TRUCKS are the kings of the road and we suffer. Who can forget the video footage of an accident that showed a speeding truck obliterating a car and four taxis, which were driving through a green traffic light at an intersection in Pinetown, killing 25 people?
A few weeks ago another truck smashed into almost 50 cars in early morning traffic outside Alberton. It’s scary. Every day we see trucks speeding, changing lanes recklessly and hogging the lanes. That is why truck accidents are always on the news. Hardly a week goes by without hearing or reading about another behemoth crashing into the rear of a slow-moving line of cars on our highways or jack-knifing off a highway.
We understand the human and psychological cost. But have we ever imagined the costs of such an accident to our economy and the workplace? After each accident, there is the human and the psychological toll on the victims, their loved ones, friends and family and companies.
Accidents, great and small, have a lot in common when it comes to psychiatric consequences. Researchers have increasingly recognised that despite the diversity of causes, traumatic accidents can produce severe short- and long-term mental distress on employees and productivity.
The indirect costs of accidents take into effect the sometimes immeasurable costs of lost production and efficiency on a company-wide basis.
In other words, the real costs of truck accidents are several times the calculable workers’ compensation and employee disability payments. When this calculation is combined with the potential costs incurred by executives in defence against criminal negligence, the true cost of truck accidents on the injured, those affected and other issues, becomes staggering.
The point is we cannot do without trucks and the road transportation of goods. The truck transportation, distribution and logistics industry is a critical success factor to our rainbow nation’s economic vitality; it’s integral to our way of life. They deliver everything, from perishable goods to building material.
Our country relies on an extensive transportation infrastructure to connect all cities and provinces, let alone the neighbouring states and the world. Our country needs trucks to feed the nation.
According to government stats, ground transportation contributes positively to the gross domestic product (GDP) and provides jobs and access to leisure activities and livelihoods. It contributes 5.9 percent to GDP. The sector also transports about 13 percent of the country’s freight.
Stats show that overall, transportation spending makes up about 20 percent of the nation’s economy. Billions are spent annually for people’s transportation needs and more billions on transporting goods. Unfortunately it is estimated that road traffic accidents cost more than R20 billion a year, more than 1 percent of GDP.
So why are trucks turning our roads into death valleys? It starts with the drivers, their bosses and ourselves as motorists. Sometimes I wonder if truck drivers are always cognisant of the fact that their trucks take twice as long to stop as cars. They need extra road room to manoeuvre. There are blind spots in the rear, side and front of a truck, and if you can’t see a driver’s face in the side mirrors, the driver can’t see you, either.
Then there are impatient, rude and ignorant motorists out there who contribute to car-truck crashes. Poor driver behaviour is a reality of the road. So, too, are the hazards related to truck size.
There are pressures on drivers and their bosses because trucking is becoming more cutthroat under never-ending pressures to get goods delivered on time at the lowest possible cost. There are also freelance or independent drivers who are not paid by the hour, or by the load they are carrying, but by the kilometres they cover.
The longer a driver stays at the wheel, and the faster he goes, the more money he makes. This has made driver fatigue, and falling asleep at the wheel at high speed, the greatest causes of trucking accidents.
As an indication of the epidemic nature of the problem, studies have found that almost half of truck drivers reported falling asleep at the wheel at least once in their lifetime of driving, a frightening statistic.
So what can fleet owners do about the scourge of truck accidents? Truck accidents cannot always be prevented. Accidents, as simplistic as it may sound, are part of daily life. Yet I believe in the assumption that they can be prevented. We can prevent serious accidents by creating awareness in both the management and the workforce about safety concerns.
It starts with assessing potential hazards and eliminating them. It involves frank discussions between drivers and management. It needs investment wherever needed to make a particular driver and driving safer. And unfortunately it needs a push from the government as, without laws, most companies will continue to sideline the topic, in particular if money is involved.
Truck accidents can be reduced when fleet owners teach drivers how to drive more safely and regularly send them to update their skills through training. Again, this means investments of some sort.
Road safety requires a complete change of attitude from all of us. Fleet owners must understand that their companies’ reputation as a safe employer and economic development contributor can become more relevant in both the workforce and wider public.
Sometimes I think there is a lack of accountability in the corporate boardrooms of the trucking companies. They allow their truckers to drive excess hours at high speed in overweight vehicles for one reason – more profit. When caught, the penalties are not great. There is little incentive for companies to police themselves.
Economic progress is more than merely improving a particular business profit margin. How a company treats its truck drivers is as vital for its reputation as are the actual products that are being transported to customers and clients.
I strongly believe that all trucks and other commercial vehicles should be equipped with on-board devices and systems that automatically test a driver’s vision and motor skills, warn when other vehicles are in the driver’s blind spot and provide other safety features. With almost all economic activity depending on some form of transportation such technology can give a boost to the economy by reducing transportation costs, reducing the number of accidents and getting people and goods to their destinations faster.
And, what can we as ordinary motorists do? Our roads are the most sophisticated in Africa. There are publicity campaigns undertaken by the government to promote road safety issues, such as Arrive Alive as the most famous.
Statistics related to traffic discipline show that around 70 percent of drivers exceed 60 kilometres per hour (km/h) speed limits, and around 30 percent the 120 km/h speed limits. In addition, around 40 percent of front seat occupants of vehicles fail to wear seat belts, and 7 percent of all drivers are intoxicated during night-time journeys almost equivalent to double all overseas development assistance.
We must adhere to driving regulations such as when one is alongside a truck, one must maintain passing speed. You don’t want to match the truck’s speed – you’ll disappear in the trucker’s mirrors. So, if you’re beside a truck, don’t stay beside it. Remember, it can take up to the length of a soccer field for a truck to stop. If you can’t see the driver’s face in the mirror, he won’t see you.
Also, road safety authorities must reduce the maximum speed limit of trucks per hour less than that posted for other traffic, and restrict trucks to their lanes.
Reducing truck speed is particularly important since the energy of anything moving is equal to its mass times the square of its velocity. Truck accidents can be prevented. We must all play our part.
Rich Mkhondo runs The Media and Writers Firm (www.mediaandwritersfirm.com), a content development and reputation management agency.