Our modern world has seen goods and commodities transport on the once mighty and ubiquitous railroad system give way to transport by the private trucking industry, putting more than 11 million trucks on U.S. highways logging over 288 billion (with a "B") miles a year. The interstate these days seems like a trucking industry world that we're all just living (or more pointedly trying to survive) in. Road haulage is one of the most dangerous industries in America, and the danger is ever increasing. In 2009, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, reported that tractor-trailers and large trucks were involved in 286,000 crashes, which led to over 3,000 deaths and 74,000 injuries. By 2010, the number of tractor trailer collisions had doubled. Data from the U.S. Department of Transportation recorded 500,000 collisions in 2010 that resulted in more than 5,000 fatalities. Not surprisingly, a study by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) found that 76 percent of these fatalities from tractor-trailer collisions were the occupants of the passenger vehicle.
There are a number of common factors involved in trucking-related collisions, including:
- Size and weight. A tractor-trailer is more than 25 times heavier than the average passenger vehicle, ranging in weight from 12,100 to 80,000 pounds, which means that it takes a tractor-trailer longer to stop than a car or light truck. A car traveling 55 mph takes 265 feet to stop, while a large truck needs at least another 45 feet.
- Driver Fatigue. Truck drivers get paid by the mile, not by the hour, and, therefore, sometimes drive longer than they should. Fatigue can decrease driver reaction time and impair driver judgment. In fact, a 2006 government survey suggested that around 13% of tractor trailer collisions are fatigue related.
- Driver Distraction. As anyone who has spent any time on the Pennsylvania Turnpike can attest, long hours spent in the relative monotony of the interstate system can cause some truck drivers to become distracted and bored.
- Improper weight distribution. In contrast to the routes they drive, the one thing that is seemingly ever-changing for a tractor-trailer driver is the type and density of the haul load. This can lead to problems in the load distribution and if a load is not properly distributed, the trailer can sway.
- Passenger vehicle driving. I certainly do not mean to suggest that tractor-trailer collisions are caused exclusively by the tractor-trailer drivers. In fact, as often as not, it is the driver of the involved passenger vehicle who is responsible, aggressively weaving through traffic lanes and cutting in front of tractor-trailers, which forces them to brake suddenly.
Winter is possibly the most dangerous time of the year, seeing a significant uptick in the volume of truck traffic trying to make on-time holiday deliveries, coupled with the wintry mix of rainy, foggy, snowy, icy weather conditions, which only adds to the likelihood of a collision. Unfortunately, trucking related fatalities continue to rise.
However, hope seems to be on the way. The trucking industry in the United States is in the midst of an estimated $2 billion regulatory upheaval that will fundamentally change the way truck drivers operate on America's highways. The next few years will see the phase-in of mandatory laws requiring all U.S. tractor-trailer operators to carry an electronic on-board recorder (EOBR) in their vehicle. This EOBR is basically a tracking device that can offer real-time monitoring of a host of factors designed to reduce tractor trailer-related collisions, including when a truck's engine is running and its on-duty status, to help ensure that drivers are not working for more than 14 consecutive hours. The EOBR's also contain a number of "apps" to improve safety, like a graphical display that gradually turns from green to red as a driver chews through his permissible time behind the wheel. In the meantime, however, there remain a host of effective steps we passenger drivers can take to protect ourselves out on the road. With the hustle and bustle of the Holiday season, the last thing on most of our minds is driving safety, but it is also one of the most important considerations this time of the year. So, if you have read this far, please go all in with me and give some thought to the following safety tips as you head out on the road this winter.
1. You better recognize.
Please respect the operational limitations of the tractor-trailer. The size and weight of these trucks make maneuverability very different than cars or light trucks. This means you have to give yourself plenty of distance both behind and in front of a tractor trailer. The classic, "2-second" following distance we were all taught as teenagers is grossly insufficient when sharing the road with a tractor trailer, so please give yourself a wide berth when following a semi.
2. Don't cut 'em off.
Avoid passing a truck and then quickly moving back into the truck's lane or cutting in front of the truck to exit. Often we find ourselves being pushed by speedy drivers behind us, and this can present a particularly perilous situation when we approach a semi in our adjacent lane of travel. You know this situation: a semi on your right and a car or truck barreling down on you from behind. The natural tendency is to pass the semi to get out of the way of the speeding driver as quickly as possible by cutting in front of the truck. But such an unexpected move can force the truck driver to slam on his brakes which puts not only your vehicle, but other vehicles nearby in danger. Always make sure to safely pass a truck, leaving plenty of distance in your wake, before you attempt to move back into the truck's lane. Likewise, avoid passing a tractor trailer quickly to cut directly in front of it to exit. This behavior causes accidents.
3. Know your "No Zones"
Tractor trailers have much larger "blind spots" or "no zones", those areas where you cannot be seen in a semi's rear or side view mirrors. The "no-zones" for tractor trailers are around the left rear, right front, and in the back of a tractor trailer, and traveling in these areas puts you at significant risk that a truck driver will pull into your travel lane without seeing you. Remember this maxim: if you can't see the driver in the truck's side mirrors, the driver can't see you.
To minimize the risk of riding in the "no zone":
- Avoid travelling alongside a tractor trailer for longer than it takes you to pass the truck at a reasonable speed (this also minimizes the risk of injury from a tractor trailer tire blowout).
- Get in the habit of either passing a tractor trailer immediately when you approach one or dropping back in your lane behind the truck to a point where the truck driver can easily see your vehicle in his side view mirror.
- If you decide to pass, take a few extra seconds to make sure the truck is not signaling any imminent lane changes before you pass. Look for turn signals or even slight drifting towards your lane of travel. Honking the horn as you begin to pass can also help alert a truck driver that you intend to pass.
- If you decide to pass, don't change lanes too quickly. Sudden movement in a driver's periphery can sometimes cause a tractor trailer to react unpredictably. Instead, use your turn signal beginning from a safe starting distance and give the tractor trailer every available visual indicator of your intentions.
4. Get Back and Stay Back
Maintain a following distance of 20 to 25 car lengths behind any tractor-trailer, which allows more distance to maximize braking capabilities. Also give tractor trailers a wider berth when following them uphill. Shifting gears can sometimes be more problematic for a truck driver travelling uphill and trucks on inclines can and do drift backwards.
Finally, remain alert to tractor trailers making a right turn. Tractor trailers must "swing wide" to make a sharp right turn at an intersection, and often times must move left in order to swing right. This can be confusing if you are behind a truck, because the natural tendency is to think the truck is turning left, so you keep going. Then, when the truck cuts back right, you're trapped in what is often termed the "right turn squeeze", which can cause significant damage and injury.
5. Get Off The Road in an Emergency
In an emergency, pull completely off the road as far as possible. If you can safely set out flares or triangles, place them at both ends to warn approaching traffic. Then move as far away from your vehicle as you can, preferably on the far side of any guardrail, and immediately contact the state and/or local police to alert them to the road hazard. Law enforcement officers are trained how to appropriately warn approaching traffic of the hazard, reroute traffic safely around your broken down vehicle, and have it moved off the road promptly. Under no circumstances is it ever advisable to try and fix a problem yourself while on the side of the highway, even if the problem is as basic as changing a tire.
And this is particularly true at night. It is practically as hazardous to stop on a highway shoulder after dark as it is to stop in a highway travel lane, because night vision often plays tricks on people's perception on the roadway. For instance, the lights a truck driver sees in the distance and assumes belong to a vehicle in a moving travel lane may instead belong to a vehicle stalled on the road or on the shoulder. If the driver of a tractor trailer makes this error, he is likely to strike your vehicle when it is stopped on the shoulder, and truck drivers are especially prone to make these errors in judgment at night when they are tired after a long day's drive.
6. Night Time Is Not the Right Time
Fatigued driving remains the scourge of commercial transportation. Given the nature of the industry's demands, truck drivers remain exposed to excessive rates of sleep apnea and insomnia. The best way to combat this is to limit your driving between the hours of 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. Trying to drive all night to get to your destination (still a popular tactic for Myrtle Beach vacationers from the Ohio Valley) disrupts the natural circadian rhythms of the human body and can lead to decreased perception and reaction times, as well as sheer exhaustion, all of which are a recipe for catastrophe.
The commercial transportation industry and our government are working to improve highway safety and reduce trucking-related collisions. But, regardless of the scope and timing of these new regulations, following the practices outlined above can keep the odds in our favor. So drive defensively, stay alert and be safe this winter and every other time you venture out on the highway.