JENISON, Mich. (Sept. 9, 2016) — Most deaths in large truck crashes are passenger vehicle occupants, because people traveling in smaller vehicles will almost always lose the battle against an 80,000-pound semi tractor-trailer.
Truck braking capability also can be a factor in truck crashes. Loaded tractor-trailers take 20 to 40 percent farther than cars to stop, and the discrepancy is greater on wet and slippery roads or with poorly maintained brakes and/or tires.
Truck driver fatigue is also a known crash risk. Drivers of large trucks are allowed by federal regulations to drive up to 11 hours at a stretch and up to 77 hours over a seven-day period. Surveys indicate many drivers violate these regulations and work longer.
In June 2014, a Walmart Stores Inc. truck slammed into the back of a limo containing comedian Tracy Morgan and several others on the New Jersey Turnpike. Mr. Morgan's friend and fellow comedian Jimmy McNair was killed in the accident, while Mr. Morgan suffered broken ribs, a broken leg, a broken nose and severe head trauma.
He filed a lawsuit alleging that Walmart allowed its driver to drive after being “awake for more than 24 consecutive hours.” According to the suit, this caused the trucker to fall asleep at the wheel, striking the vehicle and causing a six-car pile-up. The suit was settled out of court in 2014 for several million dollars.
One of the greatest challenges the trucking industry faces is finding qualified drivers. According to an analysis by the American Trucking Associations (ATA), the shortage of drivers has grown to nearly 48,000 and could expand further due to industry growth and a retiring workforce and, if current trends hold, the shortage may balloon to almost 175,000 by 2024.
Making matters worse is that trucking companies report that most applicants do not meet the criteria to get hired.
Think back to the last time you drove your car in bad weather. Imagine what it's like driving a truck in rain, snow, fog, ice, thunderstorms and high winds. These conditions create a very challenging work environment for truckers — especially when the driver of the other vehicle is putting them in harm's way.
Most truckers can tell stories of someone pulling into their lane while talking on a cell phone or eating a sandwich, then hitting the brakes to make a last-minute turn, forcing the trucker to try to stop several tons of metal in a short distance.
My brother, a long-haul trucker, was driving his semi on a busy highway outside of Detroit when a young woman in a small car changed lanes, driving right into his front bumper. He pushed her sideways down the highway — with smoke coming off her tires — and he could see the horrified look on her face. Fortunately she was not seriously injured.
Because of the risk and the damage to the general public, trucking is a heavily regulated industry. The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) was established in 2000 with a mission to reduce crashes, injuries and fatalities involving large trucks and buses.
It uses the Safety Measurement System (SMS), which quantifies the on-road safety performance of carriers and drivers to identify candidates for interventions, determine the specific safety problems that a carrier or driver exhibits, and to monitor whether safety problems are improving or worsening.
The system, called BASIC, has outlined on-road safety in seven categories:
- Unsafe driving: Examples of violations include speeding, reckless driving, inattention.
- Hours-of-service (HOS) compliance: Violations include not only exceeding limits of hours on duty and minimum rest periods but also failing to keep adequate records of duty status and management of driver fatigue.
- Driver fitness: Violations include lack of proper licensing and medical qualification to operate a commercial motor vehicle.
- Controlled substances/alcohol: Violations include use of alcohol or controlled substances, which include opiates, hallucinogens, depressants and stimulants.
- Vehicle maintenance: Violations include brakes, lights, tires, mechanical defects, failure to make required repairs and unsecured loads.
- Hazardous materials compliance: Violations include release of hazardous materials, lack of documentation and improper placards/markings.
- Crash indicator: State crash reports showing high frequency and/or severity can adversely affect the SMS score.
Every fleet risk management program should incorporate FMCSA compliance and motor vehicle safety and these elements:
- Hire good drivers. Driver qualification involves a rigorous application, a thorough background check and a motor vehicle records check.
- Make sure drivers can drive safely by giving a road test.
- Don't rely on written materials for orienting newly hired drivers. Conduct orientation in person.
- Safety training is important from the first day. Newly hired drivers should receive training when they begin work and periodically thereafter during their first months on the job.
- Conduct pre- and post-trip inspections every day. Driver Vehicle Inspection Reports are a U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT) requirement after each trip. For example, drivers must start the engine and check brakes, lights, flashers, mirrors, wipers, tires, lug nuts and other equipment important to the vehicle's safe operation.
- Maintain a Driver Qualification File and keep it separate from the driver's personnel file.
- Ensure drivers maintain valid licenses. At any given time, often unintentionally, some drivers fail to renew their licenses.
- Follow USDOT guidelines on drug testing.
- Require drivers to follow safety guidelines and traffic laws, but don't assume all of them will.
- Create a tickler file to remind drivers and fleet managers to review safety procedures and compliance issues.
According to the Institute for Highway Safety, in 2012 there were 3,514 deaths involving large trucks. Of these, 17 percent were truck occupants, 67 percent passenger auto occupants and 15 percent motorcycle abd bicycle riders and pedestrians.
Here are some areas under consideration for improving safety:
- Electronic logging devices. An electronic logging device (ELD) is used to electronically record a driver's Record of Duty Status (RODS), which replaces the paper logbook some drivers use to record their compliance with Hours of Service (HOS) requirements. This rule may be rolled out as early as next year and will demonstrate how accurate the current system of reporting is.
- Crash avoidance technology. In general, this monitors driver input, the environment around the vehicle and warns the driver when it detects the potential for a collision. In some cases, it increases braking power or adjusts steering response to make the driver's input more effective. It also may automatically brake or steer the vehicle if the driver does not take action to avoid the collision.
- Reducing under-ride potential. This entails adding more guards to semi trailers to prevent passenger vehicles from going under the trailers as well as side reflectors to make trailers more visible when backing.
- Reducing truck speeds. Governor devices could be added to prevent drivers from going over the speed limit.
I have an appreciation for the dedication and skill of truckers. My dad drove a fuel delivery truck while I was growing up. He would tell me how driving a partially loaded truck with gasoline was like driving with a live bomb as cargo. For this reason he would never allow anyone to ride with him in his truck. My father-in-law drove a semi-truck until his retirement. He was proud to say he drove millions of miles without a single accident.
That is a lofty goal that all truckers should strive for as they ply our nation's highways.
Randy Boss is a certified risk architect and partner at Jenison, Mich.-based Ottawa Kent Insurance Agency Inc., an outsource risk-management firm and independent insurance agency. He designs, builds and implements risk-management and insurance plans for middle-market companies in the areas of human resources, property/casualty and benefits. Mr. Boss has 38 years of experience in the field and has been at Ottawa Kent for 33 of those years.
He is a lead instructor for the Institute of Benefit & Wellness Advisors, training agents how to bring risk management to benefits, and is co-founder of OSHAlogs.com, an Occupational Safety and Health Administrationcompliance and injury management platform. He can be reached at [email protected] or 616-797-3401.