Moving Safely in Reverse

NEARLY 99 PERCENT OF THE TIME that the average driver, including the average waste hauler, spends behind the wheel is spent moving forward. Ironically, however, it is the rest of the time — the small one percent of the time that requires drivers to move backward — that results in a disproportionate number of accidents.

According to the National Safety Council, Washington, D.C., poor backing techniques are to blame for an estimated 25 percent of accidents. That is a number most insurance carriers would like to see decline with the implementation of cautious driving procedures and training programs.

Why are backing accidents so frequent?

A driver's inattentiveness is the biggest risk when backing. Because they are not traveling as fast or far, drivers often let their guard down a bit when backing up their vehicles. They may simply fail to check the area around their trucks before backing, and they may put too much trust in the limited view from the driver's position or over-rely on mirrors.

Backing is particularly precarious for garbage truck drivers who are required to spend considerable amounts of time behind the wheel of a vehicle. Because of the size of garbage trucks, backing incidents can unfortunately lead to tragedy.

That was the recent case in Pittsburgh in November 2005, when a garbage truck backed over a city refuse worker who had fallen off the back of the truck. Following the incident, city officials noted that regular training exercises were a requirement for waste department workers and drivers. However, installing safe everyday driving techniques requires establishing everyday habits.

Good drivers need to develop habits that are almost second-nature to help them prevent backing accidents. Here are some guidelines to consider:

  • Get to know the vehicle's blind spots and check them. Mirrors won't give any driver the whole picture.

  • Do a walk-around. Inspect all around the vehicle to check for pedestrians (especially children), potholes and tire hazards, and to accurately gauge the clearance between other vehicles or objects.

  • Use a spotter. A garbage truck driver should use another worker to help when backing. The driver and spotter should use hand signals instead of verbal ones, and make sure that they understand each other's signals.

  • Double check all mirrors before putting the vehicle in reverse.

  • Be extra cautious in inclement weather when ice, snow or glare can impede good backing skills. Never back a vehicle on “blind faith” when windows or mirrors are covered with frost, snow or other substances.

  • Blow the horn twice to warn everyone that the vehicle is going to back up.

  • Think in advance. Drivers should not put themselves into unnecessary backing situations. When practical, they should look for an easy-exit space where they won't have to back out.

Recently, numerous accessories have been introduced to the market for passenger vehicles that are designed to help drivers avoid backing into people or things. Installing rear-vision camera systems in vehicles, for instance, eliminates rear blind spots. Such an investment puts drivers in full visual control of the rear of a vehicle.

No amount of forward-driving experience can help a driver with backing a truck or other vehicles. All drivers need plenty of practice in safe surroundings until they become familiar with the way a vehicle backs up compared to the direction the steering wheel is turned. Creating and supporting training programs is an essential part of helping employees gain experience with good backing skills. Finally, everyday safety reminders will keep drivers from slipping into inattentiveness.

Kate McGinn, XL Specialty Insurance Co., Exton, Pa.