The operation of commercial motor vehicles presents one of the greatest risks to business operations. Anything over 10,000 lbs. moving at speeds of 65 mph, on paper, can be a recipe for disaster. This is a scenario that could, and should, keep business owners up at night. All it takes is one slip up, one false move, one glance at a phone, one sleep-induced closing of the eyes for a catastrophic event to take place. There are many negative consequences that can arise from a commercial motor vehicle accident. The most severe, and yet very likely, result is death. There will almost certainly be injury and, inevitably, a significant dollar amount in insurance costs. These are matters that no business owner ever wants to deal with. So how do we prevent these things from happening?
Surely there are many partially right answers to this question. However, is there ever really a way to prevent accidents from happening? Of course not. When dealing with human beings there will always be a chance for error. Human beings are fallible creatures by nature. It is imperative we understand and accept this, to address the issue of driver safety. If we look at drivers as some object that operates the equipment, void of human emotions and characteristics, we are not only setting them up for failure but also setting ourselves up for disappointment. Maybe the day will come when robots exclusively operate all machinery and heavy equipment and replace human beings behind the wheels of tractor trailers. However, that time is not now. And if we’re honest with ourselves, we can all think of a time when we had inhumane expectations of a driver. This attitude is a real issue in the industry and this added pressure on drivers does not aid in their safety.
The key to solving any problem is to fully understand it and to discover the cause. What’s causing drivers to have accidents, make mistakes, not pay attention. The difficulty in answering these questions is that there is not simply one cause. There are often many factors involved; fatigue, bad weather, other motorists, distractions, equipment malfunctions. However, what do these factors lead back to? The answer is that they all lead back to the driver. And don’t misunderstand this statement by assuming it means that the driver is always at fault in an accident situation. Of course, that is not the case. But we must keep in mind that the ONE constant in these situations, is the driver. In every accident there is a driver, regardless of the outside factors; bad weather, fatigue, another motorist’s actions, external distractions, equipment malfunction. The driver is always at the center of the accident whether these factors are present or not, and although they aren’t always at fault, at some point in their day a choice was made that affected the outcome of said day.
The best way to address this and get to the root of what it truly means is to be a bit politically incorrect. We must understand that not everyone is created equal. This isn’t intended to diminish any individual, everyone has their thing. Not every accident that ever happened was the driver’s fault. And, of course, every driver that has had an accident is not a bad driver. Mistakes are important learning tools. So, the idea is not to look down on drivers for having accidents, that will get us nowhere. But, we do need to understand that some drivers are more prone to accidents than others. Not everyone has the same abilities, reflexes, understanding, experiences, knowledge, perspective, etc. One person may have the right combination of attributes that result in a good, safe driver. However, another person may have a combination of attributes that may suit them very well in another field, but you may not want to entrust them with operating your very heavy, and very expensive, equipment at high speeds around the public. We also must understand that it is not entirely difficult to attain a Commercial Driver’s License. And this statement is not intended to undermine truck drivers, as it is very difficult to be a good, safe driver. However, possessing a license and being a good driver are two entirely different things. These are truths we need to accept if we want to build a safer fleet.
In a fast-paced industry where drivers are a commodity it is easier said than done to be highly selective when hiring drivers. It really comes down to how badly you want to avoid accidents/injuries and provide a safe working environment for you employees, as well as keeping the public safe on the roadways. I know we all care about these things, but do you care enough when the operation is running at full speed and you’re ten drivers short? Do you care enough to not hire the driver that your gut is telling you is not the right person for the job, even though you desperately need them? One undeniable certainty is, you do not need the wrong people. The wrong person is a band-aid when you need stitches. An unsafe driver is a severe risk for accident or injury and while you may be thinking that you’re keeping the business running, you may be making a choice that severely impedes it in the future. When you know a wound needs stitches and medical treatment but instead slap a band-aid on the opening and get back to it, you are making a choice that puts you at risk down the road. In both cases you are faced with a choice; do you stop and take the time in the moment to address the situation appropriately, or do you do what you must do to keep moving? Surely there are plenty of people that fall under the “keep moving” category. But do they sing the same tune when the driver they knew they shouldn’t hire turns the truck over in the middle of the night, or when the wound becomes severely infected? Probably not.
The discussion of choice is the most apt in this whole equation. Everything comes down to choice. After all, every human being is the result of the choices they’ve made throughout their life. The involvement of outside factors is apropos here. As previously mentioned, before any accident takes place the driver makes a series of choices. No accident can 100% be blamed on an outside factor. Let’s take inclement weather for example. Can weather, on its own, cause an accident? No, it cannot. A driver makes a choice as to how they will drive in certain weather conditions. And although the risk for accident increases in inclement weather conditions, it certainly doesn’t make it inevitable. For every driver that has an accident in inclement weather, there are many more that do not. So, what separates these drivers? It is very likely that it is the choice the driver makes as to how to approach driving in the inclement weather. The drivers that slow down, focus intently on their task of driving, anticipate potential hazards, and respect the circumstances are much less likely to have an accident than those that continue to charge forward with little acknowledgement of the weather conditions.
Choice, whether directly or indirectly, can be related to all the factors mentioned previously. Regarding fatigue, a driver that chooses to go to bed early and get sufficient rest prior to their shift is less likely to have an accident than a driver who chooses to stay up and short themselves sleep. A driver who makes the choice to show up to work early and dedicates him/herself to performing a thorough pre-trip is less likely to have an equipment malfunction than a driver who rushes through a pre-trip, or skips it altogether. A distraction can only be a distraction if it has a willing audience. A good, safe driver will continuously scan their pathway for potential hazards but will not concern him/herself with things that will not affect said pathway, and they will choose not to become fixated on anything. These drivers are much less likely to be in an accident than a driver that chooses to allow themselves to be distracted by something around them. Other motorists are a very large factor in many tractor trailer accidents. However, safe drivers choose to keep significant distance between them and motorists in front of them as they understand and respect how much longer it takes for them to stop than other vehicles. These drivers also choose to check their mirrors frequently, so they can always be aware of the vehicles approaching them. Drivers who choose to follow too closely to other vehicles and neglect their mirrors are much more likely to be in an accident than the ones who choose to keep their distance and are constantly aware of their surroundings.
Consistent choices create habits. Habits are what make us successful or unsuccessful. To address the issue of driver safety and build a safer fleet, the first step is to consistently choose to hire people we can trust to make good decisions. This is, of course, not an easy endeavor. However, it is also not a difficult one. What it is, frankly, is a process. Building a process that guides you in vetting your potential drivers will ultimately be your roadmap to establishing a fleet of drivers that gives you time, as opposed to one that takes time from you. Once the process is set, if you consistently make the choice to follow it, you will be much more likely to hire good, safe drivers. There is not one hiring/training process that works for everyone. It is important to understand your business and its needs and tailor your process after them. Ensure that your process is fair and unbiased, ensure there are checks and balances, and ensure that it is thorough. However, the most important thing is that once you inject a new driver into your culture that you are confident that they will consistently make good, safe choices.
This, also, cannot be a guessing game on the driver’s end. You must train your new drivers. A large part of this training must be communicating to them a clear standard as well as the habits, methods, and behaviors you want them to adopt while you employ them, and they represent your brand. We must do our part as the employer and continuously guide them. Simply hiring them and sending them off on their own because we trust they are a good hire is like not following your shot in basketball. Just because you practiced your shot for hours doesn’t mean every shot you take is going to go in. But if you follow your shot you can have a chance at the rebound, if it misses, and still get the point. The only additional cost to follow up is effort. However, follow up is essential to keep the train you set in motion, on track. The most difficult aspect, indeed, is setting it in motion, however constant tracking and monitoring is vital to its sustainability.
We must be realistic and understanding when looking at the issue of driver safety and attempting to build a safer fleet. Nothing we do will eliminate the risk of accident or injury. However, there is certainly a clear way to significantly reduce this risk. One of the first steps in any approach to this issue should always be to take a hard look at who you’re allowing to drive your vehicles. Every additional driver you put on the road to operate one of your vehicles should be offering you more freedom to run your business, not taking away from that freedom. To receive that payoff, you must put the work in on the front end, so that it doesn’t take away from your efforts on the back end.
Mike DeAngelo is the Safety & Compliance Manager for Vestal Asphalt, Inc.
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