Safety, Why Aviation and Rail do it better?

logistics import export of Container Truck on highway and Freight Train with Cargo Plane at city background, Sunset time,
Global business logistics import export of Container Truck on highway and Freight Train with Cargo Plane at city background, Sunset time, Transportation industry concept, Depth blur effect

During my safety journey in trucking, after examining other modes of transport, I started asking “why do other modes, like aviation and rail do it better? Why is it that those industries have far less fatalities? 

In 2019, the stats show that rail & airline modes are 4-5 times less likely to be involved in a fatal incident in Canada. In general, rail and aviation stats have remained somewhat static, whereas road travel fatalities have been on the rise since about 2008. There have been many theories advanced as to why this is happening. Some of the main theories surround lack of training, electronic devices and specifically in the trucking world ELD are often cited as causes for this observed increase in fatality rates on Canadian roads.  Canadian Rail & Aviation fatalities have been low historically. The big question is what, if anything, are those industries doing differently?

Fatality Rate per 100,000 hours (2019) Truck Rail Aviation
2.14 0.43 0.5

So, what do the aviation and rail modes do differently compared to trucking? For starters, legislated safety management systems which call for internal audit & process improvement to be implemented at each organization.  You may say yes, these rail operators and airlines generate a ton of cash and therefore have the resources to implement these fancy safety management systems. Truth be told, the railways have existed for hundreds of years, so they may have some insight to offer when it comes to loss experience. The second element is training, all modes use simulator training. Aviation was the first mode to universally adopt the training method, followed by rail. Trucking seems to be less enthusiastic about investing in simulators. Large carriers & schools have begun investing in the promising technology as of late which is a positive sign. 

Safety culture has a large part to do with the way we apply safety industry wide. Think to each ‘war story’ you’ve heard in the industry, many of them surround bending/breaking some sort of rule. When it comes to Hollywood influences, the character immortalized by Kris Kristofferson Martin “Rubber Duck” Penwald, & Burt Reynolds’ “The Bandit” come to mind. Trucking has always been a bit rebellious in nature, like it or not, we’ve embodied the culture portrayed by these characters. What do we get from rail? Well, they’re always on time, or at least they used to be. Rebellious aviators who break the mould that deviate from procedure are often kept down; Sully Sullenberger comes to mind. Lets remember that the airline did learn from the pilot’s seat of pants assessment and adopt some best practices as a result of this incident. 

When it comes to training, hands down, aviation does it best. Instructors are engaged, experienced and knowledgeable. Aviation instructors must meet stringent experience and educational qualifications even at the recreational level and they also have personal development quotas to meet. While trucking, depending on the province has the 3-5year experience rule under MELT, there isn’t much else mentioned at least in Ontario when it comes to educational & professional development requirements. When it comes to influencing attitudes behind the wheel, we need engaged people who can influence new industry entrants to adopt safe attitudes and in turn apply safe techniques behind the wheel. 

When we look at trucking, not much has changed safety wise. We’ve started to widely adopt disc brakes, speed limiters, ELD’s & dash cameras are starting to become business as usual, a few carriers have looked at adaptive cruise, blind spot monitoring, automatic emergency braking & advanced collision warning systems. All told, we haven’t invested much in the driver or organizational safety, this is where rail & aviation may supply some insight. The previous comments were not intended to downplay the advancements we’ve made so far, but there is so much more we can be doing. If we look at pilots and locomotive engineers, they have a certain quota of personal development and refresher training to complete each year. We don’t see this in the trucking industry. Personally, I would like to see drivers complete more than a written test or screen a 10-minute video each year, or, worse yet only after having an incident. Refresher training completed at regular intervals should become an industry standard.

Time after time, we see the same driving behaviours behind the wheel, causing similar collisions. In some cases, our telematics data shows the same driver speeding, tailgating & using a handheld device while behind the wheel. The red light is flashing, this driver needs to be re-trained or sent packing. Oftentimes, this doesn’t happen. The needs of the customer are put before driver and public safety. In the worst cases, carriers knew that they had a trouble case on their hands and sat idly without intervention. This does not typically happen in the rail and aviation worlds. 

Again, I ask why? Why do we rely on the basic legal minimums to guide our safety programs? Once again, there are many forward-thinking carriers who have implemented fatigue management programs, safety management systems which promote continuous improvement, offer better than industry standard training and onboarding & do not assume that drivers know what they need to know simply based on years of experience. For example, let’s look at the hours of service, although we are legally allowed to drive 13 straight hours, is it a good idea to allow this practice to take place? Team operations switching immediately from the sleeper to driving without allowing the driver to fully wake up happens often as well. Sleep inertia is a known and documented phenomena experienced by people. Do we determine root cause and corrective action after each major accident? Do we have criteria set up which determines what a “major accident” is? Do we look internally at business practices whether advertent or inadvertent such as playing favourites, first come first serve dispatching, implementing policies which are difficult to follow/understand and/or inconsistently applying policy? This list is not intended to be exhaustive but should be looked at as a part of your overall process improvement system. Each incident should teach the organization a lesson. 

Trucking is an industry that has provided for my family for years. I’ve grown from driver to safety professional over the years. It is an industry I love, an industry I would like to see prosper and serve the public for years to come! I’m not calling the trucking industry out for operating sweatshops on wheels, that’s already been done. What I am doing is offering some insight into what other modes of transport have successfully adopted and used to improve their public image and safety record in a meaningful way. The time for change is now.

Jamie Beaudoin is a trucking health and safety specialist. He has been involved in the industry for 12 years in various capacities. He started as a driver and worked his way through the ranks. Currently works as a freelance consultant assisting companies in improving safety culture and regulatory compliance. He is currently pursuing his BCRSP designation. James Beaudoin Trucking Health and Safety Specialist