Taking Care of No. 1

Assaults can happen anytime, anywhere – even in broad daylight. Your best protection is constant situational awareness.

It’s dangerous out there. Risks to drivers’ personal safety are numerous, but they’re not always obvious. Just look at the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ fatality census for 2000. It concluded that truck driving was the most hazardous occupation in the United States that year.

While fatal crashes remain the leading killer of truck drivers, statistics indicate there is more to being safe than just driving safely. According to the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health, 929 drivers died from assaults or other violent crimes in 2000. Two percent of driver fatalities were officially ruled as homicides.

More than most workers, the driver works in a variety of environments. And just as the driver adjusts his awareness when the driving environment changes, he will be safer when he learns to assess all work situations, inside the truck and out, and adjust his behavior accordingly.

Where to Park
Deciding where to park is one of the most important decisions a driver can make concerning his personal safety. It’s also a decision best made ahead of time, if possible.

The best place to shut down is a reputable truckstop that emphasizes security for it drivers. Lisa Mullings, vice president of public affairs and counsel for NATSO, a national trade association representing the truckstop and travel plaza industry says, “Our organization encourages members to provide security for its customers.”

Still, no matter how safe an area appears to be, you need to take precautions. Many criminals are creatures of opportunity who need little time to make you their next victim.

While parking at some truckstops is at a premium during the day’s waning hours, make the effort to try and find a parking spot that is well lit and as close as possible to the facility.

But no matter where, or when, you park, caution remains paramount. When returning to your truck, Peter Malvey, director of operations for Personal Protective Services, a tactical security firm, suggests approaching the truck from the passenger side and using a flashlight to check the interior from there.

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A rest area may be your best alternative if you are not near a truckstop with available parking. But any rest area, isolated or not, can be hazardous at any time. While you may feel safe locked in your cab, your safety can be compromised, especially when you climb in or out of the cab or when you’re doing a pretrip.

Malvey suggests, “Always park with your cab toward the light. Never pull down into a spot whether you’re in a rest area or a truckstop.” Don Breeden, an Elite Fleet driver for PGT in Monaca, Pa., says, “It’s even dangerous to keep your vents open. People spray ether through the vents to knock a driver unconscious while he’s sleeping and rob him.”

A last parking resort is often the roadside stop. But sleeping on entrance ramps provides heightened possibilities for crime, not to mention tickets and traffic incidents.

What about your drop point as an overnight stop? Dave Smiley, regional manager for Kris-Way Truck Leasing, who teaches personal safety to drivers, says its not a good idea to park at your drop point unless you are certain it is open and secure.

“Having to park on a street in the Bronx or having to run all the way out of town to find a legal spot will, at the very least, fray your nerves,” Smiley says. “If you don’t know the area you’re headed for, use the phone and a truckstop directory to find safe parking.”

No matter where you are parked, avoid getting too friendly with strangers who approach you or your truck.

“One of the most dangerous behaviors is allowing strangers into your cab,” says Trooper Randy McPherson of the Pennsylvania State Police. Once a person is inside you are at a distinct disadvantage, particularly if that person is armed. McPherson’s warning includes liaisons with prostitutes.

If you are outside your truck, the risk goes up. Malvey says walking tight to the truck and walking around corners blind is a bad idea. If you are walking in a tight hole, something you should do only if you have no choice, remain alert and carry a formidable tire thumper or flashlight. The back of the truck is particularly iffy since an assailant can be standing on the DOT bar, his legs up out of view, ready to kick. Taking that corner wide can prevent a kick in the face and more.

“Personal safety is all about situational awareness,” Malvey says. “The idea is to avoid confrontation. But if you are confronted you can hit the ground and roll to the other side of your trailer and gain enough time to avoid an assailant.”

Scott Romesburg, another PGT driver, avoids would-be assailants in tight spots by never walking between trucks, even to do a pretrip. “I pull out and do my walk around in a clear out-of-the-way spot,” he says.

No matter where you are, some personal habits might make you more vulnerable. According to Malvey, wearing a baseball cap low across the forehead cuts the field of vision. When you are walking to your truck or walking on a loading dock, keep your cap back and your head up. Try not to walk with your hands full. In truckstops, bag what you have bought and carry it in your off hand to give you an edge should you be approached.

There are more kinds of dangers at factories than are obvious. Every industrial setting has its peculiar perils. In industrial settings, walk as far from machinery as possible and take corners wide.

“Relaxed readiness is a body habit everyone can develop. You need to approach every locale with a programmed mindset based on the idea that your first priority is maintaining your personal safety,” Malvey says. “Once you develop this mindset you can estimate potential changes in your environment and respond.”

And, though deadly weapons in commercial vehicles are illegal in almost all states, truckers can take advantage of other self-defense methods. Sgt. Everett Clendenin, public information officer for the North Carolina Highway Patrol, says there are excellent alternatives to a deadly weapon that are legal for drivers to carry in most areas. Clendenin prefers pepper spray. Malvey likes the kind that comes as a foam. “It doesn’t drift in the wind and it sticks to your assailant,” he says. Clendenin is less convinced about foam but believes in pepper spray. “Our officers carry it,” he says.

Sande Lowis, an ex-driver and now membership director of the National Association of Independent Drivers, also suggests drivers carry pepper spray or mace. Lowis urges women drivers not to “wear fancy jewelry or anything that attracts unwanted attention when they’re on the road.”

Some martial arts training can help supply a little peace of mind, and it may save you personal injury. In most situations a driver who is attacked will have only his hands to defend himself. There are programs available in almost every town where you can learn the basics of self-defense.