Have you ever driven in unsafe road conditions or experienced dangerous behaviors by other drivers? Rain, fog, snow, and ice are a few of the many hazards truck drivers face daily on the job.
With advances in technology and changes in society, distracted drivers–individuals playing with their cell phones rather than keeping their eyes on the road–have become one of the most dangerous hazards on America’s roadways. Aggressive drivers, especially those in larger cities and those that don’t follow best practices for winter weather driving are another cause for concern.
With all these potential dangers, being a safe driver is paramount and as our truck driver friends will tell you, making it home to your family safely is a trucker’s first priority. To help you stay safe out there we’ve put together this list of truck driver safety tips.
1. Plan Your Trip in Advance
When you plan your trip in advance you will increase your safety substantially. Be alert to potential hazards such as:
- High crime areas - Shipments are high value targets for theft which may result in violent crimes against the truck driver as well. Plan your stops to be as safe as possible. Avoid poorly lit areas and isolated locations.
- Congested traffic - High traffic congestion increases the odds for a traffic incident. Be aware of segments of your route where traffic congestion is common. Be ready to slow down, or have an alternate route planned.
- Inclement weather - Stay up to date on weather conditions along your route so that you can adjust your route if needed or make the necessary preparations.
- Restricted routes - Make sure your route does not include truck restricted roads and hazards such as low clearances, low weight limit bridges, etc.
2. Defensive Driving
Driving defensively is your best option for protecting yourself because you have no control over other drivers on the road and you can’t assume they are driving with safety in mind. In fact many truck drivers will agree that most motorists do not know how to drive safely around a big truck. According to a University of Michigan Transportation Institute study, 81 - 91% of crashes involving a commercial vehicle are caused by cars, rather than trucks. So to stay on point with your defensive driving, here are some defensive driving tips:
- Stay aware of your blind spots: 10-15 feet in front of you, directly behind your trailer, on the passenger side from the door to the back of your sleeper unit, and on the driver side from the front bumper to the nose of the trailer. Checking your mirrors every 3-5 seconds can help you maintain 360 degrees of awareness at all times.
- Maintain a safe following distance. The FMCSA recommends 1 second for every 10 feet of vehicle length at 40 mph. If you are traveling over 40 mph add an additional one second. The average length of a Class A combination truck and trailer is 72 feet so your following distance should be 7 seconds at 40 mph and under, and 8 seconds for speeds over 40 mph. You can measure this distance by observing a point on the road and counting the time from when a car in front of you passed that point to the time that you reach that point.
- An emergency can develop in just a second or two, especially at high speeds on the interstate highways, so remain alert for emergencies. Remain calm. If you’re agitated because of a close call with a motorist, find a safe place to park and calm down before continuing your trip. Pay attention to what’s going on a quarter of a mile ahead of you and slow down if you observe unsafe traffic behavior, road construction or other potential hazards.
3. Keep Your Cargo Secure
An improperly secured load can cause a tractor-trailer unit to jackknife, roll over, or otherwise go out of control. For flatbed loads, an improperly secured load can pose a hazard to the driver and other motorists. To prevent the cargo from shifting or falling onto the roadway, use the proper load securement devices for your equipment and cargo. For dry van and refrigerated shipments, use load locks, air bags, and cinch straps as needed to keep the load from shifting. For flatbed trailers, use the proper type of strap or chains as required by the load and ensure you’ve followed DOT regulations for securing flatbed loads.
4. Maintenance Schedules
Keeping a regular preventative maintenance schedule is essential for operating a commercial vehicle safely, which is why we wrote an entire article dedicated to the topic. According to the FMCSA, maintenance issues are a leading cause for tractor trailer accidents. If you do not have a schedule, coordinate with a mechanic to develop one. If you drive for a fleet, your company’s shop will provide you with a maintenance schedule you will likely be required to follow.
5. Pre & Post Trip Inspections
Pre and post trip inspections are essential for spotting your equipment's defects before they threaten your safety. These inspections are so important that federal regulations require you to perform at least one every day and record the inspection in your hours of service log. Therefore, when inspecting your vehicle pay close attention to:
- Your braking system which includes your air compressor, air brake lines, brake pads, drums or rotors and calipers, low air pressure alarm and brake lights
- Your steering system which includes the amount of play in your steering column, rack and pinion components, power steering fluid and your steering tires
Additional points to pay close attention to are the fifth wheel assembly, headlights, marker lights, signal lights, and tires. If you are unsure of what you should be inspecting the FMCSA, USDOT, and third party companies like J.J. Keller or mechanic shops and trucking companies provide the regulation-approved inspection checklist at little to no cost.
CloudTrucks provides a free and comprehensive pre-trip inspection checklist as a starting point. Inspections are the first line of defense in safe operation and should not be neglected under any circumstance.
6. Avoid Distractions
Distracted driving has grown to become one of the greatest threats to your safety on the road. According to the FMCSA, “the odds of being involved in a crash, near-crash, or unintentional lane deviation are 23.2 times greater for truck and bus drivers who are texting while driving.”
Furthermore, the average time an individual takes their eyes off the road is 4.6 seconds and at 55 mph that means they travel 371 feet in that amount of time. That’s enough time for a child to run out onto the road, for a car to pull in front of you unexpectedly, or for that truck in front of you to blow out a steer tire and roll over. The outcome of those situations will depend on whether or not you had your eyes on the road.
7. Use a GPS or Mapping Device
A GPS designed specially for trucking can be helpful for keeping you on the correct route. However, the technology is not perfect and it should never be your primary routing tool. A truck atlas remains the best method for making sure you’re using truck approved routes and staying out of trouble. In areas of high traffic congestion use a truck atlas to plan alternate routes to get around traffic backups, construction zones, etc. Furthermore, many shippers and receivers include step by step directions into their facilities along with the load paperwork. If they do not, and you’re unsure about the route into a facility, contact the facility or your dispatcher to obtain the correct route before reaching your destination.
8. Prepare for Dangerous Road Conditions
Road conditions change constantly and can be a danger to all drivers but especially drivers of large vehicles such as trucks. Here are some common dangerous conditions to look out for:
- Icy roads - Iced roads are one of the greatest dangers a truck driver will face yet is the easiest danger to avoid. Pay attention to weather and road condition reports and plan your trip around winter conditions. If there are alerts of ice or if you encounter ice on the road the safest thing to do is find a place to park and wait for the roads to be cleared of the ice by state maintenance workers. Remember also to follow common winter driving tips for truck dirvers in cold weather conditions such as ice and snow.
- Snow - Snow can compact into ice so caution is needed on roads that have not been plowed. In certain regions of the country chains are required on some highways, and chains can be helpful anywhere you are dealing with a lot of snow on the roadway. Keep in mind, chains are of little use if the roads are glazed with ice and the best course is often to get off the road until it has been cleared.
- Rain - Rain conditions can make the roadway slick because of oil and other materials present on the road. Slow down to maintain control of your vehicle and be alert for stopped and slowed vehicles if visibility is limited.
- Fog - When encountering heavy fog, slow down, and keep your headlights on low beam to see better. Make sure your marker lights and flashers are on to make you more visible to other drivers.
- Disabled vehicles - When approaching disabled vehicle on the side of the road, move over and slow down. If you can’t move over, slow down even more. There may be individuals or debris you can’t easily see and striking either can have catastrophic consequences.
- Road construction - When entering road construction observe all posted speed limits and other signs, and be on the lookout for workers and machinery. Fines for failure to follow road construction speed limits are usually doubled and additional penalties apply to drivers of commercial vehicles including suspension of your CDL.
- Accidents - If you come up on an accident, slow down if it’s possible to maneuver around the accident. If the road is blocked, bring your vehicle to a stop and turn on your flashers. Be sure to leave sufficient room for emergency vehicles to access the accident scene.
- Animals on the road - Do not swerve or slam on your brakes if an animal is on the roadway. Doing so may cause you to have an accident. As harsh as it sounds you may have to strike the animal as the safest course of action. Many trucking companies penalize their drivers harshly including possible termination if they cause an accident because they tried to avoid an animal in the road.
9. Take Adequate Breaks
Driver fatigue is another leading cause of accidents in the trucking industry. Especially when you first start your truck driving career, a great tip for new truck drivers is to take breaks to lower fatigue like drivers knee. It’s such a serious concern the FMCSA has created hours of service (HOS) regulations for drivers of commercial motor vehicles (CMV). The regulation is simple and straightforward:
Hours of service
- 14 hours of on duty time in a 24 hour period
- 11 hours of driving time in a 24 hour period
- 8 hours of driving time before a required 30 minute break
- 10 hours of sleep time is required to reset your 14 hour on duty time and 11 hour drive time
With the recent requirement for electronic logging it is more difficult than ever to circumvent hours of service regulations without facing harsh legal repercussions. Furthermore, these regulations have been crafted with your safety and the safety of those who share the road with you in mind.
It’s important to remember that the effects of operating a vehicle while fatigued are similar to operating a vehicle under the influence of drugs or alcohol. So to operate safely and return home to your family in one piece, many veteran drivers with safe records recommend stopping and resting if you’re feeling fatigued.
10. Invest in a Dash Cam
Avoiding accidents is always a priority, however, the unexpected can and will occur no matter how safe a driver you are. But often, determining who is at fault in an accident can be unclear.
To protect yourself from unjust accusations, legal penalties, increased insurance costs, and potential termination by your employer, we recommend investing in a quality dash cam.
Thousands of truck drivers each year have been cleared of any fault in an accident because they had a dash cam and video proof they were not at fault in an incident.
11. Maintain Space Cushion
It’s always important to keep in mind that you’re strapped to the front of a 72 foot long vehicle that weighs up to 80,000 pounds. Knowing how long it takes you to stop with your given load weight and vehicle size is crucial for keeping everything, including yourself, intact. Pay attention to road conditions and adjust your speed and following distance accordingly.
If conditions are unsafe, use extra caution and give yourself even more space. Pay attention to not only the space in front of you but also beside you. If a vehicle continues to travel beside you it is safer to slow down more and let them pass on by to maximize the space around your truck.
12. Situational Awareness
Sports coaches in America are famous for their advice to “keep your head on a swivel.” That advice is useful in trucking too. Maintaining good situational awareness of what is happening around you at all times will help you to preemptively avoid accidents and adjust to changing road conditions. Make it a habit to check your mirrors, both driver side and passenger side, every 3-5 seconds. Doing so will enable you to maintain that “head on a swivel” posture so that you always know what’s happening around your truck. However, keeping your head on a swivel is only one part of situational awareness in trucking. Other situational awareness issues include:
- Make sure you’re using your turn signal every time you make a lane change or turn.
- Because of offtracking, make sure you swing wide enough on your turns to avoid striking objects and vehicles on or near the roadway.
- Before any movements that require moving the unit in reverse, get out and look. Make a 360 degree walk around so that you are aware of any individuals, objects, or other hazards in the vicinity of your vehicle.
- Use your four-way flashers and sound your horn before reversing.
- Always look twice before changing lanes or pulling out into an intersection or roadway.
13. Be Predictable
It’s easy to forget that people can’t read our minds and most individuals on the highways do not understand how to operate their cars near a large commercial vehicle. Predictably operate your big truck to make things safer for yourself and others. What does this mean?
- Slow down on turns.
- Activate your turn signal several seconds before you change lanes or turn.
- Avoid frequent, unnecessary lane changes.
- The greatest visible sign of a skilled truck driver is their ability to keep their rig between the lines at all times. In other words, maintain your lane and you’ll stay safer and look good doing it.
- If another big truck is behind you and you have to turn, keep in mind they take longer to stop just like you. Signal and slow down earlier to give them more time to react.
- Maintain a consistent speed when possible. Slowing down and speeding up can create traffic congestion around you and reduce the amount of safe space around your vehicle.
- If you cannot quickly pass another commercial vehicle do not attempt it. Doing so will only create a traffic jam around you and reduce your safety cushion 360 degrees around your truck.
Working safely, driving safely, and returning home to your family safely should always be your highest priority when on the road. Keep in mind that no load is worth your life and drive accordingly. If the road conditions are too hazardous, slow down or stop. If you’re getting texts on your phone, whatever it is can wait until you stop because that 4.6 seconds spent looking at that text has been the last 4.6 seconds of too many people’s lives. Make sure your vehicle is well maintained, your brakes work, your tires are good, and you can steer safely. Keep your head on a swivel, mind the blindspots, stop if you’re tired, and always drive defensively.