Safe Driving with Trucks in the Mountains

Safe Driving with Trucks in the MountainsIntroduction

Recently, due to fires in the Outeniqua mountains, drivers had to take a detour from Oudtshoorn to George via the Robinson pass towards Mossel Bay.

The Robinson pass is much more of a challenge for truck drivers as there are no “extra lanes” and the corners tend to be much sharper than on the Outeniqua pass.

It was quickly evident that motorists became frustrated with the delays as they shared the mountain pass with much slower carriers of road freight.

We believe it may be important to share some content on safety advice for truck drivers - and not only that but also to create a greater understanding among motorists about the challenges facing our truck drivers when driving in the mountains and mountain passes.

We approached some of the leading driver training specialists in South Africa with the following Q&A:

What would be the most important factors leading to truck crashes in the mountains - vehicle factors, human factors and environmental factors?

In truck crashes, the causes can probably be divided into a shared cause dynamic: Human and Mechanical. But there's a caveat...

Due to the nature, design and physical size of trucks, human usage patterns can lead to mechanical failure; which is not mutually exclusive.

In a light motor vehicle, you practically have to race on a track and really abuse the brakes - for instance - before the braking capacity would deteriorate to the point where the vehicle becomes mechanically unsafe.

With trucks, the sheer size and momentum results in much greater friction forces, greater temperatures, because of it and much sooner failure of components.

If you drive a car down a long mountain pass, you could free-wheel, brake and apply engine braking interchangeably and still travel down the pass safely - the car is relatively small and light and carries very little weight, compared to its own weight.

Take a so-called "1-ton LDV" as an example. If it weighs about 1,500 kg empty and is loaded to full capacity, the total mass is never more than about 2,500 kg. This means that the vehicle is only carrying about an additional 55% of its own weight. Let's talk about a truck of about 8,500 kg with a trailer of about 6,000 kg. That's 14,500 kg in total. But... It could carry 30 tons or 30,000 kg. That's more than twice its own weight, being transported.

Simply put - cars are not trucks. Trucks carry greater loads, have more momentum, are articulated, etc.

Over-use of any of the systems such as brakes, engine, retarders, etc, can result in extremely abnormal wear or friction/loading dynamics which can lead to failures - like failed brakes - or systemic failures like skipping a particular gear and not being able to engage it again.

Maintaining control of a truck - especially on treacherous roads - involves a combination of systems - brakes, engine retardation through gears, gear choice, retarder and brake system pressure - over-use or irregular use can cause one of the multiple systems to fail or conspire, which can result in collisions or fatalities.

To get back to the question - the most prevalent factor that leads to truck crashes would be a lack of understanding of the fine balance between the various systems. This may lead to a failure in avoiding overheating brakes and under-utilising their exhaust brakes assistance which is available to them to avoid overheating the brake system.

Human factors would also include lack of concentration as the speed requirement differ so much on up and down hills. On an up-hill due to the slow speed, drivers lose concentration and frequently do not select correct gears for climbing.

The environment very seldom features as a cause of specifically truck collisions. Mechanical failure very often results from poor use cycles, which is the result of driver error, or human factor.

What are the most important driving skills required when driving in the Mountains with a truck

What are the most important driving skills required when driving in the Mountains with a truck?

  • Patience and understanding how to get the best out of the vehicle the driver is driving.

  • Intimate knowledge of the vehicle they drive and understanding what the causes are of their previous results.

  • Truck drivers with a strong mechanical aptitude, capable of understanding the inner workings of the various mechanical systems and components are far more likely to take preventative action.

  • Understanding and knowing the vehicle, its systems and the limitations of those systems and pre-empting challenges and dangers before they manifest.

  • Attention to the load on the truck, the condition of the truck and the tyres and ensuring that they are not worn or damaged and are operated with the correct pressure.

  • The ability to adjust speed to the conditions of the road conditions, the angle of the road and also the sharpness of the curves.

  • Truck drivers must know the risks of fatigue, identify the signs of driver fatigue and ensure physical fitness, alertness and concentration in challenging conditions.

  • Mental alertness must be up at all times as the driver will be winding through the mountain pass and will have a lot of blind corners and also bushes and trees where anything could come out, especially at night and in fog, mist or rain.

  • Aside from preventing crashes, it is also important for the truck driver to understand how to maximise fuel saving driver techniques.

What are the major difficulties when driving in the mountains and mountain passes?

What are the major difficulties when driving in the mountains and mountain passes?

  • When driving up the mountain

    • Knowing the original condition of the vehicle, avoiding overloading, knowing the limitations of the vehicle (engine power, etc) and what the vehicle will and can or will and cannot do.

    • Negotiating the traffic on inclines so as to not break your momentum, changing gears at the correct time.

    • To avoid stopping with a full load on a steep incline.

    • Not to labour and overheat the engine and manage good green band driving in a fuel-saving manner.

    • As the truck will not be able to maintain a good speed and will be driving slow there will be a lot of pressure from the drivers of vehicles behind that will lose patience and attempt dangerous actions by overtaking or flashing lights for the truck driver to try move over.

    • The driver should not be pressurised into giving safety away. 

    • Using the gears effectively and selecting the correct gear for speed to the climb.

    • Driving in a fuel-saving manner.

  • When driving down the mountain

    • Selecting the correct gear, controlling the speed and maintaining a low enough speed.

    • Controlling your speed before you descend so that you can turn and stop safely at any time.

    • Being patient (not rushing) and remembering that trucks are not light motor vehicles - no matter how much they drive like one!

    • When going down the hill the driver must make use of the safety features and auxiliary braking components that will assist the truck to maintain the correct speed for the descent.

    • The driver must not think that because it took longer to get up the hill that he can make up time going down the hill.

How important is driver experience in these conditions and can the necessary skills be “taught” to the lesser experienced truck driver – how could this be done?

How important is driver experience in these conditions and can the necessary skills be “taught” to the lesser experienced truck driver - how could this be done?

  • Extremely important. A driver with no experience negotiating very steep up- or down-grades can easily miscalculate the potential risk and become "trapped" on the wrong side of those decisions.

  • Experience is the single most important skill for survival in the mountains. Mentorship coupled with a theoretical background is the most effective method to transfer this skill to ‘new’ drivers.

  • To teach less experienced drivers the skills required for handling treacherous roads immediately opens the debate on so-called "driving qualification." Driving tests are typically designed to ensure that the driver complies with the minimum standard required for him (or her) to "operate a commercial vehicle."

  • There are no intellectual risk-avoidance or emergency procedures components in traditional driver training.

  • Recommended also that once the driver has obtained his licence, to have him start off with local trips for a certain period and gradually move the driver to do longer trips. The more you drive the more experience you will gain. Very important to also let the driver do advanced driver training courses so that he learns a higher skill of driving.

  • The best practice is to outsource driver training, based on task-specific custom training and the potential introduction of driver journeyman projects to ensure that the driver gains adequate experience in a variety of task-specific driving environments (not just on flat roads) before taking responsibility for his vehicle and loads under unfamiliar conditions.

  • Generally, the long-serving drivers have gained experience, but this does not mean that they know the correct modern ways to drive trucks.

  • Trucks have developed so fast in recent years and the modern truck has so much more driver assistance ability than to older models.

  • Modern truck driver skills can be taught through “on the job” benchmarking or defensive driving programs.

  • Most larger truck manufacturers have in-house training available as they want to show truck owners the full extent of the capabilities of the modern truck.

Would fleet operators take special note of challenging conditions on specific roads and who are assigned to perform the driving duties in those specific areas?

Would fleet operators take special note of challenging conditions on specific roads and who are assigned to perform the driving duties in those specific areas?

  • This varies from operator to operator; some are nothing more than product-movers and move as much product as profitably as possible.

  • Then there are others who would actively engage the services of Commercial Vehicle Risk Experts to conduct Fleet Audits, Route Risk Assessments (often video graphics) and to provide task-specific training to drivers (like anti-hijacking awareness).

  • In companies that are very risk aware and where there are proper risk mitigation strategies in place, drivers are assigned to various driving tasks, operating environments or specific routes, based on the Route Risk Assessment or the Logistical Risk Profile. For this, there needs to be a strong partnership between the Risk- and Operations components within the operator’s house.

  • Responsible operators do take note of challenging routes and in many cases, carry out route risk assessments. If they are not doing this, they will after the loss of their first vehicle in such circumstances.

  • The general well-being of truck drivers is a slightly complex endeavour that involves very specific risk awareness and very innovative risk mitigation strategies.

  • Generally, once best routes are selected by fleet operators they remain with that selection. Only if there are major changes on the route do the alter routes.

  • Many avoid toll roads and weighbridges which are included in their respective routes

Sharing the mountains and mountain Passes: What are the major mistakes made by motorists and bikers when sharing roads with trucks in the mountains?

  • One of the most common causes of collisions involving light motor vehicles and motorcycles and commercial vehicles (trucks) remains assumption and lack of understanding.

  • People tend to operate their vehicle on the basis of an internal locus of control - they only think about the things THEY can, should, would, cannot or would not do.

  • They tend to endow the world around them (other road users, including truck drivers) with skills and abilities that often far exceed reality, based on their expectation.

  • After thousands of investigations, many involving commercial vehicles), I can honestly say that people often think that trucks and buses can (or should) stop or move like light motor vehicles. This is simply not the case.

  • Commercial Vehicle Drivers have an impaired view of the world around them (blind spots), their vehicles take longer to accelerate, turn, stop and start than other vehicles and they sit in a completely different position (higher) than light motor vehicle drivers.

  • While they all share the same roads, their experience, limitations and perspective are completely different. 

  • A bit of patience, understanding and due consideration can go a long way.

  • Impatience with trucks and taking chances to overtake because of impatience

  • Expectations for the truck to drive in “yellow lines”.

  • Overtaking a truck and cutting in between a truck and a car without understanding “how long it takes a truck to stop”

  • Driving in the ‘blind spots’ of the truck, impatience and not realizing that the stopping and turning capabilities of a truck differ vastly from that of a car or bike.

What are the most important aspects we need to share and create awareness of that motorists and bikers should take note of when they share roads with truck drivers in the mountains?

  • Attitude towards truck drivers, they are not stupid or ignorant, nor are they wilfully annoying you.

  • They are doing their best and at the best of times have their hands full to control their vehicles in the prevailing conditions.

  • Practice empathy with drivers as I doubt if any motorist or biker would want to change places with him at any time.

  • Motorists and bikers should make an effort to increase their knowledge and understanding of truck behaviour in terms of stopping, turning, controlling of loads on up hills and down hills.

  • Remember: Trucks and buses are bigger, higher, heavier and start, stop, accelerate and slow down differently from light motor vehicles and motorcycles.

  • Motorists need to keep in mind that when driving around mountains they need to take into account that there could be trucks on the same road and as a driver, we should never give our safety away and also take note of the blind corners.

  • Trucks require more than 3 to 5 times more distance than a light motor vehicle to stop depending on their load.

  • On blind corners on both up and down hill expect truck speeds to be extremely slow.

  • Night driving is especially challenging as headlights allow one to only see so far ahead and with the extreme speed differentiation - this is dangerous!

What are the most important safety considerations for road design in the mountains that could assist our truck drivers?

What are the most important safety considerations for road design in the mountains that could assist our truck drivers?

  • In countries like the USA, where there are many more trucks than in South Africa (more than 100-million tracks), the risk is proportionately higher, motivating the authorities to take greater steps towards enhancing road safety and reducing risk.

  • To this end, more time is spent on Driver Training, Road Design, Warnings and Traffic Control, Enforcement and Crash Investigation than in South Africa.

  • Since you cannot avoid any epidemic unless you understand it, the reduction of risk has to start with investigation and analysis. Only if these components are properly understood can the true root cause be identified, or the gravity of each component be determined, and a corrective strategy implemented.

  • Dedicated lanes for trucks only with ‘over-taking spots’ and ‘resting places’.

  • Law enforcement to ensure that these facilities are properly used by all concerned including motorists and bikers.

  • We have some of the best traffic laws in the world, but we are reluctant to apply them. If all our drivers, truck, car and bikers would apply these rules on the road, the roads would become a much better and safer place to use.

  • The most important safety consideration for road design would be and remains a proper understanding of the true extent or contribution of each possible factor: Human, Mechanical, Engineering, Environment, Law Enforcement.

  • Avoid too sharp inclines or declines in the building or roads

  • Rolling resistance tars surface can result in different fuel consumption.

Any other insights we need to share about safety for truck drivers in the mountains not discussed in the above questions and answers?

  • We can never emphasise driver training too much.

  • Fleet operators cost continue to rise and they are being squeezed to the maximum.

  • Too many shortcuts are being taken just to stay profitable.

  • Drivers are the least of operators worries but there is a lack of understanding the only cost-cutting space left is to educate drivers to get the best results out of their truck!

A word of appreciation to the following for their assistance

Stan Bezuidenhout, Crash Guys

Sean Gray. NOSA Logistics

Gary Clackworthy, MasterDrive

Also View

Safe Driving in the Mountains/Mountain Passes

Sharing the Roads with Trucks

Sharing the Road with Trucks and Fleetwatch

Safe Overtaking and Road Safety

Fleetwatch and Brake & Tyre Watch

Truck and Freight