Stay Alert

Defensive driving, adequate training are keys to getting there safely.

With study after study showing that truck drivers with an excessive number of violations are more likely to be involved in crashes than their violation-free counterparts, removing at-risk drivers from behind the wheel as quickly as possible is becoming a top priority for the transportation industry.

One way the industry is seeking to address this is through a driver violation notification program, which will alert employers to changes in a driver’s record.

While civil libertarians and others are seeking to block this from happening, studies by the American Transportation Research Institute have determined that trucking fleet operators with such a program can save huge amounts on their insurance premiums, while at the same time eliminating between 1,700 and 1,900 crashes a year. That could lead to 25 fewer fatalities and 600 fewer injuries.

The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Admini­stra­tion (FMCSA) is one government agency that has been looking at the driver violation notification issue, as are many individual trucking firms and industry associations.

In fact, FMCSA has begun a large-scale effort to promote a program associated with managing and distributing truck driver information and ensure that fleet managers have accurate, up-to-date information on driver safety records. One solution proposed is an Internet-based program that allows transporters to register drivers and receive e-mail notification of license status changes.

With few exceptions, existing regulatory requirements place the burden on employers to discover a driver’s safety record. Current laws require drivers to notify employers of convictions, but that does not always happen, meaning that unsafe drivers may continue to pose a danger on the roads, an FMCSA spokesperson says.

And, of course, truck drivers themselves are concerned. Paul Beote, a driver for H.P. Hood Dairy, based in Chelsea, MA, is not one of them. In his 34 years behind the wheel for the dairy company, he has not recorded a single violation or accident in more than 3.1 million miles traveled, and has earned half a dozen awards for driver safety. The most recent was the Ryder Fleet Management Solutions 2004 Driver of the Year.

Beote averages about 400 miles a day, or 2,000-2,500 miles a week, traveling throughout New England delivering ice cream, milk, yogurt, cottage cheese and the like between H.P. Hood dairy plants and customers. His day starts and ends at the dairy’s Portland, ME, facility. Though he is employed by H.P. Hood, he qualified for the Ryder driver safety award, issued earlier this year, because the dairy company leases its trucks from Ryder Systems Inc., based in Miami.

He considers himself lucky to have driven so long without incident, but there is certainly more to safe driving than just outwitting fate. For Beote, driver safety is all about a mindset. “You have to want to drive and enjoy your job. You have to enjoy what you’re doing to stay calm behind the wheel,” he says.

“If there’s a car around, I slow down and let him get away from me,” says Beote, “because there are a lot of aggressive drivers and you don’t know what they will do next.”

Truck Drivers Are Improving Their Habits, But...
Research by FMCSA and the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety continues to show that it is usually those other drivers, and not the truck drivers, who cause up to 75 percent of fatal car-truck accidents. Statistically, during the past 10 years, truck drivers have far better safety records than drivers of other vehicle types. For example:

  • The number of large trucks involved in injury crashes per 100 million miles traveled dropped 32 percent, while the rate for passenger vehicles dropped 23 percent.
  • Seventy-seven percent of truck drivers involved in fatal crashes were wearing their seat belts, compared to 59 percent of passenger vehicle drivers.
  • Factors like speeding, running off the road or out of the traffic lane and failure to yield the right of way accounted for 41 percent of fatal truck crashes and 68 percent of fatal passenger vehicle crashes. Speeding was a factor in only 22 percent of fatal truck crashes, compared to 31 percent of all crashes.

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.

“As much as 80 percent to 85 percent of drivers on the road today have not been through a safety program in years,” says E. Bruce Weiss, executive vice president of Instructional Technologies Inc. (ITI), a Vancouver, WA-based provider of training programs. “Drivers can get a CDL and then companies turn over a 75,000-pound truck with a 53-foot trailer to them and send them down the road at 75 miles an hour.”

Ryder, for example, offers an Internet-based version of a driver training program called Pro-Tread. It is available to all drivers, whether or not they are affiliated with Ryder, and can be accessed at The program is a series of highly interactive lessons and includes topics such as defensive driving, driver wellness, driver qualifications and government regulations concerning the trucking industry.

“This program provides quality training and retraining in all areas of safe and legal driving,” says Patrick Lydon, Ryder’s senior manager of safety and loss prevention. Because the training is delivered over the Internet, it is now accessible to the smaller and more remote carriers or to any fleet that has drivers in remote locations.”

A well-trained driver is only as good as the truck he’s driving, and for that reason, Beote suggests regular truck maintenance and more. “You have to keep checking your equipment to make sure it’s safe,” says Beote, 58. “The pre-trips and post trips are a must. You have to do them so that you can go down the road without problems.”

Today’s high-tech trucks are also a big help in preventing accidents. H.P. Hood’s fleet consists of mostly new 2005 model year trucks. They all are equipped with GPS tracking, mobile communications and the latest in advanced onboard computing systems from PeopleNet, Minneapolis. The company just started rolling the system out across its entire fleet within the last few weeks.

“If drivers obey their equipment, it will make their job that much easier and safer,” says Beote, “because it will keep track of your time, warn you when there are things you have to do and more.

“The new trucks are great because it’s all computerized,” he continues. “There’s really no room for error because it does everything for you, if you let it.”

But, in the end, it comes down to a love of life on the road. “I’ve been driving since I was a kid and I still enjoy it,” says Beote.
Now at age 58, he isn’t even thinking of retiring. “As long as I’ve got my health, I’ll stay with it,” he says.


Companies in this article