The cars and trucks built today are the safest they have ever been. We have anti-lock brakes, lane departure warning systems, seat belts, airbags, automatic braking, and more. Hours of service rules violations for truckers have decreased since the ELD mandate. Truck-related accidents and fatalities have increased. Government regulators try to tell you that there are myriad reasons for this. They are wrong. There is one reason. Drivers suck.
There are many reasons that drivers are getting progressively worse. We have become reliant on technology. Mostly though, we just aren’t paying attention.
Trucks and commercial vehicles have had similar improvements. It has been my privilege to drive and demonstrate trucks equipped with incredible safety technology. I know what to do when things go wrong. One night I remember it was near freezing and drizzly. Driving around a curve with an empty trailer on IL 47 just south of Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, my drive axle broke traction. I did what I was supposed to do; I lifted my foot off the fuel pedal and did nothing drastic other than aim high with the wheel. The traction control braking was audible. I could hear the system applying the brakes from wheel to wheel faster than I could ever do. Within a few feet, everything was back in order. The trucks I learned to drive on would have either jackknifed or gone off the road. The technology is amazing. I loved telling the story at truck shows and to dealers – with a don’t try this at home warning.
There is one piece of technology that makes us all the more dangerous. It is that damn phone. Sometimes, I will start counting how many drivers have phones in their hands. My unofficial survey puts it at about 40%. That includes truckers. Truckers can be fined up to $2,750 for using a handheld cell phone. Their carriers can be fined up to $11,000. It doesn’t stop them. Admittedly, it can be difficult for an officer to see up into the cab of a truck. That is more difficult because I believe cops might be the worst offenders. It seems rare to see a cop who is not doing something else besides driving. I will never forget seeing an Indiana State Trooper driving in downtown Indianapolis. He was holding a cell phone in his left hand and typing into a computer with his right hand while using his legs to steer.
We ask many of our law enforcement officers. According to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund, in 2021, 458 officers lost their lives in the line of duty. Sixty-two of them were firearms deaths. Fifty-eight were traffic fatalities. Twenty-seven of those deaths were “struck by” deaths. All of these deaths are terrible. I find the struck-by deaths cringe-worthy. Professional truckers have traditionally given a lane to flashing lights on the shoulder for years. It was seen as a courtesy. Now, most states have move-over laws. They don’t do any good if people are not paying attention.
Judgment matters. It relies on information. Gathering information on the road requires a driver’s attention. Anything that takes away attention takes away information. Usually, it is a small thing. It might be a driver gaining on a vehicle in the right lane. Say a vehicle is going 70 MPH and is closing the gap on a truck going 65. Both of them are in the right lane. There is another vehicle doing 75 MPH in the left lane. The driver going 70 is on the phone and is unaware of the passing vehicle. Usually, the driver doing 70 will notice the one coming up the left lane and hit the brakes. Then they will pull out after the faster vehicle passes. It is not ideal, but nothing terrible happens.
This is a scenario that I see every day on the road. The next time the driver pulls out in front of the passing vehicle, the passing vehicle slows down and is unhappy about it. Sometimes they get angry, and the drivers may exchange a from of nonverbal communication that we are all familiar with. Usually, it ends there. Hopefully, it doesn’t escalate. In my nonscientific observation, about 40% of drivers are holding phones. That means there is about a 16% chance that both drivers are holding a phone. That is how accidents happen.
Constant information is required to make intelligent choices. Take Dec. 23rd, 2021. It was another one of those cold rainy days. Freezing rain and cold fog are the scariest things to me. It is hard to be sure of the road conditions. As a young driver, I was taught that you were OK if you could see the spray coming off the road. That is usually true. My run that day was from Minneapolis, MN, to Racine, WI, to Appleton, WI, then home for Christmas. Not only did I want to ensure that my customers got their freight, but I also wanted to get home—the run totals a little over 500 miles. Sixty-eight miles into the trip, I stopped to get a cup of coffee and do the old trucker trick of seeing if I could slide my feet into the parking lot. That was at the 28-mile marker on I94 near Baldwin, WI. It was good. My boots would not slide. I kept going.
At about the 83-mile marker, I was passing a car going up the hill. My drive axle broke traction. Thankfully, there was enough room for me to get control of the truck. At that point, I decided to shut it down and get off the road as soon as possible. There is a truck stop in Osseo, WI, at the 88-mile marker. That is where I shut it down. I went in to have breakfast at the counter and to warn drivers. Just after I placed my order, another driver sat next to me and told me about an accident where I had slipped. As my breakfast showed up, word came in about a massive pileup just beyond the exit and before the next. Reports say that more than 100 vehicles were involved. There are times when we need to hang up and drive. There are other times when no one should be driving.
Professional drivers take pride in our situational awareness. There is an old idea that a good driver only uses their brakes to slow down. Hard brakes are recorded with modern technology. I was in a position where I could go over engine reports with drivers. The reports give an insight into the quality of that driver. The best drivers rarely have hard brakes. They could tell me exactly what prompted the hard brake months after the incident. In almost every case, that driver prevented an accident that was not their fault because they were paying attention.
I take pride in how I do my job. The experience of over 4,000,000 miles has taught me well. Driving can be like playing chess. Like the chess player, the best drivers can quickly sum up a situation and anticipate what will happen next. On November 13th, I had my first recorded 100% brake. It was a situation where I was coming off an Interstate highway and into an urban construction zone. A Jersey barrier protected my entrance. That was easy. It put me in the right lane. Up ahead, I could see that the left lane had a jog around the barrier. Some vehicles were not staying in the left-hand lane. There was an intersection about 100 feet past the jog. I was anticipating that a vehicle could drift into my lane. Well, one vehicle did more than drift. The driver was intent on turning right at the intersection and came across my lane. I broke hard and missed the vehicle – by inches. The camera recorded the incident as a possible collision because it lost sight of the second vehicle.
When I got to my next stop, I emailed my company. I wanted to see the video and the data from the near miss. The video did not show the lead-up to the incident. It showed the incident itself. The data was informative. It took .4 seconds from recognition to 100% braking. That is the equivalent of the fastest runners in the world covering four about yards. The automatic braking system did not engage because the vehicle came from the side. There is no substitute for a fully attentive driver.
Let me summarize. When you are driving and talking on the phone, you are doing two things at once. One of them can cause an accident or a fatality. Pay attention to that one.
Jeff is a 34-year veteran truck driver. He earned a BA in Business Administration from Governors State University. During the day, Jeff loaded trucks, and at night he went to class. The overall health of professional truckers is one of Jeff’s major concerns. Jeff became a runner and has finished 11 full marathons.
After being featured in Runners World magazine in 2009, Jeff started a Facebook group to encourage other truckers to exercise. Truckin’ Runners currently has over 1,000 members. Jeff wrote columns for Drivers Health and Truckers News magazines between 2009-2012. After that, he was one of 6 owner operators chosen to represent Freightliner in their Team Run Smart program. He has left the program, but still remains an active advocate for truckers