Defensive Truck Driving Safety Tips

May 22, 2013

Even the most well-trained, safety-conscious professional truck driver is at risk of engaging in driving behaviors that could lead to a crash on today's crowded highways. Weather conditions or road conditions change and suddenly "driving too fast for conditions" becomes a risk factor. Failing to look - or looking and not seeing - impaired performance because of fatigue, inattention or daydreaming or an unexpected external distraction can all lead to a truck crash.

To help commercial drivers be better prepared for any highway condition and to raise consciousness among truckers about common driving errors the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration has developed a web-based driving tips project developed to provide defensive driving safety information and offer valuable driving tips through an easily accessible tool, the internet.

The driving tips, ideas, and suggestions on the site are supported with real-world 25- to 30-second video clips recorded in a naturalistic (open roadway, non-test track) driving study conducted by the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute (VTTI).

The video clips show examples of driver errors that serve to motivate drivers to become safer and avoid dangerous driving situations. Also, as a training exercise, each video clip is followed by a set of questions to help encourage drivers to think about and examine the driver's behavior in the clip. FMCSA encourages fleet safety managers to use the web site for their driver training programs.

Following are several tips that offer preventive measures drivers can take to help avoid crashes and stay safe on the highway.

TIP 1: Always Wear Your Safety Belt

It is critical that when you are driving, either short distances or on long trips, you should always wear your safety belt. It is also critical that if you have a passenger, he/she should buckle up as well. In case of a sudden stop or crash, a safety belt will keep you secured to the seat, helping prevent injury or death that may occur from you being thrown from your seat into the steering wheel, dash, or windshield. From 2001 data, NHTSA reported that 60% of all passengers killed in traffic crashes were unrestrained.

The Large Truck Crash Causation Study reported that 23% of combination truck, single-vehicle crashes involved the driver not wearing a safety belt. A Virginia Tech Transportation Institute (VTTI) naturalistic study of truck driver safety belt use found that in baseline events (i.e., non-crash), 39.6% of drivers were un-belted. However, in incidents, that number jumped to 66.5% indicating that not wearing a safety belt may be indicative of other risky driving behaviors

TIP 2: Reduce your driving speed in adverse road and/or weather conditions

The Large Truck Crash Causation Study reported that 23% of large-truck crashes occurred when truck drivers were traveling too fast for conditions. Adjust your speed to safely match weather conditions, road conditions, visibility, and traffic. Excessive driving speed is a major cause of fatal crashes, and higher speeds may cause more severe crashes. The Fatality Analysis Reporting System (FARS) recently reported that 25% of speeding-related large-truck fatalities occurred during adverse weather conditions.

You should reduce your speed by 1/3 on wet roads and by 1/2 or more on snow packed roads (i.e., if you would normally be traveling at a speed of 60 mph on dry pavement, then on a wet road you should reduce your speed to 40 mph, and on a snow-packed road you should reduce your speed to 30 mph). When you come upon slick, icy roads you should drive slowly and cautiously and pull off the road if you can no longer safely control the vehicle.

Also keep in mind that when it first starts to rain, water mixes with oil on the road making it particularly slippery.

Manufacturers generally advise drivers not to use a retarder [also called a "Jake" brake] on wet or slippery roadway conditions. In fact, a Safety Board Investigation of a motor coach crash that occurred in Canon City, Colorado, in December 1999, revealed that an enabled retarder most likely triggered the loss of control and eventual crash of the motor coach on a snow-covered and mountainous roadway.

TIP 3: Enter a curve slowly

Speed limits posted on curve warning signs are intended for passenger vehicles, not large trucks. Large trucks should reduce their speed even further. Studies have shown that large trucks entering a curve, even at the posted speed limit, have lost control and rolled over due to their high center of gravity.Forty percent of speeding-related fatalities occur on curves. Braking in a curve can cause the wheels to lock up and the vehicle to skid.

TIP 4: Reduce your speed before entering an exit/entrance ramp

Approach an exit/entrance ramp at a safe speed. Truck rollovers are more likely to occur on exit/entrance ramps when the driver misjudges the sharpness of the ramp curve and enters the curve at an excessive speed. The posted speed limit on an exit/entrance ramp generally shows the safe speed for a passenger vehicle; the safe speed for a large truck is usually significantly lower than the posted speed. Even though ramps and interchanges make up less than 5% of all highway miles, 20 to 30% of all large-truck crashes occur on or near ramps.

TIP 5: Drive slowly with a loaded trailer

Be more cautious with a loaded trailer. Loaded trailers have a higher center of gravity and sudden speed adjustment may cause the load to shift, leading to skidding or a rollover. Large trucks with fully loaded trailers are 10 times more likely to roll over than those with empty trailers. Loaded trailers require 20% to 40% more braking distance than passenger vehicles to come to a complete stop.

TIP 6: Slow down in work zones

Nearly a quarter of all work-zone deaths in 2006 involved a large truck. Before entering a work zone, decrease your speed, merge into the correct lane well ahead of any lane closures, and be prepared to slow down or stop suddenly. Speed increases perception-reaction distance, braking distance, and stopping distance.

TIP 7: Review maps and plan your route before driving

The Large Truck Crash Causation Study reported that 22% of large-truck crashes occurred when CMV drivers were unfamiliar with the roadway. Be sure to plan your driving route before getting behind the wheel so you can keep your schedule and prevent distractions that may occur while trying to read a map or directions. You may use electronic devices, such as a navigation system, to aid you when you are unfamiliar with the roadway. However, remember to use technology appropriately (pull safely to the side of the roadway or stop and take a break), otherwise it can be a source of distraction.

When transporting hazardous materials, remember that most states and localities have route restrictions and/or designated routes. You must carry a written copy of your route plan, and you must follow that plan if you are carrying Division 1.1, 1.2 or 1.3 explosives.

TIP 8: Do not suddenly change your direction of travel

If you miss a turn or an exit, pass the turn and find a safe way to change direction. Do not take shortcuts. Trying to suddenly correct a missed turn or exit may result in you performing an illegal or unsafe maneuver which may threaten your safety and the safety of the vehicles around you. From 2004 to 2007 almost 50,000 moving violations were classified as an improper turn or an improper lane change.

TIP 9: Signal your intentions

A recent study reported that there are approximately 630,000 lane-change crashes annually (including both large trucks and passenger vehicles). Use turn signals first to indicate your intent to change lanes, next visually scan for adjacent traffic and road hazards, and then execute a safe lane change. By signaling your intentions well in advance, you will be in a safer position to communicate with the surrounding drivers and you will be able to safely execute the desired driving maneuver.

TIP 10: Be aware of your "No-Zone"

Be vigilant in watching for vehicles in the "No-Zone." Drivers around you may not be aware of the size of your truck's blind spots. As a professional truck driver, you are aware that some of your blind spots are large enough that a passenger vehicle can virtually disappear from your view. Remember that other drivers unfamiliar with commercial driving probably don't realize this. One-third of all crashes between large trucks and cars takes place in the "No-Zone."

TIP 11: Always drive defensively

Defensive driving is a way of operating your vehicle to avoid accidents due to the actions of others. To drive defensively you should: keep your distance, maintain a safe speed and stay alert. Recognizing potentially dangerous situations well in advance can allow you to safely maneuver past these situations.

A recent study on the interaction between light vehicles and heavy vehicles revealed that light-vehicle drivers initiated almost 83% of safety-related traffic events. Therefore it is important to be aware of surrounding traffic and be ready to react to other drivers' mistakes. And 75% of lane change/merge crashes involve a recognition failure by the lane-changing/merging driver. The vast majority of these drivers (over 90%) are drivers of passenger vehicles.

TIP 12: Look far enough ahead

Looking far ahead will allow you to respond early and smoothly to changing conditions ahead and to avoid dangerous, abrupt braking situations. Look at least 15 seconds in front of you (approximately1/4 of a mile on the interstate and 1 1/2 blocks in the city).

The New York State Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) states that "the speed of rotation and angle of the front wheels give you clues to whether the driver is slowing to stop or planning to turn in a certain direction. If the rotation does not appear to be slowing as the driver approaches a required stop, you should pad your brake and prepare to stop, and lightly tap your horn to get the other driver's attention."

It takes 3/4 of a second from the moment your brain sends the signal to your foot to move from the accelerator to when your foot actually applies the brake. In this short period of time, you may have already traveled up to 60 feet.16 Focusing on the vehicles ahead of you will help you react in a safe and timely manner.

TIP 13: Check your mirrors often

Check your mirrors regularly (at least every 5 to 8 seconds) and before you change lanes, turn, or merge. Check your mirrors quickly and return your attention to the road ahead.16 Frequent scanning will allow you to be aware of changing traffic conditions around your truck.

If you check your mirrors regularly, they can help you spot overtaking vehicles. Mirrors will also help you monitor your surrounding environment and may help you identify if a vehicle has moved into your blind spot.

You can also use your mirrors to check your tires as you are driving down the road which may help you spot a tire fire. In addition, you can use the mirrors to check for loose straps, ropes, or chains when you are carrying open cargo.

TIP 14: Approach and enter intersections with caution

Check left, right, and left again before entering an intersection. Being able to quickly glance in each direction (of the crossing traffic) will provide you sufficient time to recognize oncoming vehicles. A report on "Rear-End Large Truck Crashes" stated that 14.6% of truck-striking crashes are intersection-related.

TIP 15: Get enough sleep before getting behind the wheel

The Large Truck Crash Causation Study reported that 13% of truck drivers were considered to have been fatigued at the time of their crash. Be sure to get an adequate amount of sleep each night. If possible, do not drive while your body is naturally drowsy, between the hours of 12 a.m. to 6 a.m. and 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. Driver drowsiness may impair a driver's response time to potential hazards, increasing the chances of being in a crash. If you do become drowsy while driving, be sure to choose a safe place to pull over and rest.

A study by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) found that driver alertness was related to "time-of-day" more so than "time-on-task." Most people are less alert at night, especially after midnight. This drowsiness may be enhanced if you have been on the road for an extended period of time.

TIP 16: Maintain a healthy diet

Skipping meals or eating at irregular times may lead to fatigue and/or food cravings. Also, going to bed with an empty stomach or immediately after a heavy meal can interfere with sleep. A light snack before bed may help you achieve more restful sleep. Remember that if you are not well-rested, induced fatigue may cause slow reaction time, reduced attention, memory lapses, lack of awareness, mood changes, and reduced judgment ability.

A recent study conducted on the sleeping and driving habits of truck drivers concluded that an unhealthy lifestyle, long working hours, and sleeping problems were the main causes of drivers falling asleep while driving.

TIP 17: Take a nap

If possible, you should take a nap when feeling drowsy or less alert. Naps should last a minimum of 10 minutes, but ideally a nap should last up to 45 minutes. Allow at least 15 minutes after waking to fully recover before starting to drive. Short naps are more effective at restoring energy levels than coffee. Naps aimed at preventing drowsiness are generally more effective in maintaining a driver's performance than naps taken when a person is already drowsy.

TIP 18: Avoid medication that may induce drowsiness

In a recent study, 17% of truck drivers were reported as having "over-the-counter drug use" at the time of a crash. Avoid medications that may make you drowsy if you plan to get behind the wheel. Most drowsiness-inducing medications include a warning label indicating that you should not operate vehicles or machinery during use. Some of the most common medicines that may make you drowsy are: tranquilizers, sleeping pills, allergy medicines and cold medicines. If you must drive with a cold, it is safer to suffer from the cold than drive under the effects of the medicine.

TIP 19: Recognize the signals and dangers of drowsiness

Pay attention: Indicators of drowsiness include: frequent yawning, heavy eyes, and blurred vision. Research has indicated that being awake for 18 hours is comparable to having a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of 0.08 percent, which is legally intoxicated and leaves you at equal risk for a crash. A 2005 study suggests that three out of every four truck drivers report having experienced at least one type of driving error as a result of drowsiness.

TIP 20: Don't rely on alertness 'tricks' to keep you awake

Behaviors such as smoking, turning up the radio, drinking coffee, opening the window, and other "alertness tricks" are not real cures for drowsiness and may give you a false sense of security.

Excessive intake of caffeine can cause insomnia, headaches, irritability, and nervousness. It also takes several minutes for caffeine to get into your system and deliver the energy boost you need, so if you are already tired when you first drink a caffeinated drink, it may not take effect as quickly as you might expect. In addition, if you are a regular caffeine user, the effect may be much smaller.

Rolling the window down or turning the radio up may help you feel more alert for an instant, but these are not effective ways to maintain an acceptable level of alertness.

TIP 21: Don't fixate on non-driving related objects

A study published in April 2006 found that driver inattention was the leading factor in crashes and near crashes. The study reports that nearly 80% of crashes involved some form of driver inattention within 3 seconds before the incident.

When driving, keep your mind engaged with driving-related information and try to avoid focusing on external objects such as billboards or buildings or internal objects such as as talking on a cell phone, eating, reading, or adjusting the radio. The Large Truck Crash Causation Study reported that 8% of large-truck crashes occurred when truckers were externally distracted and 2% of large truck crashes occurred when the driver was internally distracted. Remember that all distractions can be dangerous. Paying attention to driving-related information will help you determine when and where there are vehicles around you and will also enable you to react more quickly to any unforeseen event.

TIP 22: Avoid smoking while driving

Smoking while driving can be very distracting, as it requires you to remove one or both hands from the steering wheel to light a cigarette and to hold it for an extended period of time. Several studies have found that smoking while driving increases the risk of being involved in a crash.

Smoking was found to be a source of distraction in 0.9 percent of distraction-related crashes, which equates to approximately 12,780 crashes over the 5-year period examined.

TIP 23: Turn off your cell phone while driving

Avoid using your cell phone while driving. If you must use your cell phone, try to find a safe place to stop or pull off the road, and keep your conversations short. The risk of a crash when using a cell phone is four times higher than the risk of a crash when a cell phone is not being used.

Cell phones fit into each of the four major distraction categories. Cell phones are a visual (may require you to take your eyes off the road to dial), auditory (requires you to listen), biomechanical (requires you to operate them manually) and cognitive distracter (requires you to engage in a mental task other than driving).

TIP 24: Minimize eating and drinking while driving

Make sure to eat before getting behind the wheel or leave time to pull over and eat safely. Eating while driving may not only be messy, but dangerous, as it creates a physical and visual distraction for drivers. It usually requires drivers to remove one or both hands from the steering wheel while juggling food or beverage with the other.

A recent study found that eating while driving was riskier than talking on a cell phone.

TIP 25: Maintain a safe following distance

The Large Truck Crash Causation Study reported that 5% of truck crashes occurred when the truck driver was following the lead vehicle too closely. Large trucks need additional space between vehicles to allow for safe braking and unexpected actions. In crashes, large trucks most often hit the vehicle in front of them. If you are driving below 40 mph, you should leave at least one second for every 10 feet of vehicle length. For a typical tractor-trailer, this results in 4 seconds between you and the leading vehicle. For speeds over 40 mph, you should leave one additional second.

TIP 26: Double your following distance in adverse conditions

Adjust your following distance to appropriately match weather conditions, road conditions, visibility, and traffic. In emergency conditions, maintaining a safe distance from the vehicle in front of you will allow you to stop safely and/or to take necessary evasive action. The average stopping distance for a loaded tractor-trailer traveling at 55 mph (in ideal conditions) is 196 feet, compared with 133 feet for a passenger vehicle. Braking distance can be greatly affected by road surfaces, weather conditions such as rain, ice, and snow, or debris.

TIP 27: Watch for brake lights from slowing vehicles in front of you

A 2005 study reported that 14 percent of safety-critical events occurred when the truck driver executed an inadequate evasive action. Focus on several lead vehicles ahead, or at least 15 seconds in front of you. Focusing on the vehicles ahead of you and being aware of their brake lights will allow you to safely react to changing conditions. It takes 3/4 of a second from the moment your brain sends the signal to your foot to move from the accelerator to when your foot actually applies the brake. In this short period of time, you may have already traveled 60 feet. Focusing on the vehicles ahead of you will help you react in a safe and timely manner.

TIP 28: Practice good scanning habits

Scan the driving environment and be aware of potential hazards. Recognize the hazards, determine what action to take, and then execute your actions safely. Knowing what hazards to be aware of will keep you prepared to execute proper evasive actions. Two-vehicle crashes between large trucks and passenger vehicles result from inadequate evasive action 6.6% of the time.

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