Expect the unexpected when it comes to the behavior of other drivers, and don’t neglect pre- and post-trip truck inspections. Those are top tips from two experts on safety of fleet vehicle operations.
Michael Baker, director of marketing and sales for Smith & Solomon, a company in Linden, N.J., that teaches defensive driving to truck drivers, said owners and managers are often so busy running their core business that they can easily be distracted from regulatory developments that apply to their trucks and drivers. “It’s definitely not something to ignore,” he said, referring specifically to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) program known as CSA (Compliance, Safety, Accountability). Smith & Solomon performs mock “audits” for companies, alerts them to shortcomings in their compliance and advises them how to bring their trucks, drivers and record-keeping up to par with the program’s requirements.
State associations are also good sources of information on how to keep up with the regulations, Baker added.
“It’s a good thing to educate drivers on regulations,” Baker said, “because sometimes the drivers think it’s the company that’s coming down on them” – not realizing that the company is required by law to comply.
Another key to safe vehicle operations is to conduct pre- and post-trip inspections of trucks, said Sgt. John Begin of the New Hampshire State Police.
“The first thing is doing that very comprehensive pre-trip that is difficult to do day in, day out,” Begin said. The difficulty is a matter of discipline, he noted, because if inspections turn up nothing day after day, drivers can become lax about continuing to do them.
That’s a mistake, Begin said. Maintenance and repair issues can become evident in the span of a day, and if the inspection is skipped, the problem will go undetected.
“Really look the vehicle over and make it a habit to do it every day and don’t skip it on the days when it’s a little cold or it’s raining,” Begin advised. “Your truck tells you a story, if you’re listening.”
Safe driving practices complement regular truck inspections to make a complete safety package, said Begin, a veteran investigator of fatal accidents involving commercial vehicles in New Hampshire. Begin is currently assigned to the Troop G Commercial Motor Vehicle Enforcement Unit of the New Hampshire State Police.
Defensive driving by commercial drivers is essential, Begin said, because passenger vehicle drivers often can’t be counted on to take the same precautions. He cited statistics that he said were collected by the state of New Hampshire on accidents that involved commercial vehicles and had resulted in fatalities.
In 2011, of in-state accidents involving commercial vehicles that resulted in one or more fatalities, 78% were found to have been caused by passenger vehicle operators, Begin said. In 2010, 100% of such accidents in New Hampshire were found to have been the fault of passenger vehicle operators; and in 2009, 85% were caused by passenger vehicle operators, Begin said.
“So it’s overwhelmingly the fault of the passenger vehicle [drivers] in these fatal crashes,” Begin said.
Most often, he said, accidents are the result of the passenger vehicle operator “doing something unsafely around the truck,” Begin said. “People do all kinds of crazy stuff when they’re going down the road. That’s why we’re promoting the concepts of driving with courtesy around trucks, leaving more space, and not driving in the ‘no zones.’”
In addition, Begin said of accident causes, “A lot of them are center line encroachment cases – where the [passenger] vehicle crosses over the center line.” Reasons vary for such encroachments, Begin said, but he noted, “The more I do this [accident investigation] the more I find that the biggest issue out there is distracted drivers.”
Begin, who was a presenter at this year’s general membership meeting of the Oil Heat Council of New Hampshire, in Concord, said these include, but are not limited to, eating, drinking, consulting maps, reading and writing.
Truck drivers too can fall prey to distractions.
“Most commercial drivers really do a good job,” Begin said, pointing out that they drive in all kinds of conditions and many have operated vehicles hundreds of thousands of miles, if not a million or more, over decades.
The FMCSA prohibits cell phone usage by commercial drivers unless they have a hands-free device. But for truck drivers there are many potential causes of distraction besides cell phones, Begin said. These can be as common as something rolling around on the passenger-side floor or something on the passenger seat “that’s just sitting there,” Begin said.
“Anything that distracts the driver from looking where he’s going and from being observant is something that is going to increase the likelihood of a safety related incident,” Begin said. “That may not be a crash. But it could be a close call.”
For truck drivers, the stakes are much higher, Begin emphasized.
It is wrong for everyday passenger car drivers to allow themselves to be distracted, Begin said, “but it’s even more egregiously wrong for the guy behind [the wheel] of that truck. He is the professional driver.”
Begin wondered whether dispatch systems could be shut down while drivers are operating their vehicles, so that drivers would not feel compelled to answer while they were driving, which he cited as a distraction.
“Some trucks have text devices that send a message from dispatch,” Begin commented. “That thing beeps and what does the driver do? Well, he wants to see what the message is.”
In the case of a heavy truck loaded with hazardous material such as fuel oil an accident has potential to cause property damage, personal injury and environmental harm on a bigger scale than would a passenger vehicle, Begin noted. “The stakes when you operate that large truck are that much greater,” he said.
Apart from distraction, speeding and failing to maintain ample following distance are major causes of accidents, Begin said. Regarding following distance, he advised truck drivers: “Ensure that you have more than enough time to stop your vehicle in case that car in front of you does something stupid.”
Smith & Solomon’s Baker said safe driving instruction indirectly impresses upon drivers the responsibility they carry every time they get behind the wheel. “The minute they get into that truck they have the billboard of that company on their backs,” Baker said, “and the exposure, the liability – from the owners’ standpoint – is huge.”
As for the driving instruction itself, veteran drivers aren’t always initially receptive, Baker acknowledged.
“It’s good to have experienced drivers but sometimes there is complacency and that is dangerous,” Baker said. “Drivers who have been driving vehicles for 30 years ‘know’ everything there is to know,” he said. They might wonder what an instructor can possibly teach them that they don’t know after driving thirty years. “Everybody always learns something,” Baker insisted.
That said, truck drivers “are probably more attentive to their driving than anybody,” Baker said. “They know what they’re doing. They’ve got thousands of gallons of home heating oil. They’re driving for the company. They don’t want to lose their job. They certainly don’t want to hurt anybody, or worse.”
But nine times out of ten it’s not the truck driver who creates a problem, but another driver, Baker noted. Other drivers often don’t understand the braking distance that a fuel oil delivery truck requires, for example.
“They’ll cut in front, they’ll pass on the right where the truck driver can’t necessarily see them,” Baker said. “You never know what they’re going to do.
“But there are maneuvers,” Baker said. When stopping at a light for a right turn, for example, pull slightly into the shoulder to block a passenger vehicle driver from scooting up on the inside and trying to beat your truck around the turn, Baker advised. “It’s a good defensive move. It says, ‘I’m here. I’ve got to do what I’ve got to do – and you just sit tight.”
Fuel oil dealers who hire a safe driving instructor to come in, or who send their drivers to an instructor, should always conduct follow-up in-house sessions periodically thereafter, Baker advised. That doesn’t require time-consuming meetings, but a 15-minute refresher, maybe on a quarterly basis, can keep the subject of safe and defensive driving front and center, Baker said.