Steer Your Contracting Company to Safe Driving
Driving to the job site is one of the most dangerous tasks your techs perform
Are you sitting down? Are you sitting somewhere other than the driver’s seat of one of your company’s vans? That’s good, because here are some statistics that might boggle your mind.
According to the U.S. Department of Transportation’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), there were 6.3 million police-reported vehicle crashes in the U.S. in 2015. Those crashes resulted in more than 35,000 fatalities and 2.4 million injuries.
On average, again in 2015, a pedestrian was killed in a motor vehicle crash every 1.6 hours and another was injured approximately every 7.5 minutes.
An additional NHTSA study that looked at all motor vehicle traffic crashes in the U.S. in 2010 estimated the economic cost of motor vehicle crashes at $242 billion. These costs include lost productivity, workplace losses, legal and court expenses, medical costs, emergency medical services, insurance administration costs, and property damage costs. The authors of the study noted that these costs represent only the tangible losses that result from motor vehicle crashes and fail to capture the value of lost quality-of-life issues.
So, to state the obvious, HVACR contractors sending fleets of vehicles — or even one vehicle — out on the road every day have millions of reasons to want to ensure those vehicles travel safely to their various (and often multiple) destinations.
HANG UP AND DRIVE
A.O Reed & Co., a commercial HVACR contractor based in San Diego, has approximately 150 branded vehicles on the road on any given day. That number includes 70 pickup trucks and five vans on the construction side, and 75 vans and five pickup trucks from the service department. Throw in a few 26-foot and 12-foot stake bed delivery trucks, and it’s apparent that company safety director, Kevin Young, has his hands full when it comes to driving safety.
The single biggest safety issue? The ubiquitous smartphone.
“Our biggest issue is guys texting and getting phone calls,” Young said. “It’s everywhere in society. I see guys starting to roll out of the lot who are still using their phones, and when I stop them, they say, ‘I was just hanging up.’ You constantly have to remind them that they should hang up before they put their vehicles in motion.”
Safety is particularly stressed in the service department, Young added. The construction vehicles generally pick up material in the morning and then go to job sites. They’re on those sites all day. On the service side, the company’s 75 vans move to multiple job sites throughout the day. They’re putting on the most visible miles to the public and act as de facto company billboards.
“Those guys are most at risk because they’re on the road a lot and are always going in and out of parking lots and parking structures, maneuvering close to buildings, and so on,” Young said.
A.O. Reed recently installed advanced GPS units in all of its service vans that track vehicles’ locations and how they’re being driven.
“Our GPS units plug into a vehicle’s computer and tell you everything the computer is reading: speed, braking, idling, hard stops, fast starts, etc.,” Young said. “They analyze that information in the service department and actually rate drivers on their driving behaviors. We identify which drivers are in the bottom 10 percent and spend more time training them on their weaknesses.
“It seems to be working very well,” he added. “Everyone’s driving has tightened up.”
A.O. Reed’s safe driving focus benefits every company employee, from the very top down.
The company president recently sat in on a technician meeting and told the technicians that both the drivers’ and the public’s safety is paramount. He made it clear that it’s fine if it takes a little longer to get somewhere safely.
“I think it makes a big statement when the company president comes down and says it to your face,” Young said. “It’s not just a policy written on a piece of paper at that point.”
Young has two pieces of advice for other companies and drivers. The first is to stay calm in the face of aggressive drivers.
“We get it,” he said. “Our vans are big and bulky, and people hate being behind them. So, everybody will try to cut around them to pass. We tell our drivers, ‘It doesn’t matter if other people are being jerks and cutting you off. Just deal with it. We’ve got a lot of weight in all of our vans, which means they have a longer stopping distance. Let people do what they’re doing and always give yourself plenty of room.’”
The second piece of advice is simply to pay attention.
“When accidents happen, it’s almost always due to a lack of attention,” he said. “Nobody ever ran into anybody and said, ‘Oh yeah, I watched him every second while I ran into him.’”
PREPARE THE DRIVERS AND VEHICLES
Ray Isaac, president of Isaac Heating & Air Conditioning in Rochester, New York, noted that his company’s 233 vans are rolling billboards covered on all sides with his company’s name, phone number, and website. As such, ensuring that his people drive safely is not something he leaves to chance.
For most new employees, driving an Isaac van is their first experience driving a vehicle larger than a car — and it’s a panel van that doesn’t have windows on the sides or in the back that weighs 2.5-3 tons when loaded with equipment, Isaac said. So, there is a learning curve. That’s why Isaac conducts summer and winter driving training courses on a regular basis.
The company also makes sure the trucks are properly maintained (tires, brakes, and lights) and equips them to ensure the highest level of safety possible. Supervisors perform safety inspections using an inspection sheet on a regular basis.
“We equip all our trucks with ‘bug-eye’ convex mirrors to help drivers see the blind spots. On newer vans, we’ll be moving to side blind-zone monitoring technology,” Isaac said. “We also drive with our headlights on at all times, install cable locks on all of our vans that have roof racks, and specify reflective lettering for nighttime visibility. In fact, we’ve been using the reflective lettering for more than 20 years, long before even fire trucks and school buses started using it. It’s simple but effective.”
Safety measures also apply to the interior. All of Isaac’s vans are equipped with GPS. They also have reinforced bulkheads designed to prevent anything from flying forward and hitting the driver in the event of an accident. The company has a strict racking policy, which means nothing is left loose on the floor, and refrigerant canisters and tools are securely stored. No papers or other materials are allowed on the dashboards, where they could reflect onto the windshield and create a blind spot or block the vents and diminish the defroster’s effectiveness.
On the road, the company has a policy of no left lane driving.
“I don’t want anybody driving in the left lane,” Isaac said. “Nothing good happens in the left lane. You’re either speeding, or you’re doing the speed limit and holding up everyone behind you and creating an unsafe situation.”
Being in the left lane also means other vehicles can more easily occupy and hang out in the already-dangerous blind spot on the passenger side of the van.
Isaac’s company policy is that vans should always back into driveways.
“There are many reasons for that,” he said. “You’ve already established yourself in traffic, you can see what’s in the driveway as you pull up, and getting back out into traffic is a lot easier because you have a clear field of vision.”
Ultimately, drivers are reminded that driving to jobs is likely the most dangerous thing they will do all day.
“When we talk safety, we can cover a number of subjects: lock out and tag out, fall protection, and ladder safety; we can even wear hardhats on commercial sites,” Isaac said. “And, yet, on the way to the job site, there can be a 16-year-old who runs into one of our vans while texting. So, obviously, it’s important that we focus on driving and take the lead by using good defensive driving practices.”
EXPECT THE UNEXPECTED
Rich Wojtczak is cofounder and CEO of DrivingMBA in Scottsdale, Arizona. The school, founded in 2003, was created to provide a comprehensive approach to driver training by combining simulation labs, on-road instruction, and classroom study. DrivingMBA offers a number of driving programs, including corporate/fleet training.
Wojtczak said most contractors hire people for their technical skills, and, outside of a cursory driving record check, may not necessarily pay much attention to their driving abilities. New technicians are instantly put behind the wheel of company vehicles and the company assumes the risk for their driving behaviors.
“Technicians typically travel from job to job in big, heavy vans loaded with equipment and tools, and the performance and handling of those vehicles is significantly different than what they’re used to driving,” he noted.
DrivingMBA uses simulators to illustrate how easy it is to get into trouble in a service vehicle and walks students through exercises to describe how not to get into that trouble. In the event that somebody else puts you into a bad situation, the course will demonstrate how to recover from it.
“My definition of defensive driving is not so much that you do everything perfectly but that you protect yourself from others’ mistakes,” Wojtczak said.
He acknowledged that road rage is a very real experience drivers of trucks and vans must often deal with.
“It’s a real problem when anybody’s driving a little bit larger vehicle that other drivers can’t see through,” Wojtczak said. “People in the next lane don’t want you in front of them. So, when you put on your turn signal to change lanes, what do they do? They speed up. And, if you continue to move over, they get ticked off.”
That’s one reason he focuses on companies urging their employees to stay calm, cool, and collected and get to the next job safely even if it takes a little longer.
“Companies need to think about the messages they’re sending to employees in terms of their driving,” Wojtczak said. “Is it more important to get there safely, or is it more important to get there quickly? Because, if your focus is on speed, you’re probably pushing the edge of your safety limits.”
DrivingMBA’s training also focuses on always being aware of where the next surprise may come from.
“It sounds easy, but the risk in any situation is a function of the seriousness of the surprise — whatever it may be — divided by the speed you’re going at and the distance you have between you and the surprise,” Wojtczak explained. “The key point in defensive driving is scanning. As you’re driving down the road, you want to be looking constantly for where the next surprise can come from and mentally preparing for what you can do to protect yourself in case that surprise becomes a reality.”
Other tips from Wojtczak:
• Make certain your vehicles have good mirrors to minimize blind spots, so that your drivers can know when it’s safe to change lanes;
• Consider installing rear-facing cameras to improve drivers’ abilities to know what is going on behind their vehicles. Both of these steps also will help minimize road rage;
• At a minimum, provide extensive orientation to the handling of heavily loaded, possibly top-heavy vehicles, focusing especially on vehicle control and braking issues;
• Don’t assume a relatively clean driving record is indicative of a well-trained or experienced driver;
• Make sure you are rewarding the correct behaviors behind the wheel of your company vehicles and not encouraging risky actions for the sake of reducing travel time; and
• Emphasize focusing on protecting yourself from the mistakes of other drivers at all times. If by doing so you avoid a collision — regardless of who’s at fault — you come out way ahead.
YEAH, YOU’RE THAT DISTRACTING
Isaac Heating and Air Conditioning in Rochester, New York, is an underwriter of an anti-distracted driving campaign in the Rochester area. Ray Isaac, company president, said the initiative is targeted at individuals who call and text others they know are operating motor vehicles.
“It’s about the people who initiate the conversation,” Isaac said. “We want to make them think twice before they call or text someone who’s driving. We play off the air conditioning aspect of our business with bumper stickers that read, ‘Texting a driver is not cool.’”
The company has a strict policy that no one texts while driving, and no one talks on the phone without using a hands-free device, which the company provides.
Isaac Heating and Air Conditioning is also committed to living up to its own good example.
“As a company, we do not send our employees any non-urgent messages until after 6 p.m.,” Isaac said. “We get permission from employees to do this, and we make it clear that we’re not trying to bother them on their own time. All it takes for an accident to happen is for a driver to glance down at his or her phone, so we’re very diligent as far as how we behave as an employer.”
Publication date: 4/17/2017