Safety First

This Time, It's Personal

For this month’s column, I had planned to write about the disparity between small and large solid waste companies when it comes to safety. I was going to focus on how a disproportionate number of the industry’s fatal accidents in December 2010 and January 2011 occurred at small haulers or municipal sanitation departments.

And then, a driver reaching for her cell phone crashed her SUV into the back of my car at a speed of about 30 miles per hour.

I was stopped, with my turn signal on, waiting for oncoming traffic to pass so I could make a left turn into my residential neighborhood. A middle-aged woman running errands in preparation for a business trip was behind me. Her cell phone rang, and she reached for it and did not realize that I was stopped in front of her.

Fortunately, I was not hurt (but thanks for asking!). My car took the brunt of the collision, and the other driver’s insurance company almost certainly will be paying for the repairs.

This accident has personalized the entire “distracted driving” issue for me. I have attended several federal government summits on the topic. I have seen numerous testimonials and videos about victims of distracted driving. I have read too many newspaper articles about inattentive drivers crashing into garbage trucks and other vehicles, often with fatal results. However, the issue really hits home when it’s your life that was placed at risk by a distracted driver.

Distracted drivers are everywhere. You often see younger drivers texting. One survey found that about 85 percent of drivers talk on their cell phones while driving. Music systems, GPS devices and eating all pose distraction hazards. The Secretary of the Department of Transportation, Ray LaHood, calls distracted driving an “epidemic.”

With motorists texting and using their cell phones with increased frequency, this hazard is unlikely to go away in the near future. In response, NSWMA is partnering with the National Institutes for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) to develop a Slow Down to Get Around “bill stuffer” to educate motorists about this issue, and NSWMA members will be distributing it to their customers this year. (If you are interested in participating in this effort, please contact me.)

The federal government already has prohibited commercial drivers operating in interstate commerce from texting while driving and is in the process of banning hand-held cell phone use by such drivers. About 30 states and the District of Columbia have passed laws banning either texting or hand-held cell phone use while driving. An increasing number of solid waste companies prohibit their drivers from using a cell phone while the truck is moving.

When NSWMA holds safety seminars, we discuss how distracted drivers pose a hazard to solid waste collection workers, and what companies and municipalities can do to reduce this hazard. We discuss the increased number of fatal accidents in which a motorist crosses a double yellow line and has a head-on collision with a garbage truck, or crashes into the back of a stopped truck.

This time, I was lucky. I was not injured, and insurance will cover the cost of the car repairs. Who knows about next time.

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