Over the past few months there have been a spate of truck rollover incidents all within about 20 kilometres of the Canadian Trucking Alliance (CTA) head office in Toronto. Invariably these have occurred at on- or off-ramps to one of the 400-series highways and have led to long traffic snarl-ups – the cost of which is visited upon the trucking industry as much as it is other motorists.
Luckily, no one has been fatally injured, but the visuals of a truck hanging off an overpass or a woman’s car crushed within an inch of her life have been all over the media and have exacted a toll on the industry’s image.
As usual, because of a lack of data, we are unable to put our finger on the precise cause of each of these crashes or determine whether there are any trends. Maybe the truck was cut off. Maybe the shipper improperly loaded the trailer. Maybe the weather had something to do with it (one incident did occur during a very windy day).
But, while we know these things can happen, we also know that in most cases driver error is the cause with excessive speed a primary factor. The ramps where most of the recent incidents occurred are well known to most truckers. Police have also pointed to a lack of skill on the part of some of the drivers.
As an industry, we need to address the problem.
Technology will be part of the solution. For years now CTA has been calling for stability control systems such as electronic stability control (ESC) to become non-optional standard equipment on all new tractors.
This could be done voluntarily as three of the OEMs have already done or, more likely, via regulation. Indeed, the US National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) and Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration have published a notice of proposed rulemaking to do just that (see pg. 11). Canada will have little choice but to follow.
It will probably take a couple of years to become law, but the fact is the technology works and for the growing proportion of carriers that are spec’ing new tractors with ESC, it’s cheap insurance.
It is estimated that about 20-25% of the new heavy trucks sold in North America are equipped with ESC. Research conducted for NHTSA by the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute (UMTRI) estimated that if all existing five-axle tractor-trailers operating in the US were equipped with ESC, the expected annual combined rollover and directional (yaw) instability relevant safety benefit would be a reduction of 4,659 crashes, 126 fatalities and 5,909 injuries – representing annual savings of more than $1.5 billion annually.
Additional net savings from loss-of-control crashes prevented were estimated at more than $200 million annually. In Canada, where the industry is approximately 10% the size of the US, the combined annual savings from ESC could exceed $170 million.
Tackling the skill issue could be more of a challenge. I don’t think it’s fair to paint any segment of the industry or of society with a broad brush and overall truck drivers, as a class, are the safest drivers on the road. There are relatively new drivers who are very skilled at what they do just as I am sure there are some “experienced” drivers whose skill and judgment leaves something to be desired.
Still, I don’t think many would disagree with the assertion that it is a much bigger challenge finding qualified and skilled drivers today than it was 30 years ago.
I hear this from a lot of carriers and there are lots of reasons for it. The subject is too complex to get into now, but suffice it to say part of the solution lies with better training.
CTA has taken the first step in this direction by endorsing a recommendation from the CTA Blue Ribbon Task Force on the Driver Shortage calling for mandatory entry-level training and ongoing professional development and training throughout a driver’s career.
This will drive the need for industry-endorsed training standards, certification of training schools and instructors and a tougher licence test.
It is also the only way that truck driving will ever be deemed a skilled occupation. It is astonishing that to become a forklift driver one needs to pass a mandatory test and then be recertified every year or so, but to get a commercial truck driver’s licence you don’t need to take any entry-level training, or ongoing training (beyond such things as dangerous goods transportation). All you have to do is pass a relatively simple test and you’re in. That’s not good enough anymore.
This sort of change won’t happen quickly; there are lots of obstacles to overcome, not the least of which will be to convince all of the provincial governments to move in this direction at the same time. And the ESC mandate is likely not to become law for a while yet.
So, in the meantime, let’s try to get everyone to pay a bit more attention, watch your speed and avoid the rollovers.
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