice president of safety at Quality Carriers, a tanker trucking company based in Tampa, FL. Unlike regular trailers, where loads can be secured inside the trailer on pallets and with things like airbags and bulkheads, cargo inside a tanker truck cannot be secured.
“If the driver turns the wheel, the cargo can shift in the other direction and cause a rollover. If he stops suddenly, it shifts forward. If he’s speeding up, it shifts back,” he says. “As with any kind of trucking, a driver always has to be ready to react quickly, and these vehicles do not respond quickly.”
Driving a tanker truck, he said, requires a very special kind of driver, as well as a very stringent and unique way of driving. Although most states require a separate license that allows drivers behind the wheels of tankers, “the real answer is an especially defensive driver who understands the vehicle’s limitations and can compensate. He has to be able to drive so defensively that he does not get to the point where gravity and momentum propel the truck where it doesn’t want to go.”
More Safety Programs Needed
Driver training with any type of trailer is key, and Beote doesn’t feel that today’s new drivers get enough of it. Most companies require a drug test, physical, driving classes and time behind the wheel with an experienced driver, but they could do more, he says.