Road Etiquette

Like the mother whose little Jimmy causes her to wonder just how he learned all his nasty habits, government agencies, safety professionals and scientists think long and hard about why drivers behave the way they do.

The range of driver behavior being studied by experts generally falls into the category of driving and safety. Most recently, lifestyle patterns of eating, smoking, sleeping and stress management are also being studied.

Few studies focus on safe, healthy behavior. The most current trend is the research being done to see the longstanding problems in trucking as sociological or cultural problems. It is felt that solutions may come in the form of changing the culture of trucking. To the extent that truckers are citizens of this culture their behavior is a source of both the problems and solutions. To make positive changes in the culture there must be positive changes in the behavior of citizens; to make positive changes in the lives of citizens there must be changes in the culture. While one might wish drivers could be seen as role models, particularly for other drivers, research continues to focus on the negative.

Simply put, “Behavior is an observable act,” according to Larry Russell, manager of internal consulting at Behavioral Science Technology in Ojai, Calif. There are millions of observable behaviors, he says. Everything we do is a behavior. When scientists look at behavior, they chop it up into little segments for study. At BST the focus is on identifying what Russell calls “the critical few at-risk behaviors.” Russell says the term “at-risk” is used rather than “unsafe” because the word “unsafe” implies blame, and according to Russell, “A driver can have risk without causing it.” For instance, a driver can be involved in a crash without having caused an accident.

Nevertheless, the behavior of professional drivers is under constant scrutiny. It is under such intense study “because of the high mileage exposure of trucks and the oftentimes severe consequences of crashes,” according to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration. Truckers who complain that all laws and law enforcement are directed at them often quote statistics showing that crash involvement is more often caused by the behavior of car drivers. While this is true, those who want to understand behavior as a means of making highways safer will continue to focus on trucks since “Total life cycle crash costs are more than four times greater for a combination-unit truck than for a passenger car,” according to FMCSA.

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The first thing a professional driver must understand about his behavior is that it will continue to be the object of study, of enforcement and of the public’s opinion. Whatever a truck driver does, from calling himself “a stupid truck driver” to engaging in serious at-risk behavior on the highway, from maintaining personal hygiene to competing in the National Truck Driving Championships, makes a difference in the way trucking is seen by the rest of the country. Truck drivers are constantly in the public eye.

Given the research shift to a broader cultural focus, one might expect the definition of at-risk behavior to broaden also. Under this broader focus, at-risk behaviors might include poor dietary choices, chronic and acute fatigue, and an unwillingness to learn about stress, as well as behind-the-wheel behaviors like inattention, speeding and tailgating. This effort is only beginning. Recent reports in the trade press as well as in mainstream periodicals verify the need for this approach. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reveals that truck driving is one of the most dangerous occupations. Certainly the American highway sees more fatalities than any other worksite. And there is educated speculation among many researchers that truck drivers face a life span 15 years shorter than the national average for males.

Personal lifestyle choices can make the difference in staying healthier longer. Maintaining an accident-free driving record is a necessary – but not itself sufficient – step in the productivity of the professional. Drivers need to stop seeing themselves as drudges and wage slaves. They need to believe in their worth as human beings and as employees, often in the face of opposing attitudes.

To produce results, research must be able to measure what it studies. Since behavior is measurable and attitude is not, attitudes get very little attention. But attitude underlies the new approach of researchers to find safety solutions in the broader focus of the trucking culture. Even newer is the direction of some research and consulting firms that see the attitudes of employers as significant. Indeed, Dean Croke, director of Circadian Technologies, Inc., a leading research and consulting firm specializing in workforce optimization, believes, “There is too much emphasis on the driver.” Croke’s perspective is that safety is “a shared responsibility.” He says, “Driver behavior is symptomatic of how a business is run. Safe behavior is not a training or skill issue but a function of utilization.” Thus scheduling practices, productivity expectations, assessing fitness for duty, even employee health, are aspects of the driving task an employer can and should control to create a safer work environment.

According to Croke, this requires leadership from employers. He relates the story of a truck firm owner whose fleet was experiencing frequent crashes on the same stretch of road at the same time of night, near the end of a 10-hour run. The owner believed the problem was driver error, failing to recognize that his drivers were experiencing chronic fatigue. So it is that executives must often be educated to the realities of workforce hazards in order to stop using drivers as scapegoats. “Shared responsibility” is an idea whose time has come. But it is a concept complicated by other forces within the industry. Consider the notion, put forth by Croke, that “Trucking outfits can show enforcement agencies completely compliant hours-of-service records and still have drivers with chronic fatigue problems.”

There is the further problem of powerful trucking organizations unwilling to consider the physiological realities of sleep as evidenced in research. Groups lobby strenuously to protect the interests of their members, predominantly large trucking firms, and prevent changing hours-of-service regulations to reflect new scientific findings. Croke agrees with the assessment that such behavior puts profit above life. Thus it is often the behavior of top management rather than the behavior of drivers that needs changing.

Whether this behavior is the result of ignorance or conscious choices, the concept of shared responsibility requires that leadership accept its ethical and moral responsibilities to drivers and the public. As further research focusing on a cultural approach to safety deepens, smart drivers will continue to accept their responsibility to themselves and the public. At some point, drivers can become role models and educators. In the absence of strong leadership, it remains necessary for drivers to take the initiative to stand up for themselves. From small actions like sleeping when tired rather than when the log requires, to looking for employers who have wellness programs and realistic scheduling practices, the smart driver can make a difference in his life. By doing so, he will be contributing to the well being of the culture.

Tips on How to Behave Like a Truck Driver

  1. Don’t call yourself stupid. You’re only stupid if you think you’re stupid.
  2. If you are fatalistic, meaning you believe you cannot affect when you are going to die, you can end up killing yourself and somebody else in the process. Being fatalistic makes you an at-risk driver.
  3. Observing your own behavior can tell you when you are driving well and when you aren’t. Some guys even carry a tape recorder and document their moves for three or four minutes every once in a while. Then they play it back when there’s a free minute. You’d be surprised how helpful it can be.
  4. You are under constant scrutiny. You know that. Don’t let it get to you. If people see you driving badly, things are bound to get worse.
  5. Long-form physicals don’t tell you everything about your health. Go to a doctor and get a blood lipid test, a sugar test, and if you’re over 50, a colonoscopy. Don’t settle for a sigmoidoscopy. Studies show colonoscopies are much more thorough.
  6. Your truckin’ life is dangerous and unhealthy. It’s up to you to stay alive. The culture isn’t going to change fast enough to keep up with the heart disease or lung cancer you’re working on by smoking to ease the boredom you feel behind the wheel.
  7. You have rights as an employee. Stick up for them.