All of us who work in pupil transportation or who manage professional drivers with a fleet of vehicles have taken notice of two very tragic news stories.
The school bus crash in Huntsville, Ala., last November that resulted in the deaths of four teenagers rattled the industry for several months. Adding to the calamity, a motorcoach plunged over the side of a freeway outside Atlanta in early March, leaving six people dead, including four college baseball players, the bus driver and his wife.
These incidents have caused me to again check and double-check our district’s accident-prevention policies and training procedures.
Although we have not been involved in a horrific bus crash with the kind of injuries and fatalities suffered in Huntsville and Atlanta, I have started to take note of a growing pile of driver reports of minor scrapes, dents, fender benders or broken mirrors.
Some would say that these are the battle scars that come from mile after mile of commercial driving or the result of tight parking spaces and, in certain parts of the country, reduced yard parking. But the more cautious people in professional driving circles are quick to send up the red flag and say that these minor incidents are an urgent notice that a much larger accident or incident could be just around the corner or a few miles down the road.
Dents, scrapes or broken mirrors are often a sign that drivers are in too much of a hurry or are failing to check and then double-check the area around their vehicles. If you are noticing this concern in your fleet, here are a few talking points to use as a “teaching moment” at your transportation center.
Focus on the task
One of the areas most transportation directors have concerns about is that drivers are not truly focusing on the task of driving. There are many distractions out there, especially in the terminal or garage area. In about 75 percent of incidents where there was actual vehicle damage done, drivers were found to be inattentive within three seconds of the accident.
One of the most common statements you hear when speaking with drivers following incidents is, “I never even saw it.” The bottom line is, if you are not looking for hazards, you will not see the hazard until you run into it. Pay attention to the task of driving at all times. Do not worry about who is at the fuel depot before you, who is leaving for a trip or who can give you a ride home after work.
Often, drivers let their guard down as they enter the garage parking lot because in their mind the route has been completed successfully and it is time to go home. Don’t revel in your success until the bus is parked and you have done your post-trip inspection.
Prepare for the unexpected
Many professional drivers have never had to make an unexpected correction or sudden emergency stop in their entire driving career. With that said, drivers will not rise to the occasion simply because they have some years of experience under their belt. If they have not done any preparation for accident avoidance or emergency stopping, they will simply default to their skill level in this area, which could be none.
Drivers must have a clear understanding about the type of vehicle they are driving and how it handles and stops. Your training program must include instruction on the braking systems in your buses, either traditional or ABS, and training in how to use the system. Drivers should step firmly on the brakes of their vehicle in a safe area or terminal lot at about 20 mph to see exactly how the vehicle behaves. This won’t hurt the vehicle but could prevent somebody from getting hurt by your bus on the road. Of course, make sure there are no students or passengers on the bus during this procedure.
Aim high with your eyes
Getting the big picture remains an issue for drivers of all types of vehicle. Drivers are not scanning the areas left and right, near and far around their vehicles. By simply looking around your vehicle, you can reduce your chances of being involved in an accident.
If you have any input into the maintenance of your vehicles, it is also important to make sure heaters and defrosters work properly. Many drivers of large commercial vehicles, especially those that are parked inside and suddenly exit the garage, experience fog-up situations.
Also, be sure your vehicles have good-quality wipers at all times and that rain-shedding products are regularly applied to windshields.
In regard to visibility, drivers should be alert to the cues of possible problems from other motorists. Beware of cars with out-of-state license plates. These vehicles may come from states with different school bus-related traffic laws. In addition, the drivers of these vehicles might be lost and make unexpected stops and turns that could cause your vehicle to become involved in a fender bender.
Don’t get distracted
By now we all know that drinking and driving is completely unacceptable, especially for drivers of commercial vehicles. We are also clearly aware of how impaired our actions can become even if we have consumed just a few drinks.
So, why would we do things while driving that would cause our bodies to mimic behaviors as if we had been drinking? Our commercial vehicles are equipped with switches, gauges, high-tech devices and two-way radios. Whenever we take our attention off the road to operate switches, tune radio channels or reach for two-way radio microphones, we divert our attention from the road to the radio or accessory. By taking your eyes off the road, even partially, you can cause your vehicle to drift from side to side, run over something or hit another vehicle.
Only take your attention off the road to operate a vital accessory. To simply grab the microphone and say, “See you back at the garage,” is a needless and risky communication.
Relatively speaking, commercial drivers spend very little time driving in reverse, but they incur a disproportionate number of accidents while backing the vehicle.
That’s why drivers should always try to anticipate their exit from any area and try to minimize any backing. The driver or spotters should always walk around the vehicle prior to backing and limit the backing to the shortest distance possible. While we do not often build new terminals, when the opportunity presents itself, we should make every effort to build bays that have drive-through facilities for our buses or commercial vehicles.
Keep the fires burning
Hopefully an ounce of prevention can help reduce your drivers’ exposure to the risks of inattention, backing or lack of preparation for unexpected situations.
I hope you will spend at least a few moments discussing these items at an upcoming safety meeting or add them to a department memo. I am one of those who believe that small incidents are an indicator of larger incidents to come if we do not intervene and remind our drivers to think about what they are doing.
Michael Dallessandro is transportation supervisor at Lake Shore (N.Y.) Central School District and a frequent contributor to SCHOOL BUS FLEET Magazine.
The widely known Smith System safety training program for professional drivers is based on the notion that most collisions are preventable if the right driving habits are learned, practiced and consistently applied.
The Smith System bases its success on core principles known as the Five Keys of Space Cushion Driving:
1. Aim high in steering.
2. Get the big picture.
3. Keep your eyes moving.
4. Leave yourself an out.
5. Make sure they see you.
For more information about the Smith System, visit http://smith-system.com.