My company has weekly safety meetings that provide us with pictures of problematic pre-trip inspections, updates of recent accidents, the causes, and how to prevent them. They also give us statistics regarding DOT inspections and the results, as well as the major causes of why drivers got inspected in the first place. One very interesting figure they provide quarterly and annually demonstrates the correlation between a driver's experience and accidents. The first time I heard the numbers, I was shocked!
As expected, most of the backing accidents and those that occurred in truck stops and rest areas were committed by newly permitted or licensed drivers. What surprised me, however, was the low number of moving violations or accidents caused by new drivers while at high speeds on the road. Those accidents, such as roll overs, jack knifes, and collisions with moving vehicles were more likely to occur with six months to two years experience.
The more experienced a driver is, the more likely he/she is to have an accident? How can this be?
When I asked a Safety Rep about this, she explained student drivers and drivers in training who already possess a CDL are hyper-vigilant. She painted a picture of a new driver “white knuckling” the steering wheel with eyes darting from mirror to mirror and sweat pouring off the brow. I could totally relate to this. I used to hug the shoulder line every time a “big scary truck” passed me on the left.
New drivers are less likely, especially while in training, to talk on the phone, adjust the radio, or eat while driving. Because they are still learning the Interstate and US highways systems, they often drive slower when approaching exits and other ramps. Many drive at night to avoid heavy traffic and to allow for easier parking when they shut down during the daytime.
New drivers can still quote the driver's manual which states things such as, “Descend a hill in the same gear in which you climbed it” and “Brake before a curve, not during.” New drivers are often taught that you “cannot” downshift during downhill slopes, but this is not true. One can downshift, but an inexperienced driver is more likely to miss a gear, get stuck in neutral and lose control. Therefore a new driver shouldn't do it. Because of this, new drivers are less likely to descend a hill in a higher gear, they are terrified going down.
Experienced drivers know they can downshift during a descent, and are more likely to race downhill at higher speeds, increasing the chances of overheating the brakes and causing fires. It's not because they do not know how to drive, but because they are overconfident in their own abilities. They become complacent and lose the fear of the road.
Backing accidents portray the opposite composite. Experienced drivers have a tendency to GOAL (Get Out And Look) more than new drivers. I can totally relate to this. As a new driver, I did not understand the angles and the reaction of the trailer, therefore, I felt totally incompetent when trying to make observations of my own trailer, or even those of other drivers. GOAL-ing did not necessarily help me unless I stopped every couple of feet to understand the results of the movement.
Trying to figure out just how long I should hold the wheel baffled and frustrated me. Friends and videos recommended using a toy tractor trailer to learn the angles and maneuvers, but that did not help me either. Only practice helped me. I spent countless hours practicing backing during my breaks while at truckstops. It seemed to take forever, but I finally got it, and you will too.
Another difference between experienced and new drivers is the level of anxiety. New drivers care about other drivers at customers, experienced drivers do not. When backing into a door where other drivers are waiting and blowing horns, yard dogs are yelling, and people are walking around, new drivers get nervous. They start to rush to get out of the way of others, and their blood pressure rises. They are less likely to GOAL at this point, simply for the sake of saving time. Experienced drivers will just ignore the others or blow their horns in response. They GOAL and take the necessary number of pull ups, without concern for what the other drivers think about them.
When a new driver does have an accident, they become even more watchful to prevent future accidents. Whereas, those who do not have fender benders or scrapes early on can become overconfident, which can then lead to a major accident later.
By the time a driver hits his/her sixth month mark, the driver is beginning to master the backing and time management. There is a relationship budding with dispatch and the stress levels of the job are beginning to flat line. Not only is the driver learning the Interstate system, but is building a list of favorite truck stops and rest havens. The traffic lanes now somehow do not seem as narrow as they once were, and lane control is not an issue. Shifting has become much easier, and everything is wonderful. The driver has been through the terminals and drop yards a few times, and perhaps has returned to several customers. The driver now feels more relaxed.
But this is the dangerous point.
This is when drivers start eating while driving, talking on the phone more, and driving faster than before. Faster around curves, faster downhill, and faster on exit ramps. Comfort with “knowing” one's truck could lead to laziness when it comes to vehicle inspections. The result? A lackadaisical and distracted driver behind the wheel of a possibly unsafe 75 foot long, 80 thousand pound killing machine.
A snow storm that would have terrified the driver last winter, now is just a nuisance. The strong winds that would have caused the driver to shutdown previously now just slows the speedometer. But what if that rookie driver with less than a year misjudged his ability to control the truck? What if he had the “I know this road like the back of my hand” attitude when high winds kicked in while his trailer was empty? What if he stopped looking at weather apps and just pushed on?
Take a look at some YouTube videos of the winter pile ups on I-94 in Michigan or I-80 in Wyoming. They are sobering. Mistakenly, drivers think only snow and ice can be an issue, but one videos shows how a truck blew over and fell on a police vehicle that was on the shoulder of the road. Thankfully the officer was not in the vehicle!
I know drivers who refuse to watch such videos. However, I think it is imperative to know exactly what can happen with even the slightest lapse of judgment. Our actions, inaction, and decisions affect our own lives, the company, and the public surrounding us. Have a serious accident and at worst, you die and kill a bunch of others. Some may say worse would be imprisonment for vehicle manslaughter. This is not an over-dramatic statement. This is trucking and the responsibility it requires to pursue this career, so think long and hard about whether you have what it takes to be out here, to accept the responsibility for strangers on the road.
Just like everything else you do, whether during Pre-Trip Inspections or scanning your paperwork, come up with a routine so you never forget. Take a minute every day to look around you and view the bad maneuvers of others. Watch a few accident videos or look at some pictures of “trucking failures”, and learn from their mistakes. I say this not in a mocking, “Oh my God, what was he thinking?”, but in a “How the heck do I keep from doing that?” type of mindset.
One wrong move, one minute of driving past your exhaustion point, one rushed moment and that could be you. Always respect the road, and always shutdown for any safety issue.
Good Luck and Drive Safely Always!