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The Three Biggest Causes Of Truck Crashes … And How To Avoid Them

Part Three: Driver Error

In the third and final instalment of our three-part series, we look at one of the three biggest causes of truck crashes – driver error – and offer expert advice on how to reduce the risks of such incidents.

Australia has experienced a dramatic increase in major truck crashes caused by ‘driver error’ over the past five years, according to the NTARC Major Accident Report produced by National Transport Insurance (NTI).

This is in sharp contrast to the long-term reduction in incidents caused by fatigue and inappropriate speed.

Proportion of incidents due to driver error and human factors by year (NTARC Report 2022)

Accidents caused by ‘driver error’ include inattention/distraction, inappropriate vehicle positioning and inadequate following distance.

  • Incidents triggered by inattention/distraction more than doubled from 6.7 per cent in 2017 to 16.3 per cent in 2021 and are now the cause of almost one in six of all major losses, the data shows.
  • Similarly, incidents directly related to inappropriate vehicle positioning almost doubled from 5.4 per cent in 2017 to 10.5 per cent in 2021.
  • In contrast, accidents caused by inadequate following distance have trended downwards from nine per cent in 2017 to 8.6 per cent in 2021.

Top Tips to Avoid Driver Error

  • Minimise driver distractions
  • Limit using a mobile phone while driving 
  • Educate drivers to leave more distance between other vehicles
  • Invest in new trucks with anti-collision sensors
  • Encourage drivers to drive defensively

Inattention and Distraction

Inattention and distraction crashes are the result of the driver becoming disengaged from the driving task as the result of either a specific non-driving related stimulus (distraction) or due to a loss of task focus (inattention).

NTI Transport and Risk Engineer Adam Gibson – who has authored the NTARC report since 2019 – attributes the sharp rise in accidents caused by inattention/distraction largely to increased “interaction” with mobile phones when driving, though he notes the data shows this is a less significant issue with truck drivers.

Proportion of incidents due to inattention/distraction by year (NTARC Report 2022)

Gibson also believes drivers are becoming distracted by “peak in-cab displays” – that is, the increasing number of devices, from telematics systems to in-cab cameras, that have been retrofitted into truck cabs.

Staying focused on the driving task for thousands of hours per year is a tough ask, but he believes there are two key ways to manage driver distractions.

Firstly, minimise driver distractions. Gibson suggests operators avoid electronic displays or readouts that require driver input while in motion. Where that is not possible, make them as simple and as convenient as possible.

“An example might be making sure the driver has an appropriate place to store their water bottle which is within easy reach,” he suggests.

Secondly, limit mobile phone usage. While available data is limited, Gibson says it is likely mobile phone usage has contributed to the increase in distraction losses.

In managing this specific hazard, he recommends best practice as not interacting with phones at all while in motion. Alternatively, he advises operators to adopt a policy of requiring the use of hands-free technology.

“Whatever your approach, make sure everyone in your organisation is aware of the policies and adhere to them at all times,” he says.

“Leaders must quickly, and consistently enforce policies when breaches are identified, to reinforce desired behaviour.”

Inadequate Following Distance

Where the driver of the vehicle has not maintained sufficient following distance to traffic in front and due to the lack of manoeuvring time/space an incident has occurred when something has disrupted traffic, such as vehicles ahead unexpectedly slowing.

More than two in three non-fatal truck-at-fault car and truck crashes – representing 10 per cent of NTI’s large losses – are ‘ran into rear’ crashes caused by inadequate following distance.

And in non-fatal car and truck crashes the truck driver was at fault in 65.3 per cent of incidents in 2021, a level that has remained consistent over the past two decades.

While the biggest contributor to this is other road users, Gibson says truck drivers need to accept the poor behaviour of car drivers as a hazard outside of their control and put in place strategies to manage that risk.

“It sounds obvious, but the number-one approach to managing the risk of these losses is to leave more following distance,” he says.

“In order to achieve this, it’s important to engage honestly and openly with drivers; they need to understand what driving behaviours are valued and how they are critical to the success and sustainability of your transport business.

“This also needs to be reflected in your approach to scheduling. Understand that where your drivers have to negotiate heavy traffic, you may need to allow additional time.”

Once good driving practice is in place, there are also technologies which can function as a back-up, Gibson notes. An example is Advanced Emergency Braking (AEB), which uses sensors to detect when a collision is imminent and warn the driver and if necessary automatically apply the brakes.

Inappropriate Vehicle Positioning

Where the driver of the vehicle has active control of the vehicle and causes the vehicle to interact with a hazard which is either known to the driver or readily apparent.

Inappropriate vehicle positioning captures incidents where the driver, despite being aware of its existence, puts the vehicle somewhere that results in a serious incident.

An example would be the driver of a 4.3-metre high truck trying to drive under a three-metre high bridge.

Gibson says there are a few strategies which can help to mitigate the risk of these incidents.

Proportion of losses due to inappropriate vehicle positioning by year (NTARC Report 2022)

Foremost, ensure drivers are familiar with the dimensions of their vehicle and that those dimensions are considered during route planning. Learn more about some of the basics of trucking here

And, most importantly, encourage drivers to drive defensively. Defensive driving courses are a great tool for improving driver safety. “Better to swing wider and miss that pole by a metre than to cut it close,” he says.

Lastly, operators should highlight any new risks that may result from a change in load type or change in route, Gibson adds.

“For example, if you’ve got a tipper driver who is changing from a regional run between a quarry and a batching plant to doing spoil removal on an inner-city construction site, take the time to send them along the route in the passenger seat with a driver experienced with the route or even just to drive the route in a car and observe potential hazards,” he recommends.

The past two decades has seen a vast improvement in the trucking industry’s safety performance, according to a review of the NTARC Major Accident Reports produced by leading heavy vehicle insurer NTI since 2005.

Yet challenges remain to tackle the three biggest causes of truck crashes – fatigue, inappropriate speed and driver error. 

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