Halting Rear-End Accidents

REAR-END ACCIDENTS ARE the second most frequent motor vehicle accidents in the industry, following backing accidents, according to an industry study of accidents in waste fleets. When a waste collection vehicle strikes another vehicle in the rear, its hefty weight and size usually cause significant damage to the other vehicle, as well as create potential for serious bodily injury. Additionally, secondary chain reaction collisions often occur, leading to further damage and injury. To prevent rear-end accidents, you first must understand what causes them.

The study concluded that the vast majority of rear-end accidents are caused by drivers following too closely to the vehicle in front of them. Other factors — including cab distractions such as reading a map, or using the radio — play a role in rear-end accidents. However, an improper following distance was the main factor in 70 percent of the 67 rear-end accidents studied in 2003. Generally, drivers should be able to deal with a few cab distractions and avoid rear-end accidents if they maintain a proper following distance. An easy way for a driver to determine following distance is to observe the vehicle in front of him as it passes a fixed object. Then, he should begin counting the seconds until passing the same object. If a driver counts to four before passing the object, the truck has adequate following distance. If not, he needs to reduce speed momentarily by removing his foot from the fuel control and placing it over (but not on) the brake.

Secondary causes of rear-end accidents, such as taking one's eyes off the road or improperly scanning ahead, relate directly to following distance. Drivers who maintain an adequate following distance have time to look at signs or check mirrors — and still avoid accidents. If drivers follow vehicles too closely, they do not allow time to scan ahead and spot potential problems.

Adverse road conditions account for about a third of rear-end accidents. Drivers often fail to increase following time while driving on wet or snowy roads. Legitimate cases of brake system failure that cause rear-end accidents seem to be rare, contrary to what drivers may claim after an accident has occurred.

Excessive speed also can play a role in rear-end accidents. To reduce the risk of rear-end accidents, fleets should take the following precautions:

  1. Establish a written company policy that requires all drivers to maintain a four-second following distance under ideal driving conditions. Additional seconds should be added during inclement weather.

  2. Establish a written company policy that prohibits or greatly limits behind-the-wheel activities that can cause driver distraction, such as eating, using cell phones and map reading.

  3. Conduct safety meetings for all drivers and establish a training session for new drivers to ensure everyone is familiar with company safety policies on following distance and behind-the-wheel distractions.

  4. Educate current and new drivers about proper long-distance scanning techniques (spotting hazards and slow-downs in advance).

  5. Establish a program of clandestine driver observations, which involves a supervisor driving an unmarked vehicle and observing driver behavior without their prior knowledge, and/or supervisor ride-alongs with drivers to ensure safety policies are being followed.

  6. Frequently remind drivers of the importance of maintaining a safe following distance, avoiding behind-the-wheel distractions and doing long-distance scanning. This can be done with bulletin board messages, paycheck stuffers, reminders during regular driver safety meetings and periodic announcements over the radio — especially during poor weather conditions.

  7. Make sure brakes are inspected, and adjusted if necessary, at least every two weeks.

  8. Avoid paying drivers by the load or box. Data suggests that this may cause drivers to rush too much.

  9. Make safety performance and safety policy compliance part of a driver's performance review and part of any safety incentive or bonus program.
    Bruce A. Hooker
    R.F. Mattei & Associates of CA Insurance Services
    Sacramento, Calif.