Thursday, May 26, 2016

The state of safety in trucking

Dave Osiecki, executive vice president and chief of national advocacy for the American Trucking Associations (ATA), shared an interesting factoid this week regarding the industry’s focus on safety: motor carriers collectively invest $7 billion a year in safety technologies, programs, and other safety-related strategies.

That’s an awful lot of money. But what is it going towards?

Four trucking executives (along with further thoughts from ATA’s Osiecki) shared some insight into that and on other safety themes at the 2016 ALK Technology Summit in Philadelphia, PA, this week.

Those executives included: Jeff Mercadante, vice president of safety for Pitt Ohio; Dale Dunaitis, EOBR administrator for Martin Transport; Chuck Radke, vice president of operations for H&M Trucking; and John Spiros, vice president of safety and claims management for Roehl Transport.

[As an aside: Roehl’s Spiros is also a state legislature representative for Wyoming, providing a very interesting perch from which to view the crafting of state laws aimed at “improving” truck safety.]

The discussion covered a number of important topics: the value of video cameras as a “driver exoneration” tool in accidents; whether speed or fatigue should be the focus of truck accident prevention efforts; and whether the government should “reward” motor carriers that go “beyond compliance” in their safety efforts.

Before we get into all of that, a few statistic points on trucking safety gleaned from the Large Truck and Bus Crash Facts 2014 report issued by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) back in April:

  • The number of large trucks involved in fatal crashes decreased by 5%, from 3,921 to 3,744, and the large truck involvement rate per 100 million miles traveled in fatal crashes dropped by 6%, from 1.43 to 1.34.
  • Those decreases occurred despite an increase in vehicle miles traveled (VMT) by large trucks of 1.5%.
  • The number of large trucks involved in injury crashes increased by 21% between 2013 and 2014, from 73,000 to 88,000, and the large truck involvement rate in injury crashes also increased by 21% during that one-year span.
  • The number of large trucks involved in property-damage-only crashes increased by 31%, from 265,000 to 346,000, and the large truck involvement rate in property-damage-only crashes increased by 29%.

Some other interesting points noted by ATA’s Osiecki as part of the panel’s safety discussion:

  • Some 83% of truck accidents are “non-preventable” according to government and industry data.
  • Yet 71% of the time, it’s the car driver who is primarily at fault for triggering fatal truck-car crashes. [Click here for more on that.]

So, with all of those numbers in mind, consider what I find to be some very interesting insights into trucking safety offered by the executives listed above:

Jeff Mercadante, vice president of safety for Pitt Ohio:

  • Video cameras are going to be a critical tool for the industry, because they provide “solid evidence” when the truck driver is not at fault in a crash.
  • Pitt Ohio trucks are equipped with forward-collision prevention technology and Mercandate likes the idea of mandating such technology on commercial trucks. “We’re seeing very positive results,” he said.
  • Pitt Ohio sets its speed governors at 67 mph for both LTL and TL operations, with some of its local-haul trucks set at 62 mph. “We haven’t seen an increase in accidents since we raised our governors from 65 mph to 67 mph,” he said.
  • Mercadate does not believe there’s a driver shortage in the sense that there is an overall shortage of commercial driver license (CDL) holders. “There’s a shortage of qualified CDL holders,” he stressed.

Chuck Radke, vice president of operations for H&M Trucking:

  • H&M Trucking represented the “smaller” carriers on the stage, as it operates around 200 trucks.
  • Truck parking is becoming an issue in terms of contributing to driver inefficiency, stress level, and safety while on the road. “It’s important that we talk to our customers beforehand if they have parking available near their location or not,” he explained. “If they don’t and we send our driver in, it create house of service (HOS) issues for us.”
  • One big problem with speed limiters is that they may actually create traffic congestion, Radke said: “You’ve got one truck going 65 mph and another 64 mph; one is trying to pass the other and causing a ‘drag race’ which actually can cause more traffic congestion.”
  • He pointed out that H&M uses an “incentive program” to release its engine governors if fuel mileage and idle time meet certain targets. “If they are below 25% idle time and at or above 7.1 mpg,” Radke said, noting that 70% of H&M’s fleet averages 7.1 to 7.3 mpg and 19% idle time. “They almost prefer that [no engine speed limit] to a 2 cent to 3 cent per mile raise.”
  • One big issue from Radke’s perspective is all the technology being added into the truck cab. “How much stuff are we going to put in there? Because anything bolted-on to the dashboard is a distraction,” he stressed. Putting devices into the dashboard makes them more concealed and tamper-proof, but the navigation and other data can still take a driver’s eyes off the road: “It can be overwhelming sometimes.”

Dale Dunaitis, EOBR administrator for Martin Transport:

  • When it comes to video camera technology, driver buy in “is huge,” but it takes only one case of exoneration for “acceptance to spread” and spread rapidly. “We’re now at a point where our drivers won’t get in the truck if it doesn’t have a camera,” Dunaitis said.
  • A large number of Martin’s Canadian drivers operate with speed limiters and they tend to have a better safety record than those who don’t operate with them. “They tend to operate in a ‘Zen bubble,’ driving in the right hand lane and not being hurried,” Dunaitis noted.
  • He added that Martin drivers sing electronic logging devices (ELDs) will, after a two month comparison with drivers that don’t use them, actually drive more miles because they are better rested.
  • And drivers who are better rested have “more energy” on their 34 hour restart break for their families, he added. “They are not on the couch trying to rest up before going out on the road again.”

John Spiros, vice president of safety and claims management for Roehl Transport:

  • Roehl’s use of accident-avoidance technology has decreased crashes “by 90% to 95%” and that adding video cameras “gives us a chance to turn things around” when it comes to who is at fault in a crash.
  • The lack of truck parking is a “huge problem” because of the “huge inefficiencies” it creates. “If a driver is trying to maximize his hours, fueling at one place, then going somewhere else to look for parking is just one more headache to deal with; it’s why they end up leaving,” Spiros stressed.
  • Roehl’s trucks are speed limited at 65 mph and Spiros feels that is appropriate. The problem occurs when speed limits are raise for cars, an effort he fought as a state legislator level unsuccessfully, but not for trucks as that “speed differential” can raise the risk of more crashes.
  • “It would be nice to see the federal government move on this” in terms of correcting speed differentials not just between cars and trucks but between states as well. “It would be nice to have just one speed limit instead of 55 mph here and 80 mph over there,” Spiros noted.
  • Technology in the cab creates driver distraction and that has to be accounted for, he stressed. “Even if you have hands free device, it’s a distraction,” Spiros noted. “You talk to someone on the phone hands free but you can’t remember the last 10 to 15 miles you drove on the highway; what you saw, etc. The job of the driver is to operate a truck in the safest manner possible down the road. And keeping their eyes on the road is a big part of that.”
  • Mandating safety technologies is all well and good, but there’s got to be adequate training regarding its use. “You can’t just apply technology and expect [a driver] to understand it; they start hearing bells go off and that will create issues,” Spiros explained. “It still comes back to providing the right training to the right person behind the wheel.”