We often hear of the need to limit our distractions while driving. This instantly conjures images of cell phones, texting, or even children fighting in the back seat. However, there are many external and internal distractions we might not recognize as being distractions. Understanding and limiting your distractions while driving will help prevent accidents which could end your career, or worse, could end someone's life.
External distractions are easy to identify. Things around us that divert our attention from our driving are obvious such as music, cell phones, horns, cars cutting in front of us, billboards, things in the sky such as firework displays or planes, and scenery such as the moon or beautiful mountain ranges. Anything that takes our focus off of potential hazards is a distraction.
“Rubberneckers” going past an accident scene are blatantly guilty of allowing outside things to distract them. This week in Florida I witnessed an accident occur on the Northbound side of I-95 and I immediately downshifted and put my hazard lights on, knowing someone in front of me would crash. They did, because they were too busy looking behind them trying to see the wreck. Well, that driver got to see an accident up close and personal when he hit the car in front of him.
But what about internal distractions that no one thinks about? To be safe, one must be mentally prepared and focused on the tasks at hand. Did you sleep well? Are you thinking about an argument you had with your spouse the night before? Is your stomach upset from the spicy spaghetti from last night? Are you concerned you won't make the load on time due to traffic? Are you replaying your rookie mistake from yesterday over and over in your mind? These kind of distractions can affect your ability to drive safely and can have dire results.
Back in the 1990s when cell phones were becoming popular, I was paid to participate in a study to gauge driver attention spans and reaction times. Over the course of three days, I drove a simulator wearing a pair of special glasses that tracked my eye movements. The first part of the experiment was just a normal drive, trying to avoid cars and driving along a course. During the second phase, we were given Sony Walkman radios (the Ipods of the 1980s and 1990s) and told to drive. In the final phase, we were given cell phones to chat along while we drove. The phones back then were not large enough to cradle on your shoulder and they did not have headphones. In order to drive, you needed to do so with one hand while holding the phone.
The study determined that reaction times were affected by the driver's active participation with either listening to music or having a conversation while driving. It turns out that the age of the driver was also a factor.
While driving without any distractions the eyes of most of the drivers darted around the screen quickly, searching for potential hazards. Listening to the radio caused a slight decrease in eye movement, while actively holding a conversation caused the least amount of eye scanning.
Due to the lack of focus on driving it took each driver, regardless of age, longer to react. When placed into dangerous situations, those on the phone were more likely to crash than those listening to the radio. Both the radio and phone drivers were involved in more accidents than when we were not permitted to use those devices.
When the group of drivers was asked why we thought the radio affected us less, most said that they had heard the songs on the radio for years. However, each phone conversation was unique and drew the driver's attention into it. This study did not last for the long driving hours required by truck drivers, and some will argue the radio and phone can help keep fatigue at bay. However, a driver must be able to focus on driving. Even when I do talk on the phone, and I do, I always end that call when I leave the interstate and need to focus on city driving, traffic lights, and making turns.
Sometimes a Rookie can be his/her own worst enemy when it comes to distractions. Will dispatch remember I took a wrong turn and showed up to the customer 20 minutes late? Does my Fleet Manager remember the accident I had my first week OTR? I got a ticket for swerving, so will my company fire me?
All of these type of thoughts while driving will increase your chances of a future accident. If you are not sleeping well because of such issues, you will be driving tired which can cause much bigger problems. Think about your mistakes, learn from them, and move on. Trust me, your dispatcher does not remember that you forgot to fuel the reefer two days ago. He doesn't know you had to re-secure your tarp. He does not know nor care that you missed your turn. I know this because I am still working for the same company, and have made all of the stupid rookie mistakes everyone else makes.
After about a year, my Fleet Manager made a comment that it takes me “soooo long to make a mistake”. The truth is, it doesn't. I make mistakes every day, but they are not big enough for him to notice. I stopped harping on them and beating myself up. When I started training others, I asked him if he remembered the accident I had my first month out. He laughed and said, “No, tell me about it.” Uh, no! I did not want to remind him of something that probably infuriated him at the time, even though he said very little to me when it happened.
Do you know why he didn't scream and yell when I knocked the front axle off of the fully loaded trailer that now had to have 45,000 pounds of product moved onto another trailer? Because companies expect rookies to mess up. They also expect them to acknowledge the mistake and learn from it. I did, and he forgot about it. Your dispatcher will forget too, so let go of all of that anxiety.
New drivers want to prove themselves. They think they are unique. You are not, so get over yourself. You are not the only one in the world who never drove a manual transmission before going through CDL training. Believe it or not, the company, trainers, and dispatchers do not think you were expelled from the womb clutching and shifting.
To think you are somehow so special that they have never seen a driver as bad as you, or that you should grasp this stuff faster is arrogant of you. It also demeans and belittles the trainers. After all, if you were expected to be totally awesome from the start, what do you need a trainer for? We wouldn't be needed. So relax and take the advice of the trainers, even the grumpy ones, because they know more than you do right now and it will help a lot.
This is a common phrase trainers hear from new drivers. We know it's hard because we went through it. My current trainee has been on my truck for about seven weeks. He's a hard worker who wants to run hard and learn everything quickly. He expected to pass the CDL exam on his first try, but he didn't. He expected to get through training unscathed, but he didn't. His third week, my heart broke when he leaned his head on the steering wheel, exhausted, and said those infamous words, “This is so much harder than I thought it would be.”
When he gets discouraged, I ask him the same thing my Fleet Manager asked me in the beginning, "Did you deliver early and did you avoid hitting everything?" If you can answer in the affirmative, then you did a great job! At seven weeks he is about to upgrade to solo after our next load. Yesterday he said, “I realize now that I still don't know as much as I thought I did. I forgot the procedure for this, sent the wrong macro for that. I'm debating staying as a team rather than upgrading to solo.”
Do you know what his problem is? He doesn't understand that he is no different from anyone else. He needs to learn to accept his failures, learn from them and move on. Pondering the past will put you at risk. So get over yourself. You are not the first one to jump a curb, run over a road sign, or rock the truck so hard while shifting it feels like the transmission just fell out. He expects to know everything there is to know about trucking, but that's impossible. No one can, not even the most experienced drivers.
We all learn new things every day. Over time, smart drivers learn from others. They incorporate the things that work for them, and discard the stuff that doesn't.
Paying thousands of dollars for CDL training at a private school or giving up a job to travel across the country to a company sponsored school can be overwhelmingly scary. That is normal. Anxiety over whether you can drive a 75 foot long monster that makes turns and backs up in ways you probably never experienced is normal. That's right, your fears are normal. Now calm down, think, and realize you are not alone. Don't let your anxiety and fears cause an accident because you think you should be better than the rookie you are.
Keep at it because it gets so much better, and sometimes it's even easy! Imagine that!