If you're asked, “What's the right price for truck safety?” the easy answer is, “As much as it costs.” But that's also a dangerous answer. It lets us avoid the toughest issues surrounding safety and substitute a glib response that can be easily ignored because it's completely impractical and unworkable in the real world.
Most of us agree that it's impossible to put a value on human life and suffering, which therefore makes it impossible to evaluate any safety effort that might preserve a life or prevent someone's suffering. Yet no individual, business or even society can afford complete safety at any cost. Looking at truck safety as a moral issue versus a financial one is a dead end that can only lead to paralysis.
What's needed is an entirely different perspective, a new question that promotes positive action on truck safety. We should be asking, “What's the most effective way to generate the largest safety gains over the broadest number of trucking operations?”
This is more than just word games or theoretical jawboning. Trucking faces two immediate issues with enormous potential impact on safety, and the industry needs some way to work its way through those issues without becoming sidetracked by unproductive arguments or regulatory battles.
The first issue is bringing in substantial numbers of new truck drivers. There isn't much time to figure out how best to identify potential candidates who can become safe drivers and those who might be better suited in another job.
Once through the screening process, we need effective training processes for people who most likely have little experience with heavy equipment or even spending long days in traffic. Are current practices going to give us the safest new drivers possible, or do we need to rethink training?
And once we have these new drivers behind the wheel, how are we going to keep them performing at optimal safety levels as they deal with the workaday world of piloting a commercial vehicle?
The second issue is probably the more contentious one, especially when it comes to the price tag. We are just beginning to see the leading edge of advanced safety technologies for medium and heavy trucks. Rollover avoidance and stability control systems are good examples of new safety advances coming out of advanced vehicle electronics, and though further out, engineers are already working on intelligent roadways and vehicle controls.
Simple or complex, all of these technologies seek to improve some aspect of truck safety, but how does a fleet decide which technologies to adopt first, which ones will deliver the biggest safety gains for their particular operation?
As with driver training, the answers will come from focusing on results, from identifying and picking the low hanging fruit and then moving on to the next most effective option. As simple as that may sound, don't underestimate the difficulty. True ongoing safety improvement requires commitment and consistency from fleet management, as well as total honesty about what's working and what isn't.
If that seems like too much to expect of trucking, let me ask you one more question: What's the right price for ignoring safety?