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The 5 Keys to Truck Driving Safety




Truck driving safety is something every truck driver thinks about, but how do you put what you’ve learned about it into practice? As professionals, we have the responsibility to not only learn truck driving safety but also utilize any resource we can to reduce the chance of accidents, protecting ourselves and the motoring public.

Harold L. Smith, a World War II veteran who had served in the U.S. Navy, reached this conclusion decades ago and founded the Smith System® driving school in 1952. His chief complaint was that parochial driving schools taught drivers only how to mechanically operate vehicles in general, not how to drive safely by avoiding accidents using a space cushion.

Today at PAM, we follow Smith’s trademarked 5 Keys — relevant to truck driving safety as well as general road safety — to stay safe out there.

The 5 Keys to the Smith System

Using the mnemonic “All good kids like milk” is a good way to remember the “A,” “G,” “K,” “L” and “M” of Smith’s 5 Keys:

  1. Aim High in Steering®
  2. Get the Big Picture®
  3. Keep Your Eyes Moving®
  4. Leave Yourself an Out®
  5. Make Sure They See You®

1. Aim High in Steering

Maintain eye lead time: Look ahead a minimum of 15 seconds. At 25 mph, that may be a city block; at 60 mph, it’s a quarter of a mile. Scanning the road this far ahead gives you more information with which to make decisions. When dealing with hills and curves, be sure to adjust your speed accordingly, as you never know what’s on the other side.

2. Get the Big Picture

Keep a 7-second minimum following distance: Select a fixed object ahead and count “1,001, 1,002, 1,003,” etc., until you reach that landmark. That is your following distance. Scan mirrors every 5–8 seconds — at highway speeds, the landscape of traffic and terrain changes quickly. Don’t be caught off guard; scan those mirrors.

3. Keep Your Eyes Moving

Avoid focusing on any one object for more than 2 seconds: Can’t remember the last exit—or the last few miles, for that matter? You’ve been on autopilot! Distracted driving — daydreaming or thinking about things other than the job at hand — can be a recipe for disaster. Keep your eyes moving!

4. Leave Yourself an Out

Think “space cushion”: Anticipate potential hazards and be sure to set yourself up with a way out. Don’t wait until the last minute to try to maneuver into a better position, or you may get stuck in a bad spot.

5. Make Sure They See You

Direct eye contact with other drivers, using your headlights or flashers, and of course a short blast of your city or air horn will help you communicate with other traffic and make sure they see you!

Stressing the Point

Driving a truck is stressful. Stress increases fatigue, prevents high-quality sleep, and can adversely affect your decision-making skills. It increases your blood pressure, which carries the risk of hypertension, stroke, and a handful of other scary and deadly ailments. Studies have shown that just climbing into the driver’s seat can raise your blood pressure by several points. Being stressed out behind the wheel can and does lead to aggressive driving.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. Using the Smith System to practice truck driving safety and create space around your truck can actually reduce your stress levels! Jim Smith, senior vice president of training for the Smith System, puts it this way: “The stress relief we talk about is one of the results of gathering information early. With space and time on your side, you have more time to see, think and do.

“Life behind the wheel for a Smith System driver is no longer a series of last-second decisions, like it is for the people around us who are fighting their way to their next destination . . . With their advanced viewing skills, Smith System drivers see problems well ahead. With that information at a distance, there is space to think in, and plenty of time to react.”

Dollar Signs

Let’s switch this around for just a minute and think about your equipment. By driving aggressively, you are actually increasing wear and tear on your drivetrain and braking system and significantly reducing your MPG. For you, this means more downtime; higher fuel, repair, and maintenance costs; fewer miles; and, ultimately, less money in your wallet. Keeping in mind rules about truck driving safety such as the 5 Keys will help you keep more of your hard-earned dollars.

Back the Truck Up!

If you aren’t using the Smith System when backing up, you should be. First thing to remember: Don’t back up if you don’t have to! Whenever possible, use pull-through parking. But if you do have to back up, be sure to use GOAL: Get out and look — often. You can’t get the big picture without doing a complete walk-around. Keep items like collapsible fabric cones, hats, flashlights, etc., in your truck that you can use as markers when executing difficult backing procedures, especially at night. Watch out for Dumpsters or yellow bollard poles, as they seem to be common out-of-nowhere culprits.

Truck Driving Safety for All

Clark Gray, PAM Transport’s vice president of driver resources and compliance, has this to say about the Smith System’s value for promoting truck driving safety: “My goal has always been to find a way to jump-start their training by giving new drivers the same tools and techniques used by veteran drivers. When I was researching ways to accomplish this back in the 1990s, I was so impressed with what I saw when I came across the Smith System and felt it would deliver exactly what it promised.

“The program is genius in its simplicity. Harold Smith distilled the human behaviors that led to accidents and established simple methods drivers can use to avoid accidents. For drivers to see, think, and react is key to keeping them safe on the road. The Smith System had already been proven successful around the world for over 40 years, and after taking the training, I understood why.”

Next time you head out, don’t forget your keys—the Smith System’s 5 Keys to driving safely.

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