First response

One of your vehicles has been involved in a "crash." What do you do next?All of us are striving to create a crash-free environment on our nation's highways. While we've made significant improvements in commercial vehicle crash rates, we need to do more. The Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) has set a goal of reducing the fatal accident rate involving large trucks from 1995's 8% to 7% by 2003.

One of your vehicles has been involved in a "crash." What do you do next?

All of us are striving to create a crash-free environment on our nation's highways. While we've made significant improvements in commercial vehicle crash rates, we need to do more. The Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) has set a goal of reducing the fatal accident rate involving large trucks from 1995's 8% to 7% by 2003. What can we, as safety professionals, do to help meet this goal?

This will be the first in a two-part series on what your fleet can do to improve its crash rate. In this segment, we'll talk about how to manage your initial response to a crash; Part II will focus on avoiding crashes and training drivers after a crash.

But first, a terminology issue. Ricardo Martinez, administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), and George Reagle, FHWA's associate administrator for motor carriers, announced that from now on "crash" will be substituted for "accident" in all their official publications. They say that "accident" implies an action over which a person may have had no control, rather than a preventable action, which could have been avoided -- in other words, a "crash." It sounds like semantics to me, but I'll use the new terminology.

The first step for any fleet is to establish a set of procedures to be followed when a driver or vehicle is involved in a crash. Drivers, dispatchers, and anyone else involved in the reporting process must be trained so that they are clear about what their responsibilities are. All crashes -- minor, as well as major -- must be reported to you or a designated staff member.

Everyone should understand that if the incident were serious enough, failure to report would result in termination and possible prosecution. In addition, provisions should be made for holidays, weekends, and after normal business hours. If telephones are not staffed 24 hours a day, consider making pager and cellular phone numbers available.

Initial crash reports should contain the following information:

* Driver name

* Exact crash location (highway, city, state, etc.)

* Time of crash

* Extent of injuries

* Hazardous materials

* Special equipment needed, e.g., tow trucks, cranes, etc.

When a crash report comes in, the fleet safety department or person responsible for crash notification should be contacted immediately. The seriousness of the crash and its location will determine whether a company representative should be sent to the scene. If hazardous materials have been spilled, the shipper should be notified and additional reporting requirements followed.

If a company official is sent to the scene, some basic considerations should be followed. First, never interfere with emergency workers. Once the injured have been helped, identify yourself to the person in charge and provide written notification of your name, telephone number, and address. Offer to provide any additional information needed to assist with the reporting or investigation of the crash.

Try to collect as much information as you can for your needs without interfering with the official investigation. Some agencies do not allow anyone other than law enforcement officials to collect information about witnesses and statements on the scene. Ask before you attempt to collect this type of information.

You should also refrain from making judgements about the cause of the crash or the condition of your driver if asked to do so by investigators or the media. In addition, it's also inadvisable to point out possible errors on the part of other drivers involved. Even if your driver is arrested at the scene, you should admit to nothing more than that fact.

The bottom line for this phase of the crash is to get the basic information. Be helpful, but not overbearing. Even if the investigation seems headed in a negative direction, remain calm. There will be plenty of time later to clarify information and get a more accurate account of what happened.

[Contributing editor Stephen Campbell is vp-safety, training and technology for the Motor Freight Carriers Assn. ]

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