Give Ps a chance

| January 03, 2006

Patience, professionalism, planning, predisposition, prayer and providence can make you a safe million miler.

Ducks in a row, act together, all cylinders firing, bases covered, on the ball, etc.: Pick your favorite cliché. They all describe what a trucker must have to reach million-mile, accident-free goals.

“You have to be a driver from every angle,” says Mid Eastern Transport company driver John Vinson of Roanoke Rapids, N.C. Vinson, with 18 years of experience, doesn’t mean only for this trip, this month or even this year. Million-mile, accident free drivers maintain the highest performance standards every day for at least seven years: probably closer to nine.

That’s a long, tough row to hoe, and even with improved training, equipment and safety techniques, reaching the million-mile, accident-free goal is getting tougher. “There are a lot of changes out there, and every day it gets worse,” says Victory One Transport company driver Robert Vandenburg of El Paso, Texas. Vandenburg has about 15 years of experience. “New laws, construction, traffic and the price of fuel: it all adds up to more stress,” he says.

“With them changing laws all the time, I don’t see what that’s doing for truckers,” Vinson says. “Now some states chase trucks from the on and off ramps, and they won’t let drivers sleep in the rest stops. They allow troopers to wake up tired truckers and put him on the highway.”

“It seems to me that they’d want a tired trucker off the road, not back out on it,” says Wendell Rouse, who also drives for Mid Eastern and lives in Roanoke, N.C. “We all pay the price for drivers who don’t drive safely.”

That’s partly because unsafe truckers smear the entire trucking industry. But it’s also because one driver’s mistake can ruin another’s accident-free record, even if the mishap is unpreventable. At some trucking companies, accident-free means accident-free.

“That’s how I see it,” says Fred Thayer, vice president of safety and operations at R.E. West, Inc. in Murfreesboro, Tenn. Thayer was a truck driver before getting into management, and his father was a driver, too.

“I look at what it takes for a driver to be in a state driving championship,” he says. “The only accidents they allow are if you have the vehicle properly parked or if it’s under the control of a law enforcement officer. Any other accident will disqualify you.”

That means R.E. West’s accident-free million milers have earned their badges, but not all carriers have the same policies. Some say an unpreventable wreck doesn’t mar a perfect safety record. “You can talk to five different safety directors, and you’ll get five different ideas,” Thayer says.

But experts agree that drivers dramatically improve their chances for joining the accident-free, million-miler elite by faithfully observing the six Ps.

Patience
Patience might be most important. “Yeah, patience is the big thing,” says Rouse, who has 18 years of experience.

The million-mile, accident-free goal requires a long-term commitment to safety, and patience is the key. The pros all say that means slow down, and Vinson, who comes from a family of truckers, says the pros are right.

“The biggest thing that helped me out is my family members are drivers,” he says. “Between my dad and my uncle, that’s about 40 years of experience right there.

“My dad stressed patience all the time. He also said slow down. Speed won’t do anything but get you in trouble.”

For accident-free million milers, late is better than never, but sometimes it seems dispatchers and driver managers don’t agree. “The company might give you a ‘hot load’ and tell you it has to be there,” Vinson says.

But knowing to slow down or shut down for bad weather or fatigue is part of a professional trucker driver’s job description.

“I have a philosophy,” Vandenburg says. “If my head starts nodding even just a little bit, I pull over, and I never pull a load if I can’t deliver it in the time they give me. If there’s not enough time between pickup and delivery, I question it,” he says.

Ironically, new drivers, who are more likely to mismanage fatigue and bad weather conditions, also haven’t learned to say “no” and ask questions. “The only dumb question is the one that’s not asked,” Vandenburg says.

“Rookies don’t need to be driving in bad weather,” Rouse says. “When I was a beginning driver, the company I drove for would give me that ‘hot load’ stuff, but that doesn’t work anymore.”

“If I’m with a company that wants me to drive overnight and fatigue myself, it’s bye-bye,” Vandenburg says. “They might have a million dollars of insurance to replace the cargo. But if I fall asleep behind the wheel or have an accident when my logbook is falsified, I’m going to the graveyard, the hospital or the jail, and the dispatcher gets to go home.”

Professionalism
Professionalism includes good communication. In a situation where you are too tired to drive, don’t leave the company hanging.

“It’s better talking to them,” Vandenburg says. “Tell them, ‘hey, I’m not going to make it.'”
If a driver feels forced to drive in unsafe conditions, the company’s safety director wants to know about it. “If the shipping manager or the driver manager gives the drivers a hard time, then they get mad and want to get revenge on somebody,” Thayer says. “The drivers will get mad at somebody else.”

Thayer knows timeliness is important, but safety concerns trump all others. “You have to be on time, but you have to be safe,” he says. “It doesn’t matter if you have to lay over. A driver has to be able to say, ‘No. I’m tired. I can’t do it.’ If he can’t say no, then they will keep running him and running him, and he won’t get his sleep.”

Planning
For Thayer, trip planning plays a huge role in safe, accident-free, on-time delivery. “A million accident-free miles starts with trip planning,” he says. “The driver must know what he’s going to do at any given time – what routes he can take and where he can fuel, eat and sleep.” Thayer says planning makes drivers ready for whatever might happen. “You might get stuck on the side of the road for two hours, and suddenly your 10-hour trip takes 12 hours,” he says.

Vandenburg doesn’t drive without planning the trip. “When I start out, I have everything ready, and all I have to do is concentrate on the road.”

Planning minimizes mechanical problems, distractions, and stressful traffic and weather delays, thereby enhancing safety.

Trip planning helps professional drivers eliminate distractions. It’s the same for most drivers, but each has special concerns. “It frustrates me to be all stinky and dirty,” says Victory One Transport company driver Robert Vandenburg of El Paso, Texas. “So I make sure I’m showered and refreshed before starting each trip.”

Vandenburg’s trip planning includes stocking the truck with what he needs. “Make sure you have your logbook caught up, your snacks and drinks, cigarettes if you smoke, and all the information for the trip,” he says. “You’ll be all set to go, and you won’t be thinking about stopping.”

Vandenburg plans his routes around possible weather and traffic problems. All cities have special, trip-planning considerations like construction, but some traffic patterns are similar just about everywhere: “Between 11 and 2 you’re going to have the lunch drivers, and between 4 and 8 you’re going to have people going home,” Vandenburg says.

“I plan my trips around this stuff if possible.”

Predisposition
With the right predisposition or attitude, a driver can handle the stress and frustration that come with the job. For Vandenburg, that means getting in the right frame of mind before getting into the truck.

“You have to feel good about yourself before you go,” he says. “If you’re not feeling well, don’t even jump into the truck or you’ll ruin somebody’s day, probably your own.”

For Thayer, a “get along” attitude is as important as safety and planning to being an accident-free million miler.

“You have to get along with people on the road,” he says.

This also is part of the pro driver’s job description: driving with the right frame of mind, and doing what’s necessary to keep it that way.

“Understand the road,” Thayer says. “Understand what fatigue is all about, how it can ruin a good attitude and slow reaction time.”

Professional drivers accept and adjust to traffic and road conditions as they are rather than lamenting about how they should be and are not. It’s easy to find fault with construction and traffic. But that’s not in the job description, and that attitude won’t get you to a million miles accident-free.

“Don’t get mad when they cut in front of you,” Thayer says. “They’ll probably get back out again in a minute anyway.”

Vandenburg has seen the wrong attitude cause an accident. His friend was stranded for two days with mechanical trouble. “They finally got it fixed, and he made the delivery. But he hadn’t showered for a long while, and his dispatcher gave him another load right away.” He took the load, but Vandenburg heard him complaining on the CB. “I was right behind him. He was saying ‘I can’t take this stuff’ and ‘I don’t know how you guys can do it.’ While he was complaining – bang! He ran into the car in front of him.”

Vandenburg says his friend started out with the wrong attitude: one that causes accidents. “I told him he should have waited a couple of days before taking that load.”

Prayer
Rouse prays for guidance, allowing the spirit of humility, patience and forgiveness to lead his truck, and he gives credit for his safety record to his spirituality and religion. “It helps me avoid a lot of mess,” he says.

“Follow the golden rule,” Thayer says, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

To many seasoned, professional drivers, the golden rule leads to prayer. “It’s the same as ‘love thy neighbor,'” Rouse says. For him, prayer comes first.

“Before I even get started, prayer is the first thing. Then I get out my map, check my routes, plan my fuel stops and breaks, and do a good pre-trip inspection,” says Rouse.

It’s a belief common among truckers. The factors of accident-free driving – patience, getting along and doing one’s job well – are also religious virtues.

“I’ve been blessed to be accident free,” Vinson says. “The good Lord gives me sense to know what to do and what not to do.” Vinson prays daily, and with good reason. “I have a family at home,” he says. “I want to get back alive.”

Thoughts of his family help Vinson drive safely in other ways, too. “If you have a family, you don’t want a big truck coming up behind them and scaring them to death,” he says. “I’ve seen accidents from tailgating, what happens to the passengers,” he says.

Religious and spiritual devotion play a big role in Vandenburg’s driving, too. “I believe God is my pilot, and I’m the guy in the passenger seat,” he says.

Rouse agrees. “I’d say instead of allowing God to be your co-pilot, ask him to be the pilot. He guides you in the right direction.” This goes beyond the highway. “Think about others, take care of yourself, and no lot lizards,” Rouse says.

Providence
But even with patience, professionalism, planning, predisposition and prayer going for a driver, unpreventable stuff still happens. Other motorists run stop signs, tailgate, doze off or don’t pay attention and cause what seem to be unavoidable accidents that can mar an otherwise clean safety record.

So providence, or good luck, seems to be part of reaching million-mile, accident-free goals. High winds blow other trucks off a slick, icy highway, but not yours. A motorist in the next lane falls asleep and, as you lay on the horn and try to get away, he drifts over, bumps your trailer, wakes up and straightens out his vehicle: no harm done.

Providence is beyond a driver’s control, and only fools count on it.

But the smart drivers – the accident-free million milers – know that providence will more likely be with them if they practice the first five Ps every day.

“Always be willing to learn something,” Rouse says.

“Be careful, pay attention and be patient,” says Vinson.

“The older drivers really know what they’re doing,” Vandenburg says. “Ask for advice.”

“Three things for success, and this is true in any industry,” Thayer says. “You have to be safe in all things, you have to be on time, and you have to get along with people.”


Night Speed Causes Accidents
It’s easy for truckers to drive too fast at night, says R.E. West’s Safety Director Fred Thayer. “Don’t overdrive your headlights,” he says.

Thayer says stopping a big truck is a four-part procedure: “perception, reaction, brake lag and stopping distance,” he says. “So don’t be tailgating.” He explains why this is more crucial at night. “It takes the length of a football field to stop the vehicle at 55, and most headlights only shine that far, so if you’re going faster than 55 at night, you’re overdriving your lights.”

Thayer says collisions with animals on dark, lonely highways are preventable accidents. “I’m very strict on that,” he says. “Most drivers say they never saw the deer.” He says that means they’re either driving too fast or have low beams on in a high-beam situation. “A deer lives and dies within a 2-mile radius of where it was born,” he says. “If you see a yellow warning sign for deer, slow down, hit your brights, and you’ll be able to see that deer down the road in time.”

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