Driving is one of the riskiest things most of us do every day. Those who drive for a living are subjected to increased risks that potentially impact not only themselves but also other drivers on the road. An article published in Safety + Health magazine cites a survey where 83% of the respondents believe they are safer behind the wheel than commercial drivers—but the reality is that only 3% of severe crashes actually involve commercial drivers. Often, when there’s more risk involved, drivers tend to be more focused on the risks at hand and have better safety records. But all drivers need to remember that getting comfortable behind the wheel, especially if you drive the same route day in and day out, significantly increases the risk of complacency.
Driving a large vehicle has unique safety challenges above and beyond the challenges of driving. A bus driver’s working environment is far more demanding than most in the transportation industry due to having to meet their passengers’ needs.
And other drivers tend to take more liberties with their right of way when they’re driving near big vehicles. But it’s not only the drivers of these vehicles who need to be aware of the challenges they face while driving. Recognizing these risks is the first step to preventing these hazards.
One of the first things that commercial drivers need to do before they begin driving is a pre-trip inspection or a circle check to detect problems with the vehicle before getting on the road. This is required by law. If any deficiencies were noted in the last vehicle inspection, the driver must sign off that the repairs were made and the vehicle is safe to be on the road.
Since pre-trip inspections can be completed up to 24 hours before the trip, it’s a good idea to physically walk around the vehicle to do an inspection immediately before departing. This is an important tip for all drivers, but commercial drivers especially.
Before getting in the vehicle to make the drive, take a moment to inspect the area around it. Look for things that may have made it into the line of fire in the area around the vehicle—including anything on the ground that could puncture a tire, a bike or a toy left laying near the vehicle, animals that have made their way to nap near or under the vehicle—and take note of any children playing near the vehicle as they could also move into or be in your line of fire as you are departing.
High cognitive load
Studies on the work and health of bus drivers have shown that high demands, low control and low support contribute to stress and an increased risk of poor physical and mental health—leading to absenteeism and decreased productivity. There’s no question that driving is a stressful job and the stress is often caused by factors out of the driver’s control like unpredictable terrain, weather, traffic and vehicle malfunctions. The cognitive (mental) load impairs tasks that rely on cognitive control like the function of driving, visual processing, information processing, and memory. The cognitive load can be greatly impacted by GPS or navigation tools, the radio, interactions with passengers, and the most obvious, your cellphone. Remember: hands-free is similar to talking with passengers, as it inevitably takes your mind off driving and could be the cause of an incident. It’s important to stay focused and keep your eyes and mind on the road as driving is one of the easiest tasks to become complacent to the surrounding risks.
Fatigue is a major concern for professional drivers. Recently, a worker shortage across the U.S. has affected several industries, and the transportation industry was not spared. Truck drivers are leaving the industry in search of jobs that offer better pay, benefits and working conditions. Similarly, many bus drivers have chosen to retire or seek higher-paying private-sector jobs that require less in-person contact.
The labor shortage has caused the ones who are still working these jobs to have to pick up extra shifts or work overtime, thus disrupting their regular schedule (and ultimately their sleep pattern). According to The Sleep Doctor, task-related fatigue may happen when a person is either over- or under-stimulated while driving—familiar or monotonous drives may lead to drivers feeling sleepy behind the wheel. They also suggest that people may become drowsy when the time of day they’re driving doesn’t align with their circadian rhythm. This may be linked to why there’s an increase in incidents in the late afternoon or between midnight and 7 a.m.
Operating a large vehicle comes with more hazards than driving most personal vehicles, and as the previous section suggests, commercial driving is a lot more cognitively demanding and requires more mental planning. Since commercial vehicles are so big, it’s essential to spot hazards early in order to take action in time. The weight and the size of commercial vehicles cause them to take longer to slow down and, due to the size, they will be less maneuverable than smaller vehicles. A lot of planning must happen for turns since commercial vehicles typically make wider turns than most vehicles. Commercial vehicles also have big blind spots so it’s crucial that their drivers are constantly scanning the road and checking their mirrors as they drive, to know exactly what’s around the vehicle.
Weather is another factor that causes heightened risks while driving. Rain, snow, ice, frost, mud or wet leaves can all cause large vehicles to lose their traction or grip on the road. Other factors that have the same effect include loose gravel, oil/gas or potholes. Drivers must be very alert when driving on roads in these conditions.
Lone worker safety is always a concern for employers. Bus drivers not only work predominantly alone but face the risk of threats and violence. That’s why human factors training is so beneficial to commercial driving, as a large part of driving safely is anticipating critical errors internally, on the road and in other drivers.
Lack of driver ergonomics
It’s no surprise that professional drivers are at a higher risk for musculoskeletal disorders from prolonged sitting and vehicle vibration. But they shouldn’t wait until the aches and pains start to take action—being proactive is the first step to eliminating and preventing MSDs.
Ensure the seat is set up correctly for each driver. Sometimes commercial drivers share a vehicle, but since so much time is spent in that seat, it’s important to adjust the seat to fit each driver.
- Your knees should not be above your hips and there should be a two-finger gap between your knee and the front of the seat (this will eliminate unnecessary pressure on the back).
- The seat should be moved forward enough to enable depressing the foot pedals down while keeping your back against the seat (this will help with foot cramps and back pain).
- Recline the seat slightly so that the body is at a 100–110 degree angle (decreases pressure on discs in the low back).
- Consider an external lumbar support or seat cushion to fill in gaps (cushions decrease vibrations from the road).
- The position of the steering wheel is also important. If it’s too high it will aggravate shoulder muscles, and if it’s too low it can injure the neck and back. The less your elbows have to reach forward and up the better it will be to reduce injuries.
- Once you have adjusted your seat to your appropriate settings, adjust your mirrors (this is also a cue to straighten up and readjust when slouching).
The other proactive part of good ergonomics in the driver’s seat is to pre-plan breaks. Take a short break for every hour of driving and ensure you get out, walk around and do some stretches to reduce the amount of stress that was put on your body.
Keep in mind that it’s not just the commercial drivers who need to pay extra heed, and all drivers should be aware of the hazards that commercial vehicles face. Give space—this is a general rule but should be applied around larger vehicles. They make wider turns, have bigger blind spots and require more time to stop. And finally, be patient. Rushing can make you more susceptible to being overcome by other mental and physical states, and you’ll find once you’ve adopted being patient that you don’t know what ever caused you to be in such a rush in the first place.