Traffic safety programs are needed to curtail a rise in roadway deaths involving workers.
The fire truck sped along on an emergency run, lights flashing and sirens blaring. A small car suddenly pulled into the intersection ahead, stopped, then started again. Seconds later, the fire truck hit the car full force.
"I didn't have time to maneuver out of the way and eventually I hit her, causing a fatality," recalls Craig Poike, a firefighter in Canton Township, Mich., who drove the fire truck that day. "From that time after, it was a pretty bad experience [for] both myself and my family. I wouldn't want anyone to go through this. It was a lot of mental stress."
For Don Fox, a firefighter in Delhi Township, Mich., the unimaginable became reality. His light truck hit a car driven by a 19-year-old woman as he was racing to deliver emergency equipment to another accident scene. She was killed. He was sentenced to 60 days in jail after pleading guilty to negligent homicide.
These men, interviewed on a training video produced by the Michigan Municipal Risk Management Authority in Livonia, are among the thousands of workers involved in deadly crashes each year. The financial costs of these accidents - in lost productivity, health benefits, workers' compensation and other areas - run high. Their human costs are incalculable.
Highway Crashes: The Leading Killer
"Driving a car is the most dangerous thing employees do every day," says Kathy Morgan, manager of traffic safety programs for the American Automobile Association (AAA), based in Heathrow, Fla.
While the number of workplace fatalities has remained fairly steady since the early 1990s, the number of employees who die in traffic accidents - especially highway crashes - is creeping up. Traffic accidents have been the No. 1 job-related killer since 1992, when the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) began to track these deaths. (Homicide remains the second-leading cause.) Traffic accidents caused 42 percent of all occupational fatalities in 1997, up from 40 percent in 1992. Highway crashes alone killed 1,387 workers in 1997, representing 22 percent of all workers' deaths - the highest number since the BLS started tracking these numbers. Almost half of the victims were truck drivers and other professional motorists. Others worked in fields such as sales and farming.
For employers, the consequences of poor driving can seem as impersonal as the statistics - until an accident involves one of their employees. "I think it begins with an attitude among employers that crashes are a cost of doing business. Then there's insurance. People figure that the cost will be covered, so prevention is not on the radar screen," says Susan Herbel, executive director of the Network of Employers for Traffic Safety (NETS), a public-private nonprofit started in 1989 to help employers develop and implement driver-safety programs.
"It's a resource issue," she adds. "All the safety managers I know are real, real busy people." Their natural priority is a safe workplace that, ironically, does not include a program for safe driving.
Why, after many public-service campaigns, are workers still dying on the road? First of all, there are simply more cars and trucks out there - 198 million passenger vehicles alone in 1996, a 22 percent increase from a decade earlier, says AAA. The more vehicles, the higher the risk of accidents. Experts also point to a number of driver errors, including the failure to wear seat belts, inattention, fatigue, aggressive driving and medications that cause drowsiness. Alcohol consumption, cited as a main cause of fatal crashes in general, usually doesn't play a role in work-related traffic accidents.
Based on initial police reports, the five most common "driver-related factors" in 1997 were being run off the road, driving too fast, failing to yield, not paying attention and failing to obey traffic signs, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).
Changes in state speed limits, and subsequent faster driving, also play a role. Motor-vehicle deaths rose 15 percent in 1996 and 1997 in 24 states that had raised their speed limits, the Arlington, Va.-based Insurance Institute for Highway Safety reported in January. No change was noted in states where speed limits weren't raised. Congress repealed the national maximum speed limit of 65 miles per hour in late 1995, allowing states to set their own speed limits.
The High Cost of Crashes
If those statistics don't grab the attention of employers, the monetary figures should.
Each motor-vehicle crash costs employers at least $10,000, according to NETS, or more than $43 billion for fatal and nonfatal accidents that occurred on and off the job in 1994. The costs came in many forms, from lost work time, health insurance and sick leave to property damage (the single largest category at $52.1 million), liability insurance and legal expenses. By industry, the highest cost-per-employee of motor-vehicle crashes were in local and inter-urban transit ($2,294) and trucking/warehousing ($1,486), according to NHTSA reports.
In addition, employers can incur recruitment and training costs from workers' deaths and long-term disabilities. Some employers also bear the up-front cost of "hazard pay" to workers who accept risky jobs; those wage premiums totaled nearly $12 billion in 1994.
Traffic-safety programs cost money to set up but are well worth the investment, advises NHTSA. The savings can be as high as $50,000 per million vehicle miles traveled.
No One Solution
There's no single program for employers who want to design or revise their driver-safety programs. "It's not a one-size-fits-all policy," says NETS' Herbel. Employers must tailor programs to their types of drivers and driving.
A national moving company that uses heavy trucks on interstate highways isn't the same as a local florist that has two vans. The largest employers have full-time safety departments and a staff dedicated to fleet safety. Small employers defer the job to owners or HR managers.
For the professional "driving industry," safety on the road starts with thorough, ongoing training of new employees. United Parcel Service's (UPS) 85,000 drivers travel more than 2 billion miles per year in the United States. "We have to set higher standards because of our exposure," says Jerry Bolles, corporate fleet safety manager for the Atlanta-based package delivery service.
All new UPS drivers undergo an intensive, 22-day training schedule. "The first thing we do is learn how to operate the vehicle," Bolles says. On the first day, a trainer rides with the new driver in one of the familiar brown trucks; no packages are delivered. The trainer accompanies the driver for four to 12 days, depending on how well the new employee performs. Follow-up training rides are done annually.
UPS follows a "space and visibility habits" safety program. "We train our drivers to have space around their vehicles," says Bolles. "We train them to use their eyes to view everything around them and to register all that's around them." Still, backing up is the leading cause of accidents by UPS drivers. UPS also investigates accidents to see if and how they could have been prevented, a practice generally followed in the trucking industry.
UPS reported to the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) one accident per 1 million miles traveled, compared with the national average of 1.6, Bolles says. Regulated companies must report to DOT any accident that involves a fatality, bodily injury or towed vehicle.
"Part of the process is prevention, and part of it is what do you do when an accident happens," says Mark Davison, manager of safety development compliance for North American Van Lines. The mover, based in Fort Wayne, Ind., learned from its mistakes by placing mirrors on the front right fender or hood to allow drivers to see the area of the front right tire, one of the blind spots. That reduced lane-change accidents.
Whatever the cause, the best way for workers, or anyone, to survive a car crash is to buckle up, safety experts say. "It's not rocket science, but it's hard because you're dealing with human behavior," says Herbel. Morgan of AAA agrees: "People just don't want to do it," especially young men in their 20s and early 30s.
All states except New Hampshire require drivers and passengers to wear seat belts. In 14 states and the District of Columbia, police officers can write citations when they see unbelted motor-vehicle occupants. In 35 other states, citations can be written only after vehicles are stopped for another reason. Despite the laws, more than 40 percent of drivers involved in fatal crashes in 1997 were unrestrained, reports the NHTSA.