Seconds count

What is one second worth to your fleet? Doesn't sound like much time, I know. But that one second is critical in rear-end collisions, where driver distraction is a major factor. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), 90% of rear-end accidents caused by delay in driver recognition could be prevented if the driver becomes aware of the situation just one second earlier.

What is one second worth to your fleet? Doesn't sound like much time, I know. But that one second is critical in rear-end collisions, where driver distraction is a major factor.

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), 90% of rear-end accidents caused by delay in driver recognition could be prevented if the driver becomes aware of the situation just one second earlier. For a fully loaded tractor-trailer going 60 mph, that's 88 extra feet of stopping distance, said Alan Korn, chief engineer for vehicle dynamics and control at Meritor Wabco. That's enough space to slow a commercial vehicle down and vastly reduce its impact velocity or maybe even avoid the crash altogether.

I talked with Korn at a ride-and-drive event sponsored by parent company ArvinMeritor in Orlando, FL, last month to demonstrate safety systems, including OnGuard, a collision mitigation system that incorporates “active braking.”

Using a forward-scanning radar device tied into a truck's engine and air brake system, Meritor Wabco's OnGuard can automatically slow the truck and deploy the brakes if it detects a slower or stopped vehicle in its path. This goes well beyond warning a driver that a collision could be imminent; it can actually stop the truck.

“If an accident is unavoidable, intervention minimizes the impact,” Korn told me. “It's not an accident avoidance system, however …We don't want to encourage the driver not to brake. What this system does is begin the braking process to re-engage the driver, to make up for a time period of distraction.”

And what driver doesn't get distracted? Simply driving on today's congested highways creates an untold number of distractions, including smaller vehicles zooming in and out of lanes without using turn signals. Just the need to “sweep” all the rear- and side-view mirrors on a big rig takes a driver's attention off the road in front of them — even if it's just for a second or two.

I got to ride shotgun during demonstrations of OnGuard and I can tell you it's very intriguing. A small dashboard display produces audio and visual warnings if a driver gets too close to the vehicle in front. The system is sophisticated enough so that it doesn't de-throttle the engine or activate the brakes when other vehicles move in front of the truck at a higher rate of speed. And it doesn't register motionless objects, so the brakes won't activate in a parking lot if you get too close to a telephone pole. OnGuard also disengages automatically if the driver hits the brakes or turns the vehicle in any way.

The system can be tied into a vehicle's telematics pathway, too, so fleets get an immediate message if OnGuard has to step in. Korn stressed that this shouldn't be viewed as a way to punish drivers, for many “hard braking” events are in response to the behavior of other drivers. Rather, he hopes this function is used as a way to highlight those in need of training so they can adjust their driving habits.

Of course, there's a cost for such capability and it's not cheap — $4,500, although there are volume discounts. Is it worth the money to get an extra second (OnGuard actually provides about two to three) of automatic reaction time? Jon Morrison, president and general manager of Meritor Wabco, has a pretty simple answer. “Think about the human element first, the emotional toll accidents take. Then look at the cost of accidents. According to NHTSA's data, the cost of a fatal crash is $3.6-million, and $195,000 for one involving non-fatal injuries,” he told me. “Then think of the six-figure price tag of trucks and trailers. When you look at all those factors together, you realize why safety really is priceless.”

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