The Machine Behind the Wheel

by Today's Trucking Staff

Immediately above the newly renovated Mississauga offices of Sam Kodsi, B. Eng., P.Eng., is a room littered with assorted car and truck
parts that Kodsi, a motor-vehicle-accident reconstruction expert, has picked up from the vehicles of countless mva’s.

On one metal shelf, for instance, lay a few scored brake drums. Nearby, treads from worn-out and exploded tires. You can see the steel belts sticking out.

On another shelf, beside some file folders, sit box after box of used air-bag control modules, which also act as event-data recorders or "black boxes."

Beside them are a couple of innocuous-looking styrofoam coffee cups. Each is hand-labeled, with the single word: "vomit."

"Yeah, for DNA testing," Kodsi says. "In some of these crashes, we have to assess who was driving.

Kodsi has spent the past 14 or so years as one of the country’s leading accident reconstruction experts. He is frequently called to be a professional witness in courts and he’s an expert in such esoteric areas as intersection crashes, low-speed impact analysis, pedestrian-collisions, driver perception and response, crash data retrieval and collision severity assessments. He can estimate with astonishing accuracy how long a driver will accelerate within an intersection before a collision.

He knows how drivers behave in clutch situations and how long amber lights last and why they are timed that way. Those kinds of things.

Most recently, Kodsi’s expertise was called into play to reconstruct, for a Brampton, Ont., court, a horrible crash involving a 1996 Western Star that collided with a 1992 Honda.

The accident resulted in the deaths of two young women; and the truck driver was charged with two counts of criminal negligence causing death.

Using his accident reconstruction techniques, software, careful measurements and observations made after the event, Kodsi was able to reconstruct the collision convincingly enough that the judge, Justice Kenneth Langdon, agreed that Kodsi’s scientific recreation of the crash was more reliable than the series of eye witnesses who had testified on behalf of the prosecution.

Based on Kodsi’s description of the events, the judge ruled that the accident was, from the truck driver’s point of view, unavoidable and the driver was not guilty. 

In tough times some fleets might see driver and
equipment safety as a cost and not an investment

Another contentious issue that arose was the fact that the truck underwent a Ministry of Transportation (MTO) inspection immediately following the collision. There wasn’t enough time to brake effectively.

The inspector unearthed a series of mechanical problems including an oil-contaminated brake lining, worn bushings, a cracked brake drum and a detached air valve. The truck owner pleaded guilty to the infractions and paid an $11,000 fine — but none of the issues were items that a driver could have discovered on a regular pre-trip, and none were OOS items.

Which pretty much lumps that horrible accident into the same category as the vast majority of them. Driver error.

"It’s like this," he says, "We keep going around and around looking for reasons and we end up pointing to the machine behind the wheel."

The machine behind the wheel.

Trucks and engines are more reliable than they used to be — Kodsi puts it this way: "They’re over-designed" — and each passing Roadcheck program seems to show that fleets are taking increasing care with their vehicles.

Stephen Keppler is the interim executive director of the Commercial Vehicle Safety Alliance (CVSA), which administers the annual blitz.

"Many in the industry see safety as a cost and not an investment so when they’re looking to cut costs; safety might be an area they look at. For example rather than turning their trucks every three years, it’s every five years."

But Keppler and others interpret this year’s Roadcheck results as evidence that carriers are not really scrimping on mechanical safety — more than usual, anyway.

But if you ask Keppler, Kodsi, the family of those poor girls, or tons of other industry insiders they’ll all agree that too many fleets get a "fail" when it comes to keeping drivers well trained and satisfied with their jobs.

And that — the machine behind the wheel — is where attention must be paid.

Rick Geller is director of Safety & Signature services for Markel, the trucking insurance giant.

He says not investing in drivers is as dangerous as not investing in equipment. What’s worse, Geller says putting added pressure on drivers makes them worse performers.

So companies that contribute to a driver’s stress level because of economic cutbacks by expecting them to be more productive or finish trips faster are creating unsafe situations on the road?

"Absolutely," Geller, who specializes in identifying and retraining high-risk drivers.

"We know how dangerous distractions are for drivers, and any undue pressure can be a distraction in itself. Then combine that with how stress negatively affects the decision-making processes and you can see it manifest itself in any number of ways, including road rage."

"You’ll see otherwise ordinary people do things that they would never consider."

In other words, if your company’s having financial trouble and you share that stress with your drivers, are you making your vehicles unsafe?

"Yes," he says. "The more pressure you put on these people, the more it has the opposite effect of the one you want."

Driver training and comfortable working conditions keep the machine behind the wheel in top form, says Kodsi. "Defensive driving and knowledge of how crashes can happen [and, correspondingly, how to respond to best avoid them] arms drivers with an advantage in order to avoid or at least mitigate collisions.

"Do your drivers do skid tests? Do they know how to best respond? These are questions that should be asked if you want to avoid accidents."

The Ontario Trucking Association (OTA) Chair and Kriska Transportation President Mark Seymour alluded to this problem recently when he was addressing a LoadLink Logistics User seminar recently.

He was appealing for an end to the pay-per-mile system of compensating drivers.

"Every time you see a driver in gridlock," Seymour says, "the only thing that he or she is thinking is ‘how am I going to make this [time] up?."

The underpaid-remunerated driver, forced to drive too fast and too far, is the real accident waiting to happen.

Peter Carter


If there’s a silver lining to the recent recession and the number of vehicle trips that followed downward, it’s that there were less cars and trucks on the highways running into each other.

Statistically, there’s an obvious correlation, but that doesn’t mean shoddy equipment and unqualified drivers disappeared from the road like cabovers did.

In fact, some would argue that tough times can bring out the worst in the minority of truckers already hanging on the edge.

"While the industry in general is undoubtedly getting better and more safe, there have been some newcomers and some marginals who are getting bad to worse," says Robert Transport owner Claude Robert. "This is the reality."

Theoretically, recessionary times should take plenty of unsafe truckers off the road. While that’s somewhat true, we all know a carrier or two, who, probably propped up by a dovish lender, has been permitted to hang around and cut corners longer than it should have over these last few years.

"I know it’s a lot of them that exist during this time," says Tom Payne Jr., of Payne Transportation and current president of the Manitoba Trucking Association. "It’s natural that they cut mostly on maintenance."

Adds Frank Gentile, owner of container hauler, Titan Cartage, in Etobicoke, Ont.: "The recession has definitely made things worse.

"Financially, no one is doing as well and many people aren’t going to spend the same amount of money on upkeep. That’s a given and I think everybody knows that."

Subpar equipment isn’t all that’s wrong, though. Robert says the problems tend to be sector-specific and need to be addressed separately.

"If you’re talking long distance, HOS [violations] is the biggest problem. For local haulage, it’s traffic that kills and they get paid by the ton, so they try to make a living by making as many loads as they can. Many have no choice but to get the most revenue by hours worked, so they push the [envelope]."

While frontline inspectors "are doing the best with what they have in their budget," there continues to be gaping holes in the government oversight process, says Robert.

At roadside, weigh-scale inconsistencies have been well documented. And with so few facility inspectors on hand to cover such a large industry, it’s not unreasonable to assume — as some larger carriers privately allege — that it’s easier for the ministry to meet benchmarks by visiting the 1,000-truck fleet more routinely than targeting 300 different three-truck carriers.

In Ontario, the Ministry of Transport (MTO) has all but admitted to carriers that it doesn’t have the resources to deal with all the bad players, but putting the onus on "industry" to clean itself up is not enough, says Mark Seymour of Kriska Transportation.

"It’s just too big of an industry. Like anything else, there’s good carriers; there’s bad and everything in between.

"The pressure on price has made it very difficult for that minority to hold themselves up to that very high standard. But at the end of the day, we’re all supposed to be held to the same standard and through lack of enforcement resources they cannot make everyone accountable."

In the absence of further government investment, technology such as EOBRs could fill some of the gaps in enforcement, says Seymour.

"To a certain extent, everyone is held to the same standard through technology."

Gentile shares the view that many of the less scrupulous truckers, small independents especially, are decent people whose focus is not exploiting the soft underbelly of the system, but instead feeding their families.

"There’s a lot of desperate people out there in this economy," he says. "It’s a familiar story. They’ve gone out and bought a tractor, cheap, to support their family with. They’re going to work as much as they can with what they [have]. Safety, unfortunately, isn’t going to be the mitigating factor. It’s about doing the job first and then seeing where it goes from there."

Perhaps, though, with a bigger, longer stick, enforcement agencies can see to it that those priorities get reversed.

— Marco Beghetto

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