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October 31, 2016 4:00 AM, EDT

Opinion: Thoughts on Avoiding Risks of the Road

This Opinion piece appears in the Oct. 31 print edition of Transport Topics. Click here to subscribe today.

By Darryl Nowell

Truck Driver

Eagle Transport Corp.

It’s a great honor to be named the National Tank Truck Carriers’ Professional Tank Truck Driver of the Year, because being safe out there is the most important thing for all of us — the drivers, our companies and the people we share the roads with. As a professional driver, I want to share my thoughts about safety on the road — what the risks are and how to avoid them.

Darryl Nowell

Texting

This, of course, and other use of devices while driving is one of the biggest threats out there today. I understand the temptation — but you’ve just got to resist it. Things can happen too darn fast. Sometimes you really do need to send a message or check your mail or look something up. When you do, take two minutes to pull over. There are already too many other people on the road who are doing this. We have to both look out for them and not contribute to this problem ourselves.

Major Congestion Areas

There are a few other issues that I regularly encounter on the road that I think we need to really be careful of. No. 1 to me is major congestion areas. They can throw so many different curveballs at you. The stops can seem to come out of nowhere, and you have to be very alert to be able to slow down safely when you’re moving along and passenger cars start hitting the brakes.

Broken-Down Vehicles

Another big one is broken-down vehicles. Even when they’re off the road, they’re dangerous. And, they’re pretty rare, so people don’t have enough experience to really know what to do around them. So some bad — or just uninformed — decisions get made, and they can present challenges.

Stressed Drivers

These drivers can make bad decisions — such as driving impatiently and zigzagging through lanes to feel like they’re really getting there faster. We need to be efficient, of course, but as the pros, we know it’s going to take X hours to go Y distance, and patience is the best way to get there. Trying to shave off minutes can end up costing you hours — or worse, cause an accident.

Weather

And last, of course, is always the weather. Rain, snow, sleet, freezing rain, hail, tropical storms — you name it — we get it all over time. There’s a huge range of treacherous road conditions we have to learn to deal with. And they change so fast that you can face an incredible range in a single day.

In all of these cases, the solution is the same: Be alert! As long as you’re actively scanning and evaluating the conditions you’re in, you should be ready to respond effectively to almost anything. Distraction is the enemy. You take your mind off of the job, and bad things can happen fast.

Remembering a few basic things can make all the difference. First of all, plan, plan and plan. You really can’t be too thorough in preparing. The more you’ve thought through, the more you’re ready for.

That means planning your route thoroughly and following it strictly. That helps you avoid things, such as traffic and weather, and it helps you be safe and timely. You also want to know your options, know good stops and have the supplies you need. It’s part of your job to adjust to traffic patterns, accidents, weather and so forth, and if you have proper time to adjust your route, you’ll be able to respond safely. A driver who hasn’t planned enough can be a risk to the public and himself.

Take your training seriously and rely on what you’ve learned. It’s essential to follow through with your full training regimen. It’s there for a reason. There’s a lot to know — and you don’t want to discover what you don’t know just when you need to know it. Also, make the most of mentorship opportunities with veteran drivers. You learn the most out on the road, and the guys who’ve been there the most know it the best.

Give yourself the opportunity to succeed. By that I mean, for example, take the time to do it right. Being in a hurry can lead to mistakes in anything — but they matter a lot more when you’re driving a tank full of flammable liquid! Slow down a bit and give yourself plenty of time.

Again, be alert. Focus. Keep your head in the game the whole time. We need to avoid distractions — from other drivers, from phones and media and from customers. For instance, if a customer is talking to you when you’re unloading, you need to respectfully inform them of the potential danger and firmly but politely ask them to step back. You can chat later, but safety is always our first duty as drivers.

And, finally, have a good attitude. I love this work. It’s not for everybody — but I think those of us in this business are really fortunate. If you look at it as a career, take it seriously and learn your craft thoroughly. It can be an absolutely great way of life. Enjoy it. And be safe out there!

Nowell is a 31-year trucking-industry veteran who has accumulated 2.9 million accident-free miles and has earned numerous safe-driving awards throughout his career. A petroleum driver, he received the National Tank Truck Carriers 2016 Professional Tank Truck Driver of the Year award. This honor marked him as an exemplary professional in the safest sector of the trucking industry.