Exploring the causes of livestock trucking accidents

by James Menzies

BLACKIE, Alta. –The long-held belief that weather is the most common cause of accidents involving livestock transporters has been disproved. Instead, driver fatigue is being blamed for the majority of accidents involving commercial livestock tractor-trailers, according to a groundbreaking study by well-known livestock handling expert Jennifer Woods of Blackie, Alta.

Woods, owner of J. Woods Livestock Services, examined the causes of 415 accidents involving commercial livestock trailers in Canada and the US over a five year period.

She found 80% of livestock truck crashes were single-vehicle accidents. (Compare that to the US Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration’s Large Truck Crash Causation Study that found only 25% of overall truck crashes were single-vehicle accidents).

And alarmingly, Woods found the livestock truck driver was at fault in 85% of the accidents where the cause of the accident could be determined.

So why are livestock truckers finding themselves involved in a disproportionate number of single- vehicle, at-fault accidents?

Woods sums it up with one word: Fatigue.

Her study found that 59% of livestock truck accidents occur between midnight and 9 a. m. However, she gleaned her data through media reports, and she suggested anecdotal evidence indicates the number is much higher -as high as 90%.

“I think what happened, was so many of the accidents (in the study) came through the media, but the media doesn’t pick up on a lot of the ones that happened in the middle of the night if they’ve cleaned it up by morning,” explains Woods. She also notes that many late night rollovers occur on back roads or on farmland, so they’re not always reported by the media. One of Woods’ duties as an animal handling specialist is to show up and help at livestock truck rollovers in Alberta, and her own experience suggests late night accidents account for 80- 90% of incidents.

Rollovers were found to be the most common type of accident involving livestock tractor-trailers. Eighty-two per cent of documented accidents involved a rollover, with 84% of those rolling onto the right side.

“I believe our trailers roll over more” than general freight vans, Woods tells Truck News. She offered a few explanations for that. Firstly, livestock haulers are dealing with volatile, constantly shifting loads. And they also tend to be top-heavy.

Most livestock trucking accidents involve loads of cattle (56%) followed by pigs (27%) and poultry (11%). It’s difficult to determine how those percentages compare to the overall percentage of livestock loads being hauled on North American roads, because there’s currently no reliable data on livestock transport volumes available.

However, Woods reasons that cattle loads are more prone to rollovers because of the nature of the beast.

“Cattle are more top-heavy – the center of gravity on a pig is a lot lower than the center of gravity of a cow,” she says. “And pigs tend to be decked in the belly (of the trailer) so that puts more weight in the bottom.”

The high percentage of rollovers to the right could have something to do with the design of livestock trailers. A study by Ruhl Forensics and Wilson Trailers found that a loaded cattle trailer “rarely exceeds five degrees before reaching the point of imminent rollover.”

Woods also points out the “dog- house” (a compartment at the back end of the top deck of a livestock trailer) is located on the right-hand side and it is often loaded with animals, creating an uneven distribution of weight.

The tendency for livestock haulers to flip trucks onto the right-hand side could also hint towards fatigue, as that’s the side the ditch is on and the direction tired drivers are most likely to drift towards, she points out.

The most surprising statistic revealed by the study (not for those in the know, Woods insists, but for other industry observers), is that weather was only a factor in 1% of all livestock trucking accidents. In fact, most accidents occurred in the spring, summer and fall.

“When roads are bad, you pay more attention to your driving,” Woods points out. “You’re more alert when the roads are bad and you tend to drive a little more carefully.”

Armed with the results of the study, Woods says the industry must now take action to reduce its number of incidents. That will require a collaborative plan of attack involving everyone along the supply chain – from producers to drivers and carriers right through to slaughter plants.

“We need more training and we need more skilled drivers,”Woods says. “We have a huge driver shortage to the point where you’re almost just looking for somebody that’s breathing. Our drivers drive a lot of hours too. The industry needs to look at that and plant schedules can play into that too.”

Woods points out that many slaughter plants begin the morning kill with out-of-town porkers rather than taking care of local pigs first. That means pigs from further away must be loaded the night before and trucked to the plant overnight.

A simple scheduling change could allow truckers to load up in the morning and arrive at the slaughterhouse in the afternoon, reducing the risk of driver fatigue. Woods admits that’s not always practical, however. In the hot summer months, livestock is often transported at night because it’s cooler out, providing the animals with a more comfortable ride.

A lack of rest areas has also been identified as a problem. Long-haul livestock truckers complain they have nowhere to stop for rest when they are tired.

Woods says some trucking companies have implemented a fatigue management program and have already been reducing their accident rates. Hogan Dedicated Services out of Missouri, for instance, hired a fatigue manager who works with drivers overnight, calling them sporadically to check up on them and training drivers on how to recognize signs of fatigue. Almost immediately, the company reduced its accident rate.

And then there’s the whole issue of training drivers specifically on how to transport livestock before sending them down the road. The industry has developed a training program called the Transporter Quality Assurance (TQA) program and there’s also a Certified Livestock Transporter (CLT) program available.

Woods urges livestock trucking companies to get involved in the programs. For more information visit www.livestocktransport.ca or Woods’ own site, www.livestockhandling.net.

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