Plugged In and Tuned Out
As I drive through neighborhoods, construction sites, and roadwork areas, I’ve noticed a new epidemic: wires and earphones appear to be growing out of otherwise perfectly normal people. It plays like a ’50s horror movie—“iPod Zombies 3D”—frightening!
During one construction site visit, I observed a contractor wearing earphones while shoveling debris. The vehicle that was pushing the debris around unexpectedly changed direction and started reversing. The back-up alarm was working as it should, beep-beep-beep, but the worker was completely unaware that this truck wasn’t following the normal routine. He couldn’t hear the back-up alarm over his music. Luckily, someone who was within the driver’s viewing range was able to get the driver’s attention in time to stop him before he backed over his coworker. The coworker had no idea of his certain fate until they tapped him on the shoulder and told him about his near-death experience. This close call made me wonder: Are we so plugged in today that we are completely tuned out to our surroundings?
There is certainly quite a bit of proof that supports the statement.
During a recent trip to Boston for the APWA/Wastecon Conference, I heard the tale of a trash hauler operator backing into a bicyclist. The bicyclist was enjoying a relaxing ride. His headphones were securely plugged into his ears and playing his favorite music. The bike rolled into the driver’s blind spot from one side as the driver was looking at his mirrors on the other side. For some unknown reason, the bicyclist stopped right in the path of the driver and bent down, oblivious to the fact the driver was reversing. The bicyclist couldn’t hear the back-up alarm over his music. He died at the scene.
There are many, many more accidents like the one mentioned above. Just Google the term “iPod accident,” and you’ll see pages and pages of accidents that have, at least in part, put the culpability on inattentive behavior caused by headphone use. New terms like “iPod zombies” and “iPod oblivion” are starting to show up in news articles.
This brings up new questions for the heavy-equipment industries:
- Are the right tools in place to help your heavy-duty-vehicle operators prevent these accidents?
- How effective are the back-up alarms today when the people who are supposed to heed their warning are no longer listening?
- Why are we having avoidable accidents when technology exists to prevent them?
- Does the company that owns the truck really have to find a solution, even when it’s the fault of the person not paying attention?
Let’s face it: Heavy-vehicle operators have a lot to keep track of. If it’s a dump truck, they have to maneuver through busy construction sites with multiple subcontractors, vehicles moving at varying speeds, flaggers to guide their truck to either receive or dump the load in a specific area, and other workers in the area. If it’s a trash hauler, the operator works constantly in bustling neighborhoods with small children who want to race the truck down the roadway and watch these big “Tonka toys” at work.
Now that people have gotten used to back-up beepers and flashing lights, drivers have to assume that people outside the truck aren’t paying attention to movement or sound—and with iPod oblivion getting worse all the time, too often the pedestrians can’t even hear them. How do you help the driver become aware of what’s going on outside of the vehicle without creating even more distractions in the cab?
Cameras and mirrors will always be part of accident protection for heavy-equipment drivers. But the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) suggests doing more than just installing cameras and training your drivers to use them. The latest recommendations from NIOSH propose a combination of cameras and radar, giving drivers a complete picture of the people, vehicles, equipment and other objects in range of an impact.
Radar, especially when combined with mirrors and cameras, gives drivers warning of collision dangers—even at night, even in bad weather. But it’s important to realize that having more screens to look at doesn’t necessarily contribute to safety…perhaps just the opposite in a high-workload environment. So while mirrors or video presentations are important, a truly effective blind-spot accident prevention system should include both audible and flashing light alert systems whose warnings increase in intensity as range decreases.
Backing into a blind spot is a major problem for heavy-equipment operators. They don’t like being unable to see, any more than I would want to drive my car down the street with my eyes closed. But companies can give their drivers the tools they need to keep work sites safe and reduce blind-spot accidents significantly.
Even when the people around your heavy-duty vehicles are tuned out, you can offer your drivers a powerful tool to help them tune in to their surroundings. Don’t let the iPod zombies make life harder for your drivers—help them get their job done without worrying that they won’t be able to see a person or a vehicle until they’ve had a collision.
Author's Bio: Dale Hessing is vice president of safety products for Preco Electronics in Boise, ID.
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