Driver safety is one of those topics that gets talked about a lot — but discussing it is a lot different than practicing it. There are too many aspects to count, from weather to other drivers to distracting technology and more.
Work Truck talked to industry experts to create this comprehensive guide that looks at how to better prepare drivers for the known and unknown.
Mother Nature: Prepping for the Unpredictable
Mark Murrell, co-founder and president of CarriersEdge, a provider of online truck driver training, said fleet managers need to remind their drivers to be prepared for anything, especially during seasonal change when the weather can turn on a dime from one extreme to another.
“Teach drivers how to assess the environment around them as they go about their day and react according to what they see and experience,” he stated.
Drivers should be checking weather reports and forecasts before starting their day, but also be taught to recognize signs of changing weather, such as:
- Darkening sky.
- Large and puffy dark clouds.
- Changes in wind, temperature, and atmospheric pressure.
Lori Leonti, director of compliance for Area Wide Protective (AWP), a traffic control company, provided some examples of what drivers should be watching for based on the season they are driving in, particularly spring and winter.
Spring brings warmer weather, longer days, and presents a new set of challenges for drivers, including:
- Tornadoes, thunderstorms, and lightning.
- Flooded roads and parking lots.
- Post weather event hazards.
- Standing water — hydroplaning.
- Sun glare.
- Increase in pedestrians and bicyclists.
- Increase in motorcycles on the road.
Wind is often a spring weather concern for drivers to be aware of, noted Gary Falldin, senior director of industry solutions for Trimble Transportation, a provider of hardware and software for carriers, brokers, and shippers. High winds can cause rollovers or even blow tractor-trailers off the road.
Leonti listed the following obstacles drivers often face in the winter:
- Snow, ice, and sleet.
- Black ice.
- Pedestrian hazards.
- School zones.
- Holiday shoppers.
Falldin explained winter driving concerns primarily boil down to two factors: Traction and visibility. Snow, ice, and shortened daylight hours create challenges on the road, such as lessened visibility, not only for themselves due to blowing snow, but also creating white-out conditions for other motorists when changing lanes. Another safety concern is simply walking around. Drivers should be extra cautious with slips and falls when walking around their equipment for inspections.
A big challenge that comes with summer is road construction. Lanes are often poorly marked or narrow, vehicles merge unexpectedly, and lots of construction workers are on the road.
“We used to tell drivers to ‘expect the expected’ — you know cars are going to zip into your lane and merge at the last second, or not give you as much space as you need,” Falldin, who previously held safety positions at several major carriers, said. Drivers should look out for more motorcycles and RVs as well.
With autumn comes the back-to-school season. Buses are back on the road making more frequent stops. It’s also harvest season, with increased numbers of oversized or slow-moving farm equipment on the roads.
If traffic hazards are foreseeable, Murrell suggested incorporating the time to drive through them safely in trip planning to prevent a driver from feeling stressed about deadlines. This will enable drivers to concentrate fully on the road and the conditions in front of them.
Also be sure to communicate emergency response plans to drivers, and not just at the beginning of their training. Frequent reminders will help keep safety top of mind.
“The good thing about emergency plans is we rarely use them; the bad news is because we rarely use them, we can easily forget what they are and what to do when we need to use them unless we keep refreshed on them regularly,” he explained.
Chris Wilson, safety director for Nauto, a provider of AI-based vehicle safety technology for commercial fleets and the automotive sector, said fleet managers should look for fleet safety technology that works in all weather conditions and incorporates seasonal changes into the data science it’s built on. This way, companies and drivers get the most value from the investment, no matter the season.
Facing Traffic with Technology
While many fleets provide training for drivers to help them handle seasonal hazards, it’s also important to understand how seasonal patterns affect operations, according to Wilson of Nauto.
“If you’re in the last-mile delivery business, your volumes probably peak in November and December, and you may be taking on new or temporary drivers, renting vehicles, and having helpers go along with drivers on some routes,” he said. “You could start your hiring and training earlier to give newer drivers time to onboard effectively. You could also limit initial driving hours while newer drivers learn their route or keep them on low-risk routes.”
Advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS) are becoming more commonplace in vehicles to help drivers navigate the challenges that come with daily increased traffic. Drivers should never solely rely on technology — it’s there to assist, not take over.
“No commercial vehicle safety technology replaces a skilled, alert driver exercising safe driving techniques and proactive, comprehensive driver training. Responsibility for the safe operation of the vehicle remains with the driver at all times,” said TJ Thomas, director of marketing and customer solutions – controls group for Bendix Commercial Vehicle Systems, a company that designs, develops, and supplies active safety technologies for fleets, noted.
As driver assistance technologies — such as electronic stability control, collision mitigation, and others — are being used in ever-growing numbers in today’s commercial vehicles, Fred Andersky, director – demos, sales & service training for Bendix, noted it’s becoming increasingly important to prepare and educate drivers on how these systems work, what potential support they provide drivers out on the road, and, just as importantly, what the systems do not do.
“It’s crucial to remember what’s currently commercially available for trucks on the road are driver assistance systems, not autonomous driving systems. As we move into more automated systems, the need for training drivers and technicians will continue,” Andersky stated.
In addition to integrating driver assistance technologies, maintaining effective brakes on a vehicle is also an essential step for every fleet. Air disc brakes provide distinct advantages, as drivers benefit from shorter stopping distance along with smoother, straighter, and more stable stops, according to Mark Holley, director of marketing and customer solutions, wheel-end for Bendix.
“As part of our complete integrated solution for today’s commercial vehicles, the right brakes and friction, supported by proper inspection and upkeep, are instrumental in helping vehicles perform at their best. When it’s time to replace brake pads or shoes, not all aftermarket replacements will perform to the reduced stopping distance (RSD) regulatory standard, even if they’re marketed as ‘acceptable.’ We recommend replacing original equipment manufacturer (OEM) friction like-for-like to maintain performance and compliance,” he said.
Falldin of Trimble Transportation explained it’s vital to be aware of the four most critical types of accidents: Rear ends, lane change, run-under, and loss of control. Fleet managers should spend a good deal of time discussing these types of incidents as well as best practices in trying to avoid them.
Cell Phones Aren’t the Only Deadly Distraction
While cell phones do play a large role in distracting drivers, they aren’t the only factor — sometimes, it’s not entirely the driver’s fault. Delivery pressure, friction with operations, or other job-specific things are all possible distractions, according to Murrell.
“The company will be better off to resolve those problems instead of just telling the driver to stay focused. It may also be things like fatigue or stress over parking the company can help with,” he said.
Wilson of Nauto has discovered it’s extremely powerful to show drivers videos of collisions, near-collisions, or other incidents that result from distracted driving.
“When drivers see these videos, the abstract idea that distracted driving is dangerous becomes real, and they are more likely to stay focused while on the road. They are more likely to accept that certain common practices are risky (e.g., eating, driving, reading maps, etc.),” he explained.
Trimble Transportation’s Falldin stated most drivers these days realize how bad phone use is.
“First of all, there’s a violation received — and most reputable carriers will not hire a driver who has a violation for phone use. Many companies have a zero-tolerance policy for it. It’s simply that dangerous for a driver to take their eyes off the road to use a cell phone while driving. All drivers know the consequences of what could happen,” he said.
In-vehicle alerts (IVAs) can also help reduce distracted driving in just a few weeks, without manager intervention. These alerts enable drivers to self-correct in real-time, which is a major advancement over recording events and coaching after the fact.
Wilson noted distractions can fall into three categories:
- Manual: The driver is holding an object, including everything from eating or drinking to looking at a route sheet or smoking. If the driver drops the object, a high-risk situation becomes more likely.
- Visual: These include cell phones, as well as devices mounted below the driver’s line of sight. When a driver’s eyes are off the road for even just a few seconds, risk rises dramatically.
- Cognitive: The driver might be looking at the road, but their mind is elsewhere. Perhaps they’re singing and dancing along with loud music or are drowsy.
AWP ensures distracted driving is discussed year-round, and it’s incorporated into the teams’ monthly safety meetings, newsletters, and weekly safety phone calls, according to Leonti.
“We remind drivers to remain vigilant by constantly being aware of hazards, unsafe behaviors, and changing risk conditions,” she said. “This means always being on guard, keeping your eyes moving, and remaining alert to hazards, both seen and unseen.”
Here are some tips she provided to improve defensive driving:
- Be alert to potentially hazardous situations in advance (weather and road conditions).
- Assume other drivers may make mistakes; be on guard and ready to react in the event an error is made.
- Search ahead of what is immediately in front to have advance warning of approaching hazards.
- Be prepared to expect the unexpected.
Collisions Happen — Be Prepared
Maintaining an emergency kit in the cab of the vehicle that provides drivers with a checklist of actions to take if an accident does take place is a great way to keep safety top of mind, Nauto’s Wilson mentioned.
In addition to this, Murrell of CarriersEdge suggests a simple formula for if/when an accident occurs:
- Stop: Turn on warning flashers, check yourself for injury, and keep the vehicle shut off.
- Secure: Put on a visibility vest and secure the vehicle and accident scene with warning signals placed in the direction of oncoming traffic before checking the vehicle and load for any imminent hazards such as leaks or falling objects.
- Report: Contact your company to help guide you through the next steps. If enforcement is on the scene, they will also provide instructions. Stay calm, follow directions, and take a lot of photographs including at least one panoramic shot of the entire scene that includes the people and other vehicles at the scene. If you have an in-cab camera, ensure the video is preserved correctly.
- Document: Complete the report provided by your carrier in full, even if you have a camera, and make sure you collect any other driver or witness information. Communicate what you have documented to the carrier contact so they can ensure you have everything you need and they can clear you for departure from the scene, along with enforcement if they are present.
“A good reminder is to document more than you think you might need to save time and frustration as you complete the process and, most importantly, do not engage in conversations about the incident with any other person than your carrier contact or enforcement. A simple apology can be taken as an admission of fault and talking about details with a person from a different experience of the incident can alter your memory and perception making it harder to report and document accurately,” Murrell noted.
Documenting is made easier if dashcams and predictive AI are incorporated into your fleet safety program. This can help drivers remain calm knowing they don’t have to remember every little detail of the accident.
Pandemic Changes Training Tactics
While the COVID-19 pandemic has waned in severity as of late, it has affected safety and training in significant ways. The large-scale move to virtual classrooms such as Zoom and Microsoft Teams at the beginning proved to be a challenge. However, it showed virtual tools can be at least as effective as their physical counterparts and many fleets have continued to use them as part of their broader training strategy, according to CarriersEdge’s Murrell.
In addition to IVAs helping drivers self-correct in real-time, Wilson of Nauto said they can also help reduce the need for in-person coaching in a time when most training is done by digital means.
“Drivers who self-correct typically continue performing at the new, safer level,” he stated.
It’s still good to bring drivers in for face-to-face meetings when safe to do so to get to know them better and help them see more of the company culture. That’s why Trimble’s Falldin recommended a hybrid model for reiterating important topics.
“When it comes to online training, it’s important to pick a good online training and learning management system that is based on adult learning principles, has an interactive element, and uses knowledge checks,” he explained.
Murrell said the largest shift he’s seen in driver safety in the past two years has been mental health.
“The pandemic has added a lot of stress to everyone’s lives, and it’s particularly challenging for front line workers out on the road alone all day. That can take a real toll and fleets are starting to recognize that. Two years ago, few fleets (if any) were talking about mental health issues or the importance of doing wellness checks with drivers. Now, close to two-thirds of the fleets we talk to make that a regular practice. That may not be directly a road safety issue, but in the context of getting drivers home safely, it’s become a significant factor,” he explained.