We’ve had an unbelievable amount of rain here in the Southeast this winter. Flash-floods, tornados and the usual standing water on the roads have all been standard operating procedure. It’s a tough working environment for truck drivers. And, I’m sorry to say, it’s contributed to a family friend losing his driving job last week.
This guy is young. And he’s only had his CDL for six months or so, after a long training period. But he’d done well with the local beer distributor and was rewarded before Christmas with his own regional route.
But, last week, as a particularly nasty batch of storms was rolling through, he hit a patch of standing water on the road, lost control of his truck and wound up in the ditch. And, according to the GPS telematics on board the truck, he was going 13 mph over the posted speed limit at the time of the accident.
And that was that.
I asked my friend why on earth he was going so much faster than the posted speed limit, and he didn’t really have a good answer. He mumbled something about not realizing the speed limit had dropped down to 45 mph. Which still doesn’t explain why he was going so fast in a tropical downpour in the first place.
There was a time when the simple ability to get a load where it needed to be, when it needed to be there, regardless of time, weather, road conditions or rest was a highly valued skill set for drivers. But things haven’t been that way for a very long time now.
Given the cost of litigation, insurance, settlements and ambulance-chasing lawyers lurking behind every stop sign, fleets – more than anything else – want safe drivers. And they have zero tolerance for drivers that can’t deliver on that front.
And that reality can be particularly harsh for young drivers – like my friend – who sometimes find out the hard way that they’re not quite as deft behind the steering as they thought.
So, with that in mind, here are four things that any new driver (and a few older ones) need to keep in mind:
- A CDL doesn’t mean that you’re a good driver. Getting a commercial drivers license isn’t easy. It takes a lot of study and work. And you should be justifiably proud if you do earn one. But, a CDL simply means that you’ve demonstrated the basic skills required to operate a commercial vehicle on the roads safely. It doesn’t grant you instant experience, good judgement, patience, maturity or enhanced driving capabilities. Earning a CDL is simply the first step to gradually acquiring those – and many other – skills, as well as the judgement and experience necessary to truly become a top-notch, and valued, commercial driver. Those things come with time – and are largely up to each individual to work on themselves. The best drivers do just that. And it shows later on as their experience and expertise grows each passing year.
- Being a professional driver is a state of mind. Countless times a day, fleets toss the keys to truck drivers and entrust them to deliver valuable cargo in expensive equipment that is far harder to operate safely than a standard passenger car. It’s a business relationship – and an aspect of both professional and public trust – that a commercial driver treat that vehicle and that cargo with the utmost care at all times. How you drive your personal vehicle on your own time is – to a certain degree – your own business. But when you’re behind the wheel of someone else’s truck, hauling cargo that belongs to a company or a customer, you’re in a totally different operating dynamic that requires a “professional” attitude at all times. If that’s not your mindset from the minute you turn a key and crank a truck, to the moment you climb out of the cab at the end of day, than sooner or later you’ll run into trouble behind the wheel.
- Safety is what you do when no one is looking. One of the great things about trucking is the sense of freedom drivers enjoy when they’re out on the road without anyone looking over their shoulder. Get your work done safely and on time, and usually there’s not a whole to discuss with anyone once the day is over. But, once again, fleets are trusting that professional drivers will drive safely at all times once they’re out on the road. This means getting rid of all the little “cheats” we tend to do when we’re driving our own vehicles: speeding, rolling through stop signs, not stopping at railroad crossings, running through yellow lights and the like. Being a professional driver means paying attention to those things, and following proper procedures – with safety foremost in mind – at all times. No exceptions.
- You’re not truly alone out there, anymore. One final thing for young drivers to keep in mind: That feeling of freedom I mentioned a moment ago? It’s real. But it’s also largely an illusion. As my friend found out when he got back from his wreck on his route and found the fleet safety officer waiting for him with a telematics report of his accident in hand, you’re not really alone out there, anymore. Fleets can – and do – check up on drivers who are flashing safety alerts back to headquarters. As a result, it’s the drivers who actually do handle their vehicles safely and lawfully at all times who actually get left alone. They also often get a second chance when accidents do happen. Because drivers can’t control everything around them. And sometimes, they’re just in the wrong place at the wrong time. But if they were doing everything correctly and safely, most fleets are willing to give them the benefit of the doubt in the aftermath of a crash.
As noted, most fleets have zero tolerance for unsafe driving, regardless of the age or experience of a driver. It’s a harsh policy, but a necessary one, given today’s business environment. But the flip side of the coin is that drivers that commit to professional and safe driving habits, become more trusted, and more valuable to fleets over time.