Preventable or not?

John Doe returned to the yard to pick up his last load for the day – a single, 55-gallon drum for Mermaid Pool Supply, just across town. He backed his trailer safely into the dock, supervised the unloading of what he’d brought in and completed the paperwork.

He made a quick trip to the doughnut shop across the street for a Bavarian cream-filled cholesterol builder and a cup of hot Java made from freshly ground beans. Sipping out of the steaming cup, he saw one of the warehouse guys loading the drum into the van trailer. Keeping in mind the lessons of the last cargo-securement training session his fleet had conducted, he grabbed a length of rope and carefully lashed the drum to some tie-down points located in the flooring.

He slipped into the seat, popped his cup into the cupholder, hit the key and grabbed a piece of second gear for the short run to the gate. A stop, a turn and a few skip-shifts later, he was cruising at 55 mph (below the speed limit) on a local four-lane running across the city, nearly four seconds behind the tractor-trailer in front of him.

In the gathering darkness, and with his view partially blocked by a tree, John failed to see a deer rushing across in front of the truck that preceded him. That truck’s driver did, however, and the result was a maximum application of that combination’s recently overhauled brake system.

John reacted as soon as the tail lights of the trailer in front went on, accompanied by obvious signs of trailer wheel lockup, and hit his brakes hard. He skillfully modulated treadle pressure as his drive axles began to dance a bit, and felt relieved when he realized he was successfully bringing his combination to a stop with only a slight closing on the vehicle in front.

But, just then, he heard a screeching sound and a loud boom. Once he had pulled off the road and stopped, John went back to find that he hadn’t been rear-ended, but, instead, the single drum had broken its securing rope. It had then slid hard into the trailer header, creating a very large dent that later proved expensive to repair.

John received a warning letter from his fleet safety director, but appealed to the National Safety Council’s Accident Review Committee. They ruled in John’s favor, finding that: he had been following the truck ahead at a safe distance, because he was able to stop without even closing on it significantly; that he had made a controlled stop, having kept his tractor and trailer in lane; and that the rope he had acquired was faulty, but not obviously so. There was, therefore, no way for him to know it might fail in a hard, but otherwise safe and controlled stop. John was off the hook.