Distracted Drivers Continue to Cause Safety Risks in Solid Waste Industry

Cheryl McMullen, Freelance writer

June 1, 2016

10 Min Read
Distracted Drivers Continue to Cause Safety Risks in Solid Waste Industry

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, each day in the United States, more than eight people are killed and 1,161 injured in crashes involving distracted drivers. So, it shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise that the waste and recycling industry continues to show increases in injuries and fatalities due to distracted driving. 

Something as seemingly innocent as a quick text when driving at 55 miles per hour takes the driver’s eyes off the road in a distance equal to the length of a football field. Distractions are everywhere, both inside and outside of the cab of collection vehicles, from moving, flashing billboards along the highways to  cell phones. A couple of seconds of inattention could end with a truck on its side or another fatality in the books.

So, what can a company do to reduce driver distraction and keep their eyes on the road?

Waste360 recently spoke with Daniel A. Katt, corporate loss control manager for Rumpke Waste & Recycling, in Cincinnati, Ohio, about distracted drivers today, how technology is helping to avoid some of the actions that can lead to accidents and what types of training seems to best reach drivers.

Katt, along with Del Lisk, vice president of safety for Lytx Inc. will lead a Distracted Driving discussion at WasteExpo in Las Vegas on Wednesday, June 8.

Waste360: How serious of an issue is this for our drivers?

Daniel Katt: Well, here’s an example of a real-life case that happened last year in Boone County, Ky., a suburb of Cincinnati, where a guy in a semi was texting. He hit a parked vehicle, spun out of control, laid on his side and slammed into two vehicles. One critically injured and one fatal. In February of this year, he was sentenced to eight years in prison. He had been texting. He lied about it. He falsified his logs and deleted the messages off his phone, but with forensics they were able to replay all those texts to show that he was totally distracted and not paying attention. There were about 12 laws that he pleaded to.

Waste360: What types of technology are out there to help drivers faced with this issue on a daily basis?

Daniel Katt: There’s automatic braking, if you’re closing in on a car it’ll brake for you. Lane change monitors will give you an alert when the driver is drifting into another lane without a turn signal on. There’s variable cruise control. If your cruise control is set at 60 and you’re closing in on a car, it will back you off until you’re all clear. Then it’ll take you back up to your original speed. There are variable headlights. These rotate if your tires are turned to the right or the left. Your headlights will rotate in that direction so you see ahead of what you’re actually turning into as opposed to bumping into it because you didn’t see it.

Waste360: What should a company consider when it comes to distracted drivers?

Daniel Katt: The question is, do you know who is behind the wheel of your truck? The answer that most people give is, “I think I do. I think I know who’s behind the wheel of my truck.”

But we don’t know sometimes the background that wasn’t on the application or didn’t come up in a background check. We don’t know sometimes the baggage the person brought to work that day or their individual driving habits or idiosyncrasies. When we have an accident, because at my office we review all of our accidents that come in each day, we look for red flags for various things – coaching, retraining or even lawsuit potential. What we see, how do I put this delicately, we see some creative writing by some of our drivers. We know in our gut it didn’t happen this way, but without someone objective documenting what happened in the cab, then we really can’t go out on a limb and call our driver a liar.

Even though we know he was doing a CYA - covering his butt report. But he knows if we really knew he was reaching for his sandwich or reaching for his cooler, that his Big Mac fell off the seat and he was looking for it, or he was looking at his route sheet and it rolled over – then he’d be facing a serious problem.

Waste360: Is there technology out there that helps you know what’s really going on?

Daniel Katt: Yes. We got a partial picture when the whole fleet went to GPS. Then we were able to tell speed and direction and braking and a lot of things like that but it’s like a half a view. Now that we have video in there, it’s like being right inside the cab with them. It’s like having a safety committee in the cab 24/7, 365. The cameras are always on, they’re always rolling. GPS indicator is always recording. So when an incident happens, or something comes up, we can tell pretty much, with a pretty high degree of certainty, what was going on in the cab and outside the cab.

Waste360: Are your drivers concerned about the cameras?

Daniel Katt: We tell our drivers, it’s not big brother. It’s your company looking out for you and making a major investment. The vast majority of incidents that are reviewed, exonerate the driver. I’ll give you an example, you might have heard the term curb dive, when a truck has to swing wide out to the left to make a right hand turn because of the turning radius of the truck, when folks behind us, who also quite often have a limited attention span, don’t see the turn signal, or don’t care if they see the turn signal, they see the taillight and decide they have to get around this truck.

They scoot in that gap just as we’re about to make that turn and they get crunched. These cameras help exonerate us and they have. We can walk into a court room confidently because the driver did everything he was supposed to do: he did not leave his lane, he had his turn signal all, he was going at a safe speed, and that person drove up on the berm or on sidewalk to get around him and he broke the law. They just don’t think. All they can think about is I got to get around him.

Waste360: With so much to distract waste drivers, how do you reach out and say let’s pay attention?

Daniel Katt: I’m a big fan of redundancy and overlapping senses. I think we remember a small portion of what we hear. A much greater proportion of what we hear and see. And the ultimate is what we hear, see and do. We tell, teach and show in that order.

One of the things we’ve done for a number of years is have a MAD report. It stands for Monthly Accident Damage. We pick a key example and put one or pictures on a poster and we then share, whether it’s a curb dive, or, this month actually it had to do with triangles. When I was exiting the interstate to go to the office, I looked across the interstate on the other side was one of our trucks was broke down with one of our service truck behind it.

The reason it is so important to us is 10 years ago we were sued in a major, major lawsuit over not having triangles out when we stopped or broke down. So that’s been a real theme of ours.  What we normally find is, the truck breaks down, the driver puts the triangles out right away and then the service truck comes and blocks those triangles creating another hazard. So you really have to put the triangles behind the farthest back vehicle.

Well, in this particular incident, neither one of the drivers had the triangles out. So I told the drivers to put the triangles out. He said oh yea, they’re right here below me then sets them up and they fall over. He sets them up and they fall over. I said there’s a problem here isn’t there? He said yea, why won’t they stand up? I said, just like they taught you in your new hire class, you have to rotate the base 90 degrees so it will have a solid foundation. He rotates it 45 degrees, sets it down and goes to the next one. I captured a lot of this on still photos.

So I showed, this is how it was, this is how it should be and beside that I took two clips from the CDL manual of how they should be set up on a one-lane road or divided and how they should be set up on a two-way highway. We post this throughout the company and the theory is we don’t want the driver in Columbus, Ohio to have to learn by experience what the driver in Columbus, Indiana learned. We want him to benefit from that mistake and not make the same mistake himself. If I can grab their attention. So that’s one way we reach out. Then our in-service training gets reinforced.

Waste360: So what’s up next?

Daniel Katt: I think the gigantic move moving forward is to share data that we get from our GPS tracking and from our videos and cameras. So, the next step, and we’re still working on the mechanics of how to best do this, but the next step is to quantify those videos to certain instances where there is inattention and bang, you’re over on your side.

Or the phone rang and he went to answer the phone or he was radioing something in or whatever that distraction was, that preceded that calamitous event, we can record that and share that across the company so when guys are tempted to reach down in their bag to get their cell phone because it’s ringing and it’s just a useless text they could answer at the next stop or on their 30-minute break, then they realize what’s really important here? I’m driving a 60,000-pound tank. I’ve got to pay full attention to everything that’s going on here or somebody could get killed, including me.

Waste360: There seems to be so much more to distract drivers today than even a few years ago. Do you see it that way?

Daniel Katt: You just have all this technology. I’ve actually taken pictures of a ‘58 Oldsmobile that didn’t have seatbelts. It’s got an AM radio and three-on-the-tree stick shift. And then I’ve taken pictures of a modern car with heads-up display, GPS that talks to you. It’s interactive, so you can talk to it. It has TVs installed. It’s a WiFi hotspot. All that stuff is in the modern-day car. So you’re actually sitting in a mechanized bathtub on wheels that’s going to do everything but give you a massage while you’re driving.

Waste360: So what do you do?

Daniel Katt: Well, I guess the term that kind of captures all of that is ‘managing our distractions.’ It’s just a matter of managing our distractions. Having a tiered affect. If this happens, this is very important. It gets my full attention. If something else happens, blah, blah, blah, then I’ll be doing that. But we have to stay within our parameters of safety, our training, the requirements of the specific vehicle we are driving – all of it.

Waste360: When training drivers, what do you talk about in terms of managing the distractions?

Daniel Katt: Our market trainers are experienced drivers themselves. So they’ve walked the walk. There are specific areas that cover distracted driving, but they stress that continuously throughout the 2 ½ or three days of training in the classroom. Then at almost every safety meeting, whether it’s a toolbox talk or a formal monthly meeting, we have reminders of that. In a number of our locations, we have big-screen monitors – 55 inch monitors – where we scroll informational things for the drivers.

We always cycle the safety messages in with the theme of the day. So that’s a new wrinkle that we’re starting at some of our operations where we can get a lot of our drivers coming and going and they all walk through that area, or break room or both. How do the drivers respond to that?

Waste360: How are the drivers responding?

Daniel Katt: It’s very effective. The feedback has been good. We observe our guys paying attention to the monitors and observing the monitors. A visual instrument has 10 times the memory impression than an audio or even a script or a text does.

About the Author(s)

Cheryl McMullen

Freelance writer, Waste360

Cheryl McMullen is a freelance journalist from Akron, Ohio, covering solid waste collection and transfer for Waste360.

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