Is Backing Safety Your Blind Spot?

This is an all-too-familiar headline. A beautiful day for a walk can quickly turn into a day of tragedy when people and large trucks coexist in close vicinity.

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By Dale Hessing

Woman Injured After Large Truck Backs Over Her

(Moorpark 3/5/2009)
This is an all-too-familiar headline. A beautiful day for a walk can quickly turn into a day of tragedy when people and large trucks coexist in close vicinity. Accidents are bound to happen.

Unfortunately, this scene is replayed year-round. Large trucks must work around the general public to provide the services that make our lives better: waste removal, road construction, utility work, building improvements/construction, and many other services that require large trucks to travel in and around roads where people live, work, and play.

The saddest part of this story is that it is avoidable. Although we do not know the specifics in the above headline, quite often a backing accident occurs even when the operator is doing everything exactly as trained. After an accident people start to question and point fingers: Did the pedestrian hear the reverse alarm? Did she see the lights? Did she just assume the driver knew she was there? Did the driver take the three seconds to view all his mirrors before he was backing? Should there have been a flagger? Was there a camera in the vehicle? Did the driver ignore the camera or was his view in the camera distorted due to weather conditions or debris? Whose fault is it and how much should they pay? (Enter the attorneys)

According to the Department of Transportation, something as simple as reversing a truck accounts for 25 percent of commercial vehicle accidents today. How does something that is 100 percent avoidable account for 25 percent of the accidents?

In part, reversing a vehicle of any size is not a “natural” movement. Part of the problem is that we can’t see what is going on behind us when we are moving backwards. It’s awkward and uncomfortable. Even after a driver methodically checks every mirror and monitor they have for three seconds, a person or object could have easily moved into a blind spot or one of the mirrors already checked. Unfortunately, a driver cannot control the elements outside of the truck, only the truck that he is operating and his personal reaction time when he notices an object behind the vehicle.

Because of the dangers of reversing, some industries train their drivers to reverse only as a last resort. In contrast, other industries spend thousands of hours and millions of dollars in safety training for their operators, with entire training segments on safely backing a vehicle.

Yet, backing accidents still account for 25 percent of construction vehicle accidents. This isn’t a new problem. In the 1960’s, in an effort to improve backing accidents, Preco Electronics patented the first electronic back-up alarm system for the commercial industry–simply notify people around the vehicle that it was reversing. The person hears the alarm and moves out of harm’s way.

Around the 1980’s, flashing lights were also added to construction vehicles to add a visual warning.

It worked. Reversing accidents were on the decline. All sorts of vehicles were fitted with lights and alarms. The next time you go to a construction site, you’ll see an array of flashing lights that would put a 70’s disco to shame. Which appears to have produced a new safety problem: people just stopped paying attention to the lights and alarms.

Somewhere along the line, people became desensitized to the lights and alarms and assume the person operating a vehicle can see everything around them and will stop. In the meantime, the operators of the vehicles rely on the people outside of the vehicle to pay attention. This explains why there are still so many reports of flaggers being hit by the vehicle they are guiding.

Enter reversing cameras, a tool that allows an operator to view the area behind the vehicle. The cameras work great, provided they are not used at night, the weather is good, and the camera lens stays clean. Generally, there was a decline in backing accidents after the initial install. However, once the newness wears off, backing accidents return to their current level–25 percent. Perhaps this is because the camera, although potentially effective, is still a passive tool just like the rear-view and side mirrors on the vehicle.

The blind spot continues to be the biggest cause of headaches for these large vehicles. We need to put the control back in the hands of the operator by providing them with the tools they need to safely perform their jobs.

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Providing tools for an operator to reduce backing accidents can be a company’s blind spot. It isn’t that the companies don’t care. As mentioned above, many have spent thousands upon thousands of dollars in training. It could be that the complete view of how to prevent or reduce these accidents is obscured.

First, since backing accidents are avoidable, most companies look to the operator first. What did they do wrong and how can we train them to do it right. In reality, a vehicle operator can be doing everything by the book and still reverse into a person that moved into their blind spot when they were checking the opposite side mirror. It is literally impossible for a person to see everything surrounding their vehicle at one time.

The blind spot for some companies is thinking a proactive safety approach is more costly than a reactive approach. Sometimes a company looks to the cost of the tool instead of how the cost of the accident affects the bottom line. In 2004, the average company cost for a single accident according to the National Safety Council was $33,350.00. The cost to include every tool mentioned here is well under that figure. Additionally, the $33,350 does not account for personal losses caused by an injury, litigation costs, or the emotional distress of the victims in the accident.

Isn’t it about time we eliminate blind spots, both on and off the road.

First, for the driver, don’t assume that people behind you are paying attention to the alarms and flashing lights around your vehicle. There is still the assumption that you can see them. Take a few extra moments to look around you. If you don’t have the tools you need to do that from your cab, then take a moment to physically walk around your vehicle to make sure there are no objects or people in your path. This isn’t fool proof, as we all know how quickly someone can appear, but it is at least a bit more proactive.

Next, to the people working and living in tight spaces with these large vehicles: assume that the drivers cannot see you. Watch them and stay out of the blind spots. If you can’t see the driver in his side mirror, he cannot see you! Remove yourself from dangerous situations.

Finally to the company, sometimes what appears to be a smart budget cut today can be a tremendous cost long term. Take the time to understand all the cost when one of your employees and vehicles is involved in an accident. Along with the obvious costs such as repairs, equipment rental, and immediate medical care, there is also the cost of lost income when a vehicle is down, litigation (attorney’s fees), bad press, punitive damages, and emotional distress to all the victims.

On a final note, there are a lot of technologies out there to help your driver’s navigate their blind spots AND help companies reduce their accidents. One technology is by Preco Electronics, the backing safety company since 1947. Preco aims to set the standard in object detection tools with PreView Radar Systems. Customers have reported a decrease in backing accidents by more than 70 percent since installing this robust system in their fleets. This isn’t an SUV ultrasonic system; PreView was built for REAL TRUCKS that do real work in dirt, mud, extreme weather, and the most rugged of conditions. PreView works in these conditions where the lesser technologies fail.

Give your drivers the tools they need to do their job, and your company the peace of mind that comes with knowing you’ve done everything you can to keep safety a priority.

Eliminate your safety blind spot BEFORE your company becomes a headline for all the wrong reasons.

About the Author:
Dale Hessing is Vice President of Radar Systems.

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