Operating large freight trucks, such as 18-wheelers, is no small task. The sheer size and weight of these vehicles make them extremely difficult to handle and navigate. The length of the cargo trailer makes it extremely difficult for the driver to see cars behind the vehicle, and side view mirrors can only help so much. All of these obstacles do not even account for poor weather. While it may be difficult for a truck driver to see under normal conditions, periods of fog or heavy rain make it nearly impossible unless the driver exhibits proper caution behind the wheel.
Recently, a fatal four car pileup involving a freight truck was attributed to low visibility and fog. Authorities reported that the trucker was attempting to pass another vehicle and collided head on with a pickup truck traveling in the other lane. Per the investigation, fog was so dense that there was basically no visibility. A passenger in the pickup truck was killed upon impact.
Visibility is a major component of trucking and safe driving in general. Even if a commercial truck or tractor-trailer is operated by a licensed, well-rested, experienced truck driver, fog and other low visibility environments can create dangerous conditions. Accidents like the one mentioned above are common and equally as dangerous as instances of vehicles colliding with trucks. Drivers unable to see large trucks could fall victim to override accidents in which their car gets completely run over by the 18-wheeler.
Truck companies and their drivers must follow federal regulations related to keeping proper visibility to help prevent accidents that occur in fog or heavy rain where visibility is low. These are referred to as conspicuity standards. The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) requires certain commercial trucks to be equipped with reflective tape. Perhaps you’ve noticed these red and white patterned strips of tape while driving behind a truck. The tape is to be placed at strategic locations on the truck and trailer, specifically the sides of the trailer, the lower and upper rear of the trailer, and rear section of the truck. The tape is designed to reflect light in the dark and fog in order to prevent motorists from rear ending or crashing into the sides of the trailer.
One report by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration found that reflective tape can effectively reduce crashes into the trailer of a truck by 29%. However, proper maintenance and upkeep are required in order for the reflective tape to work properly. For instance, old and worn down tape should be replaced.
While reflective tape helps make sure drivers can see big trucks, the government and private citizens are constantly brainstorming new ways to make commercial trucking safer. One such idea that has been researched is 360 degree vision. Through the help of exterior mounted cameras which transmit visual information directly to the cockpit, truck drivers will now be able to see all around them. Special training will be needed to ensure truck drivers operate this equipment in a safe manner.
Some researchers, however, believe that potential sensory overload is a significant problem. Whether truck drivers receive information from mirrors or cameras, there is the very real risk that more information in the cockpit could actually produce the opposite effect of what is desired. If drivers are constantly watching the exterior video images instead of the road, they run the risk of increasing accidents through distracted driving, not preventing them. On the other hand, researchers believe that with proper training, the exterior cameras could prove to be a useful tool in the fight for trucking safety. In the meantime, truck drivers will have to rely on the federal trucking regulations to maximize visibility.