Perry Mitrano, director of solid waste with the city of Bunnell, FL, would have backed into a man who was crouched behind the rear wheel of his truck if his radar system hadn’t sounded its in-cab alarm. That’s because Mitrano, who was filling in for an absent driver that day, would never have seen the man, even with the cameras with which his truck is equipped. The man could easily have been killed by Mitrano’s truck. The resulting bad press and the inevitable lawsuit quite possibly would have shut down the city’s fairly young waste collection system.
Mitrano and the city of Bunnell are not alone. A growing number of municipalities are recognizing just how important it is to invest in vehicle safety and awareness systems. These municipalities are investing in obstacle-detection systems, on-board cameras, sensors that warn drivers when tires are losing pressure, systems that alert them to worn brakes and indicators that tell them when a wheel’s lug nuts are loose.
Today’s leaders of municipal solid waste (MSW) districts understand that they can recover the money they spend on safety equipment quickly. All it takes is one avoided accident to make their investments pay off.
It helps, too, that today’s younger drivers are less resistant to technology in their cabs, says Gary Rothstein, CEO of Solon, OH-based Mobile Awareness, which markets several safety solutions for truck operators, including obstacle-detection sensors and camera systems. “The younger people coming into the industry have a greater awareness of safety than do the older drivers,” he says. “My children don’t think twice about putting on a seatbelt. A lot of adults took a long time to adapt to that. The older drivers sometimes complain that they’ve been driving for years and they don’t need this extra equipment. But the municipalities understand: This technology can save them significant dollars.”
Rothstein uses the example of a backup sensor system. It might cost a municipality $300 to install one of these on a waste collection vehicle. But if that system prevents the driver from accidentally backing into a telephone pole, it’s already paid for itself, he says.
Saving a Life in Bunnell
It didn’t take Mitrano long to appreciate the PreView radar system from Preco Electronics that was installed in his truck. He says that one of the drivers for his city was unavailable, so—having drove a waste collection vehicle for years—he had left the office, and hopped into a collection vehicle. For most of the day, his route was quiet. But then he approached a large condominium project with his front-loader. He stabbed a dumpster, lifted it, and dumped its contents into his hopper. He then did what he always does when driving a waste truck: checked all his mirrors, windows, and on-board cameras to make sure the spaces surrounding the vehicle were clear. Mitrano saw nothing, so he put the vehicle in reverse.
That’s when the Preco radar system sounded its in-cab audible alarm. Mitrano checked again, and still saw nothing behind the truck. Then he jumped out of the vehicle. And what did he find? A man was crouched behind the rear wheel, stretching forward to reach a pair of keys that were under the truck. The man was out of view of all mirrors, windows, and cameras. If it wasn’t for the radar system, Mitrano is certain he would have backed over the man. “That could have been a terrible incident. I still don’t think that man understands just how close he was to getting backed over. If it wasn’t for the radar system, it could have been a fatal accident. The system saved that man’s life.”
Finding the Problems That Aren’t Overt
Much of today’s safety equipment is designed to prevent accidents. Cameras and radar systems fall into this category. But other safety tech is designed to make sure that the waste trucks operators are driving aren’t hampered by low tires or worn brakes. This type of equipment is important: it tells drivers when the equipment they can’t necessarily see might be on the verge of malfunctioning. “There are two types of defects on a vehicle,” says Daniel Judson, inventor and technical director with Asheville, NC-based Brake Sentry, which develops brake stroke indicators that tell drivers and technicians when their brakes are out of adjustment. “When drivers are doing pre- and post-trip inspections, they can find headlights that are out or a mud flap that is torn off. Those are all overt problems. A four-year-old can tell you that a headlight isn’t working. But then you have the ones that are covert or hidden. Those are the ones that can be dangerous.”
Judson says that it is assumed that drivers will inspect the brakes of their trucks on a regular basis. The reality, though, is that drivers often struggle to tell when brakes are out of adjustment. “That’s been going on for years, for as long as we’ve had air brakes on trucks.”
There was a time when drivers manually adjusted their trucks’ brakes daily. But that was before the days of air brakes and automatic slack adjusters. Today, drivers tend to assume that their brakes are fine, Judson says. And that is a problem, because they often are not. “The urgency of having brake inspections almost went entirely out the window.”
Drivers will check their brakes today by braking during the first 50 feet that their waste trucks travel, he says. But that doesn’t tell drivers enough about how well their brakes are working, because trucks are rarely moving quickly enough to provide much information about the effectiveness of brakes. “Often, the first real discovery that drivers have about brake problems is when they are going along a grade and they have a full load. Then you find out. That’s when the problems show up.”
The BrakeSentry system, though, changes what is a covert problem into an overt one. As Judson says, all drivers have to do is look at a gauge to determine if their brakes are out of adjustment. These drivers can then report the brake drivers to their supervisors, lowering the odds that they will get into a serious accident because they can’t stop their vehicles.
Identifying potential mechanical problems is an important role that truck technology is playing today. Toronto’s Wheel-Check falls into the same category as BrakeSensor, helping drivers identify a problem that could lead to a serious accident. The Wheel-Check system checks for loose wheel nuts. Like BrakeSensor, drivers just have to look at the device to determine if any of their trucks’ lug nuts are dangerously loose.
“The great thing is, this isn’t technical at all,” says Stefni Cox-Walters, owner of Wheel-Check. “It’s a plastic indicator that goes on the nuts. If the nut is loose, it shows the drivers when they do their walk-arounds. They then know that they have to take it in for maintenance.”
Before tech such as this, drivers would have to mark their lug nuts with paint or chalk to determine if they needed a tightening. This, she says, is an easier and more effective option for drivers. Her company sells more than six million Wheel-Check indicators a year. That’s a big number. But, it’s not much when compared to the number of trucks out on the road.
Why don’t more people order such an inexpensive and easy-to-use system? Cox-Walter explains that too many drivers and municipalities think a lug-nut problem won’t happen to them. “A lot of people don’t think they have a problem until something bad happens. It’s like wearing a seatbelt. A lot of people don’t think they need to wear one until they get into an accident and hurt themselves. With this product, a lot of people don’t think they need it until a wheel falls off.”
The good news? She says waste companies are frequent customers of Wheel-Check. Big industry player Waste Management has been using Wheel-Check indicators for about 11 years. Other big names in the waste industry, such as Republic Services and Allied Waste, also use the indicators.
Cox-Walter points out that the simplicity of the system is a big part of the reason why so many waste haulers are using it. “It is a very complicated world right now with all the technology out there. We just want to provide an indicator that tells the driver when there is something wrong. You want the drivers to be able to look at it and instantly know that something is not right. This is bright. It looks like an arrow. Drivers will notice if one of the wheel checks are out of sequence. There is nothing for drivers to learn.”
Keeping Drivers From Harm
Ray Glenn, general manager with Mississauga, Ontario’s Global Sensor Systems Inc., says his company’s rear sensor system, the Search-Eye Sensor System, has a history of reducing backing accidents by 50 to 90% at the municipalities that use the technology.
And to enjoy the benefits of this system? Drivers don’t have to do anything. The system detects objects behind a truck and automatically applies the brakes for drivers. “Drivers have a lot of challenges, and a lot of things to watch and observe,” says Glenn. “The driver can be legitimately distracted from looking at mirrors or at a camera monitor and miss something that could lead to an accident. In our system if a driver is distracted, it will apply the brakes, preventing an accident and stopping the vehicle. That is important.”
Glenn says the demand for this product is increasing as municipalities seek ways to reduce money they spend annually following accidents. “The liability is so onerous and so real if one of your drivers gets into an accident. There are a lot of good reasons to embrace anything that will reduce your backing accidents, or any kind of accident for that matter.”
Municipalities focus on safety, not only because they want to reduce their yearly operating costs, but also because they don’t want their drivers to injure themselves or others, Glenn says. “People care about people, too. That is a serious motivator for the municipalities that purchase this system.”
Advanced Disposal, one of the bigger players in the MSW industry, is a good example. Ken Arms, district safety manager for the company for Florida and Georgia, says that Advanced Disposal has been using Global Sensor Systems’ backup technology since 2010. The company has purchased 987 systems for its vehicles since then, he says. The reason for this is simple: Advanced Disposal wanted to cut down on the number of backing accidents its drivers were having. Advanced Disposal was already using cameras in its vehicles. But this technology, while a help, did not result in as big a reduction in backing accidents as officials had hoped. So in 2010, the company did a number of pilot tests with the backup sensors. This combination of cameras and sensors has been the right one. Arms says that these technologies working together have dramatically reduced backing accidents.
But this doesn’t mean that drivers can forget their safety training. Even with the automatic-braking technology that comes with the sensors, drivers are still ultimately responsible for preventing backing accidents, Glenn says.
“There’s often a misconception that this technology takes all the decision-making away from the drivers,” adds Arms. “But that’s not the case. This system never takes the responsibility out of the driver’s hands. But it does give drivers a fighting chance to avoid accidents that maybe the cameras alone don’t.”
Since installing the backup systems, Arms says Advanced Disposal has seen a reduction in backing accidents by 80%. This means that the company is enjoying a particularly good return on investment (ROI) on the systems.
Another positive? Like with most vehicle-awareness and safety systems, it takes relatively little effort to train drivers on how to use the technology. Arms says that drivers watch a video, designed by Global Sensor Systems; have access to a PowerPoint from the company; and receive hands-on training from Advanced Disposal. “The system is really straightforward,” he says. “If it stops you, you get out and look around the truck before hitting the override button in the cab—it’s that simple. It’s mostly a maintenance-free system. Don’t you dare hit that override button until you get out and verify what is out there. That’s pretty much what drivers need to know.”
Everything Is Safety-Based
At Mobile Awareness, the focus has long been on increasing the safety of drivers, Rothstein says. That’s a mission that has never changed. “Everything we do is safety-based,” he says. “All the products that we develop, we develop them to increase the safety of the drivers in the trucks and those around them.”
Mobile Awareness offers several safety products for drivers, including SenseStat, an obstacle-detention sensor system, and VisionStat, a camera system. The company’s VisionStat Plus system combines a camera and backup detection system.
Like others in the industry, Rothstein says the combination of cameras and backup sensors provides the safest driving experience for waste haulers, and the most protection for the people they serve. This includes the benefits of both active and passive safety systems, he adds. “If the drivers take their eyes off the cameras, the cameras aren’t doing them any good when they are backing up. With a sensor-based system that has an audible alert, you are significantly reducing the risk of a backing accident. You are combining the active protection from the sensor system with the passive protection, which comes from the cameras.”
Mobile Awareness continues developing new safety products for truck drivers and owners, as well as working on the technology and systems that it already offers. Rothstein says this will go on, as demand for these products is only growing. “Five years ago, people in the trucking industry considered safety a necessary evil. Today, that has changed. The awareness of safety measures has increased dramatically.”
There are plenty of reasons for this, including the fact that industry and trade magazines frequently run feature stories on how safety systems can result in long-term savings for MSW districts, Rothstein says.
But also there is the financial reason: MSW districts, like all government agencies, need to constantly justify the money they spend annually. Safety systems that allow them to lower the number of waste-hauling accidents are increasingly being viewed as money-saving investments, Rothstein says. “There has long been a misnomer that installing safety equipment in vehicles is expensive. But the word is getting out that it doesn’t have to be, if the installations are well thought out and flexible.”
Solid waste district officials look at ROI when choosing safety systems, he adds. And they also want to keep their drivers safe. But another outside force is placing pressure on waste districts to boost their focus on safety equipment: the insurance industry. Rothstein says a growing number of insurers will not provide coverage to fleets that aren’t safe. Those districts that don’t invest enough in safety measures might either struggle to find insurance, or pay higher premiums for it. “The insurance companies can say that you’re not operating a safe fleet,” he adds. “They can say that insuring your fleet is too risky. They might pass on insuring you. Safety equipment is becoming more important every day.”
A Dangerous Job
Tom Loutzenheiser, vice president of business development and marketing with Boise, ID-based Preco Electronics, says that data released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics says that the waste and recycling industry is one of the most dangerous when it comes to fatalities and injuries.
That’s why he isn’t surprised that so many haulers today are putting an increased focus on safety systems. “People are seeing the ROI of these systems. They are seeing that these systems help them avoid so many costly accidents, that it doesn’t take long for them to generate enough savings to cover the costs of installing them.”
Avoiding a single injury or fatality can pay for an entire installation, he says. “The liability from both injuries and fatalities can be very high these days. That is particularly true of fatalities. A single fatality can be devastating. And that doesn’t even take into account the costs that haulers experience from the downtown of the equipment and people that results from an accident or fatality.”
Financial costs are only part of the problems waste haulers experience after a serious accident, Loutzenheiser says. There’s also goodwill to consider. If a waste hauler causes an accident or fatality, how far will the goodwill it receives from the community it serves drop? “If you talk to the customers of this kind of safety equipment, they’ll tell you that it has a high ROI in both tangible and intangible ways. This is a people-intensive industry. The drivers are plying the busy streets and cities of our country. They do that early in the morning, often when it is dark out. It’s a capital-intensive business, too. A lot of capital goes into waste-hauling trucks. So municipalities need to see that their safety equipment is actually helping their drivers. They need to see that it is providing them with a good ROI. And I think they are seeing this.”
The DriveCam video telematics safety program by Lytx has access to nearly 50 billion miles of driving data. When analyzed, that data tells a clear story about how to reduce risk in waste fleets, starting with changing one simple behavior: coaching your drivers to wear seatbelts.
According to data from Lytx—as in analytics—drivers cited for seatbelt violations are 3.4 times more likely to get into a collision than the average driver. For waste drivers who already face daily hazardous driving conditions, this one small change can help keep them safe. The Lytx DriveCam safety program is a comprehensive solution that combines video capture of road incidents such as hard braking or sudden swerving, data analysis of those incidents, and personalized coaching insights to improve driving behavior to help prevent those incidents. The net result is reductions of collision-related costs by up to 80%.