Watchful eyes

McKenzie Tank Lines uses a system from the Tyman Group to eliminate a key blind spot. Mounted to a safety mirror on the passenger side hood, the camera sends video to an in-cab monitor when drivers use their right turn signal.

Logex Inc. recently ordered two safety-enhancing systems with its annual tractor purchase. The new technologies will help the company make a giant leap toward reaching its goal of eliminating all accidents, says Tom Rule, vice president of operations of the 400-truck, Orange, Calif.-based fleet, which hauls industrial gases nationwide.

One system monitors truck position relative to lane markings and sounds an audible warning when a truck strays outside its lane. The other is a forward-looking radar system that warns drivers when vehicles and other objects are dangerously close, relative to the vehicle’s speed. Rule says the cost savings from reduced accidents is not the only reason managers decided to buy.

“Safety-conscious companies make the right decision without only considering what the return of investment is going to be,” Rule says. “Our goal is zero accidents and zero injuries. It’s a goal that might seem farfetched, but only if you don’t keep trying to get there.”

In an industry where every mile driven exposes your company to the risk of catastrophic loss, enhanced driver visibility and awareness of safety hazards offer significant paybacks. Vision and object detection systems can eliminate blind spots and immediately warn drivers of unsafe speeds and distances of surrounding objects. Advanced systems can even take control of vehicle attributes, such as speed, in situations where a driver’s reaction time may be too slow to avoid an accident.

Safety technology isn’t always easy to justify from a cost-benefit standpoint because crashes are unpredictable events, which makes determining whether a technology is working effectively is an inexact science.

To determine which technologies can increase the safety of your fleet and improve your bottom line, begin by identifying the kinds of accidents your fleet has the most liability exposure to, suggests Jim Kennedy, director of maintenance for Tallahassee, Fla.-based McKenzie Tank Lines.

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Improving a driver’s vision
McKenzie Tank Lines found that the root cause of many accidents was drivers not seeing objects and vehicles when backing, changing lanes and merging, Kennedy says.

To eliminate the blind spots, the company equipped its local delivery fleet with a video monitoring system from the Tyman Group. McKenzie Tank Lines positioned cameras at the rear of its trailers and on the passenger-side of its tractors. An in-cab video monitor shows live video from the trailer or passenger side only when trucks are engaged in reverse and when the right-hand turn signal is used to minimize driver distraction, Kennedy says.

“There is no doubt in my mind that the technology reduces accidents based on the response from those that drive every day,” Kennedy says. “They confirmed that when backing up it definitely improves safety.”

Because sideswiping and merging accidents are among the most dangerous, U.S. Xpress recently began using video cameras to eliminate the blind spot created by the sloped, aerodynamic hood design of its new tractors. The sloped hood has a wider base at the windshield, making it difficult for shorter drivers to see small vehicles, says Marty Fletcher, director of technology, equipment research and development for U.S. Xpress.

Mounted to the right side, slightly above and forward of the wheel well, the video camera displays six to eight lanes to the right of the passenger-side front fender. The video is shown on a 5-inch, high-definition color monitor in the cab, positioned as close to the steering wheel as possible without impairing a driver’s forward-looking vision.

“The reason for the video system is to have zero blind spots on the tractor,” Fletcher says. “By its positioning, the driver has zero blind spots for the first immediate lane, from the back of trailer until the car exits from his field of view in the front.”

Camera systems are available in the aftermarket from several vendors, including Bendix, Tyman Group, Intec and Safety Vision. Given that a windshield presumably offers the driver a clear

The Eaton Vorad system uses high-frequency radar sensors to warn drivers when objects and vehicles get too close for comfort. With the SmartCruise option, the Vorad automatically adjusts vehicle speed to maintain proper following distance in cruise control.

view in front, camera systems are used on sides and at the back of trucks and combinations. One exception is the Bendix XVision system, which is intended to improve night vision. The dash or ceiling-mounted infrared night vision system extends a driver’s vision 1,500 feet to increase reaction time, Bendix says. By comparison, drivers can see about 300 feet for low-beam headlight or 500 feet for high beam.

Replacing vision with radar
One disadvantage of camera systems is that they require monitoring by the driver, thus potentially increasing the burden on drivers to process information. Cameras provide drivers with better visibility of blind spots, but they can also distract drivers from the road ahead or from their rear-view mirrors, says Tom Adamson, general manager of a 25-truck fleet based in South Bend, Ind., that distributes Culligan Water. And faced with multiple visual inputs, drivers may just ignore some of them. Adamson observed this problem while evaluating camera systems to reduce backing accidents in his fleet.

“For a long time we followed the GOAL practice: ‘Get Out And Look,'” Adamson says. “Drivers would visually inspect the back of a vehicle but they would still crunch something from time to time.” Installing backup cameras on a few vehicles proved very effective to reduce accidents, but drivers tended to look at their outside mirrors and ended up not using the video monitors, he says.

After testing cameras, the company began testing the Eagle Eye Detection System from Transportation Safety Technologies (TST). The Eagle Eye uses ultrasonic waves to detect the presence and distance of objects. Through a small dash-mounted device, drivers get audible and visual alerts, including the distance to the object. The Eagle Eye system can use up to seven sensors placed around the sides and rear of a truck or tractor-trailer combination. Adamson chose to use just one sensor, positioned at the rear of the vehicle – the most accident-prone spot.

After installing TST’s Eagle Eye system on a few vehicles, “we literally ran into the situation where drivers would fight for who got to use the vehicle with it on there,” Adamson says. The fleet equipped all 25 straight trucks with the Eagle Eye, and went from 12 backing accidents per year to zero, he says. “It’s like having a second person at the back of the vehicle.”

Cameras and object detection systems are not mutually exclusive or redundant systems, however. U.S. Xpress, for example, uses object detection sensors on the passenger side of its vehicles. The sensors are part of its Eaton Vorad system, a collision warning system that uses high-frequency Doppler radar to detect the presence of a vehicle in the adjacent lane. If a driver turns on the right blinker when the sensor detects an object, the system emits a visual and audible signal. Without the blinker on, the in-cab unit, positioned on the passenger-side dash emits a red light, Fletcher says.

Keeping their distance
Cameras and object detection systems give drivers visibility of blind spots, but one of the most dangerous and expensive accidents – the rear-end collision – often occurs when vehicles are in full view. Even a one second delay to abrupt changes in traffic can result in a catastrophic preventable accident.

Mostly used in over-the-road fleets, where drivers spend much of their time moving at freeway speeds, forward-looking collision warning systems, such as the Eaton Vorad, help drivers

The Eagle Eye system from TST uses ultrasonic sensors to detect objects in blind spots around a vehicle. The driver display unit gives visual and audible alerts, including the distance to objects.

maintain safe following distances. Vorad uses Doppler radar waves to scan the path of a truck, detecting the speed and proximity of objects. It captures the waves that bounce off objects, or vehicles, to compute the object’s size and relative speed. If the object is too close (less than three or four seconds of following distance, for example), the system warns the driver with an audible signal and a warning light.

When Little Rock, Ark.-based Maverick Transportation initially considered the Eaton Vorad system, it began testing the product to see how its drivers would respond to the audible and visual alerts. The company installed the system in six vehicles with the alerts turned off so the drivers did not know what the system was recording, says Dean Newell, vice president of safety for the 750-truck carrier. After three months, the company collected the data recorded by Vorad and then turned on the alerts. After three more months of testing, the company again looked at the data recorded by the Vorad.

With the alerts on, the data showed significant improvements in following distances, Newel says. The company calculated that the Eaton Vorad netted out to a three-year payback due to reduced accidents, but Newel believes that its estimate may be conservative. “The hard thing to tell is how many accidents it has prevented. The truth is, we don’t know,” he says.

In addition to alerting drivers of unsafe following distances, Vorad constantly records speed, position and direction data for accident reconstruction.

Another feature that may figure into payback for the Eaton system is the Eaton Vehicle Information Management System, a Windows-based software program that allows fleets to monitor vehicle and driver performance including hard braking events, time on brakes, following distances and fast approaches on slow-moving traffic. Eaton soon plans to add a telecommunications interface that will allow for real-time exception reporting and periodic data downloads.

Staying between the lines
Systems like TST’s Eagle Eye and Eaton’s Vorad can be used to detect objects on the sides of vehicles to warn drivers against intentional lane changes. But some fleets have expressed interest in lane departure warning systems. LDWSs are especially applicable in long-distance applications due to the danger of drowsiness and fatigue that sets in on long, monotonous drives, Kennedy says.

An LDWS gathers visual data of the road and lane markings from a small camera mounted on the windshield. It digitizes the data and feeds it into a computer. Using algorithms, the system can identify when the vehicle begins to drift toward a lane marker. The system gives the driver an audible warning when he crosses a lane marker without using his turn signal.

McKenzie Tank Lines uses the SafeTRAC system from Assistware for its long-distance fleet. Kennedy likes a feature that tells drivers, through a text message on the dash-mounted display, to get rest when it detects drowsiness. The SafeTRAC system automatically calculates a two-digit score for a driver’s ability to maintain the center of the lane. If a driver scores below 50 for any 10-minute period of driving, the unit sends the message, Kennedy says.

Logex uses an LDWS from Iteris called AutoVue. After testing the system at his previous employer, Rule concluded from driver feedback that the technology was “one great way to reduce accidents.” At Logex, Rule ordered the system factory-installed on 100 tractors purchased from International in December.

After testing the AutoVue system on 38 trucks for a total of 10 million miles, Claremont, N.C.-based Cargo Transporters, another recent adopter of Iteris’ system, ordered the system factory-installed on his recent purchase from Freightliner for 100 trucks and all subsequent new truck purchases, says President John Pope.

During the evaluation process, Pope says that Cargo Transporters’ drivers mailed a survey directly to Iteris. A few of them indicated that the technology helped them avoid a potential accident because they were distracted by something in the cab and would otherwise not have noticed they had drifted out of the lane. “They would not say that here to management,” Pope says.

Letting the computer take over
Fleet managers typically want drivers to remain in control of the vehicle at all times. Given the consequences of a catastrophic accident, however, there may be situations when it’s desirable to have a computer take some control. The Eaton Vorad system, for example, has a SmartCruise option that automatically pulls back on the throttle, engages the engine brake and even downshifts the transmission to maintain proper following distances when used with automated transmissions.

Since 1996, U.S. Xpress has used adaptive cruise control and has recently begun spec’ing its trucks with automated transmissions to help maintain safer following distances. Automated transmissions also give drivers better control of acceleration when merging into traffic, and let drivers keep both hands on the steering wheel, Fletcher says.

U.S. Xpress has also begun spec’ing its new tractors with rollover stability control (RSC). When RSC senses conditions that may result in rollover, the system can reduce engine torque, engage the engine retarder, apply proper pressure to the drive axle brakes, and, if required, modulate the trailer brakes with just enough pressure to slow the vehicle.

Investing in safety-enhancing technology is not always a decision that fleet executives make based on hard calculations. You must compare a real and hard cost with the potential for avoiding an unpredictable and uncertain cost. But never forget that the cost of a single catastrophic preventable accident almost certainly will exceed money spent on safety technology to prevent it.

“Everybody is looking for the magic bullet, but no one has the magic bullet,” Rule says. “But we do have a high potential to reduce many accidents.” And the goal for Rule is to have zero accidents, which will not only save money in the long run, but potentially a life as well. That’s a benefit you can’t easily ignore.