Professional truck drivers hold one of the most dangerous occupations in the U.S. While more driver-assistance technology is making trucking safer, the biggest safety problem fleets face on the road is smaller than the trucks they operate: distracted passenger car drivers.
“As you all know, distracted driving is a serious, serious problem,” said Steve Fields, a professional truck driver for 36 years. “I would venture to say that for every 10 cars that pass me on the road today, they are doing something that is distracting. It’s alarming. It’s scary.”
Fields, who drives for Yellow (No. 7 on the 2022 FleetOwner 500: For-Hire), would know. He’s driven more than 3.5 million accident-free miles and is an America’s Road Team captain. He joined other industry leaders during American Trucking Associations’ Management Conference & Exhibition in San Diego last month to discuss emerging risks for fleets.
More than 3,000 people per year are killed on U.S. highways because of distracted driving, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which last released numbers based on 2020 data. A recent study by Travelers said distraction behind the wheel has shot up since the pandemic.
Fields said when he was growing up, he never wore a seatbelt in the car. And drunk driving was more prevalent across the U.S. “How did we stop that? The laws got a little tougher, and they had a little more bite,” Fields said.
“There’s no consequences, really,” he said of distracted driving. “The $100 ticket for texting—we’ve got to change this. It’s got to have some bite to it. On the commercial side, if we get caught texting and driving as professional drivers, it’s an $1,100 fine. Guess what? That gets your attention."
“We need to pass laws to give the distracted driver a little bit more punishment,” Fields continued. “Hardly anyone drinks and drives anymore because you realize it’s going to cost you $10,000 if you get caught and/or imprisonment.”
The ‘primary factor’ has four wheels and a phone
Citing past studies from the Federal Highway Administration in the U.S. and Transport Canada north of the border, Dan Murray, SVP with the American Transportation Research Institute, said data shows that passenger car drivers are responsible for more than 70% of crashes involving commercial vehicles and cars.
“The bottom line is crashes are very rare, and the number of crashes where the truck driver is negligent is extremely small,” he said. “It’s really important what Steve and others are saying about focusing on the primary factor—which most of the time is not the truck driver.”
See also: Eliminating distractions for new drivers
But sometimes, it is the truck driver’s fault, noted Joshua Vance, VP of safety and compliance at J.B. Hunt Transport (No. 5 on the FleetOwner 500: For-Hire).
“My reason for saying that is that if a driver’s behavior has never changed for the better—or for the worse,” Vance said. “In the old days, everyone was paying attention. How many times have you seen a near collision where the car driver blares on the horn, flips off the driver, spins out of the way, and goes on their way with no contact?"
“Now they’re doing this,” Vance said while mimicking a driver looking at their phone—not the road. “They have no idea that the driver did not see them. The environment has changed because the car drivers are not paying attention to what’s going on around them. It’s very frustrating for us—and we see it all the time with videos that now back up our drivers.”
Trucking is getting safer but needs more defense
Compared to passenger drivers, the trucking industry is safer, according to P. Sean Garney, co-director of Scopelitis Transportation Consulting. “We’re faring fairly well, but our future risk is learning how to interact with all those other people around us,” he said. “If you look at the most recent bits of data, trucking improved in almost every category in distraction.”
The only distraction category drivers have not improved on is “interacting with a device,” which Garney said includes interacting with vehicle systems. When the industry first started combating in-cab distractions, the focus was on phones. “But now our vehicles have a lot more distracting devices in there,” he explained. “Disciplining ourselves as the industry to try to avoid that makes perfect sense.”
Garney said it would be essential to educate the next generation of drivers on distraction-free discipline. “But really teaching our drivers to be defensive and to understand where the risks lay are important,” he said.
Defensive driving training is critical, ATRI's Murray said. “Because defensive driving is ‘I’m doing all the right things—and the four-wheeler is still going to do something stupid,’” he explained.
Murray noted that even if commercial drivers “do everything perfect, they’re still going to leave about 75% of all truck-involved fatalities on the table.”
But Murray said advanced driver assistance systems, known as ADAS, are becoming more prominent in trucking. Their growing adoption over the next three to five years could lead to fewer truck-involved highway crashes, he predicted.
“You have many of these active systems in your cars,” he told a room full of trucking industry executives in San Diego. “They’re available in trucking—we’re just now beginning to consider them as options. But when they become standard, I think we’re going to see amazing improvements in safety because no matter how dumb the four-wheeler driver is, these will mitigate crashes regardless of responsibility.”