This article focuses on things that are likely common knowledge for an experienced driver, but may not be common at all to an inexperienced driver.
Recently a driver with a packaged freight load was traveling to a customer in Knoxville, TN. This area is mountainous and the driver had gone down two multiple-mile, steep-grade hills and was now into his third hill when he felt that his brakes were no longer responding. The posted speed limit is 55 mph and at the bottom of the third hill the driver was traveling at 70 mph. The driver went around a slight curve and saw a sign notifying drivers that they were approaching yet another hill. At that point the driver decided to pull the truck into the grassy median at 70 mph rather than go down another hill without brakes.
Once the truck was fully into the median, the driver pulled on the emergency brakes and the truck stopped. The driver was not injured; however, there was severe damage to the trailer and trailer axles. The carrier’s investigation determined that the driver never took the truck out of automatic transmission and placed it into manual mode in order to downshift before going down any of the hills. Since the truck was never shifted into a lower gear, the driver was relying on his brakes to slow the truck and eventually the brakes failed.
The rule of thumb for older trucks was to choose the same gear going down a hill as that used to go up a hill. However, with the advent of automatic transmissions and more-powerful engines this rule may not apply to newer trucks.
Before descending a hill, drivers need to take into consideration the total weight of the vehicle and cargo, the length of the grade, the steepness of the grade, road conditions and the weather. The maximum posted speed limit for trucks should never be exceeded and drivers should use the braking effect of the engine as the principal way of controlling their speed – and not the brakes.
Another incident occurred while a driver with a bulk tanker was traveling when the “check engine” light illuminated. The driver immediately put the four-way flashers on and began slowing down to pull the truck to the side of the road. However, within a few seconds, the engine completely shut down. The driver was now steering to the side of the roadway, but the vehicle had no power. The driver mistakenly believed that the ability to steer the truck would be lost if the engine failed, when in fact all that was lost was the power assist to the steering.
Although the steering may have been harder without the power assist, the steering was still functional. However, since the driver had the mistaken belief that the steering wheel was now locked, he made no attempt to correct the direction the truck was now traveling in. The truck left the roadway, went into a ditch and ended up rolling over. Fortunately, the driver was uninjured and there was no spill.
The carrier’s investigation included a review of the in-cab camera that confirmed the driver never attempted to correct the path of the truck. The carrier’s safety department concluded that the driver’s misperception about the locked steering wheel and his decision not to correct the path of the truck was the cause of the accident. The investigation determined that the accident could have been avoided completely, had the driver just turned the steering wheel to avoid going off the roadway.
Both of these incidents could have been prevented, but, unfortunately, the drivers involved were inexperienced and did not possess the knowledge and skills to prevent them.
As the industry struggles with a driver shortage and many driving positions are being filled by drivers with less experience than in the past, there may be an opportunity for fleets to review their new-driver training and orientation programs.