Night Vision

Understanding and overcoming the challenges of driving in the dark.

Last November, a 49-year-old truck driver who had been on the job for only about three weeks lost control of his produce load and slammed into an interstate median at 12:40 a.m. in Olympia, Wash. He died at the scene, and a trainer, who was in the sleeper, was hospitalized. A state trooper said a wet roadway may have contributed to the driver losing control.

Though the trooper didn’t call it out, the time of the accident may have been a factor, too. A 1995 National Traffic Safety Board study found that 52 of 62 fatigue-related accidents occurred between 10 p.m. and 8 a.m. In a 1996 study by the Federal Highway Administration and the American Trucking Associations that followed 80 truckers on 360 trips, there was an eight-fold increase in drowsiness between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m.

During a study examining the causes of large-truck accidents from April 2001 to Dec. 31, 2003, 24 percent of all accidents occurred between dawn and dusk, according to the study team of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Even though working at night is an occupational requirement for many truck drivers, fewer miles are logged after dark than during daylight hours. Yet knowing the challenges of driving in the dark is key. Generally, night driving requires a set of skills entirely different from daytime driving.

“If you’re going to be a truck driver, depending on the segment, freight moves at night,” says Doug Cook, vice president of safety at Covenant Transport in Chattanooga, Tenn. “That’s part of your work day.” While some drivers work exclusively at night and have been able to adjust their bodies to the schedule, many truck operators only occasionally drive at night and struggle with the physical demands of nighttime driving. While traffic volume is less and the consequential distractions fewer at night, vision is limited as well.

Safe nighttime driving results from a combination of good training and proper personal preparation. Most trucking operators and driving schools spend time educating drivers on the dangers of driving in the dark and the skills and techniques needed to do it safely. Driving after dark is a prominent part of driver training at Southeastern Freight Lines, though less time is spent on it than daytime instruction, says Gary Snellings, an Alabama-based driver-trainer for the Lexington, S.C., company. “We have twice-a-year classroom training on fatigue and winter driving issues for drivers who drive after dark.”

The most important obstacles to safe nighttime driving are reduced visibility and driver fatigue, says Tom DiSalvi, director of loss prevention at Schneider National. A big part of ensuring good visibility is using your headlights for maximum effect. DiSalvi says the low beam gives approximately 250 feet of visibility, while high beam doubles that. At 55 mph, you may not be able to stop within the low beam’s light. He advises using high beams whenever possible, while dimming them as a courtesy to oncoming traffic and when following other vehicles. “So much of driving at night is being vigilant and looking down the road for potential hazards,” he says.

Effectively using your headlights means keeping them clean. “It’s easy for debris from dirt, snow, ice and salt to accumulate,” Cook says. Any time you stop to fuel or rest, check that your headlights are clean.

At the same time, make sure your windshield is clean, the wiper blades are in good working order and the windshield fluid reservoir is full.

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