Office: It’s a word that means different things to different people in a bakery operation. For some, it might be the plant floor; for others, the lab or an office of the literal sort. But for drivers, whether for a large fleet or local deliveries, the “office” is a truck, and there’s often little escape.  

On any given day, and at any given time, drivers face a number of different challenges, and many times, those issues are simply the environment in which they’re working, according to Robert McGuire, vice-president, transportation, Alpha Baking Co., Chicago. “Our drivers are on the street at all hours, day and night, and contend with bad weather, road hazards, unsafe or distracted drivers, and traffic congestion,” he said. 

Being on the road is one side effect to the Federal Motor Carriers Safety Administration (FMCSA)’s Hours of Service Rules, and one reason why the American Bakers Association (ABA) has been working on removing some of the provisions, specifically, the 34 Hour Restart, which restricts driving from 1 to 5 a.m., according to ABA. “The FMCSA’s provision causes trucks to be on the road during the more highly congested commuter hours,” said Mike Goscinski, manager, government relations and public affairs, ABA.

On the road

On a day-to-day basis — or even by the hour or minute — fleet drivers face a host of issues that pose safety risks, be it weather, fatigue, other drivers or distractions from inside or outside the vehicle. Face it, threats to drivers’ safety are all in a day’s work, and how they handle it is out for the world to comment on, thanks to the classic “How’s my driving?” bumper stickers.

For drivers, it’s all about getting from point A to point Z while keeping the products — and people — intact, so maneuverability plays an important role in vehicle design.

“For our trucks, maneuverability and visibility are the biggest safety concerns,” said Brian Tabel, executive director of marketing, Isuzu Commercial Truck of America, Anaheim, CA. “As drivers are going through alleys and in tight situations, they’re dealing with people, poles, other cars and many other things, so they need to have more visibility and ease of driving to get through certain situations.” Isuzu also designs its trucks, such as the N-Series, to sit higher, “so that drivers are sitting on top of the areas they’re driving through,” he added.

Maneuverability was also top of mind for Ram when the company designed its Promaster and Promaster City line of vehicles, which both come equipped with a front-wheel drive system. “With front-wheel drive, you have a turning radius that’s close to an SUV but in a full-size van,” said Nick Cappa, media relations for Ram Trucks, Auburn Hills, MI. “If you’re driving in and out of small spaces, you need the vehicle to be nimble.”

And visibility truly does go hand-in-hand with maneuverability out on the road, especially when navigating through tricky areas such as neighborhoods, parking lots or loading docks. Fleet managers need to consider field of vision, mirrors and the size of a vehicle’s windshield, Mr. Cappa suggested.

Some safety features such as Ram’s Electronic Stability Control (ESC) system, which comes standard on its Promaster series, are put in place to protect drivers from outside influences. “The system is making a thousand decisions per second, depending on a driver’s input on the steering wheel, brake pedal, throttle, vehicle speed and how much lean the vehicle is experiencing,” Mr. Cappa said. “It’s measuring those inputs constantly to come up with a solution for what the driver is trying to do and ensuring the vehicle is headed in the intended direction.” If a delivery truck is carrying a heavy load, Ram’s ESC system can compensate and assist in maintaining control over the vehicle and the extra weight.

Safety isn’t just a concern when drivers are behind the wheel, though. Risk is all around even when they get out of the truck. To address these external risks, Ram’s Promaster vans come with side-door access on either side of the vehicle, so drivers have options for entering the vehicle regardless of which side of the street they need to park.

In areas where weather is a factor, small details such as Isuzu’s covered grate entrance can make a big difference in minimizing risk of injury. “We have some customers who didn’t think it was a big deal but have since told us that they had drivers sustain injuries from slipping on vehicles’ steps that weren’t covered in the winter,” Mr. Tabel said.

Tech-savvy transport

One of the most immediate ways bakeries and fleet managers keep drivers safe is through technology. “Technology is changing, and the North American market is one of the most technologically advanced in the world,” Mr. Tabel said. And that’s evident in the auto industry, not only for consumers’ cars but for commercial vehicles as well, from GPS to backup cameras and alarms to vehicle health reports and more.

“We test everything for potential application and payback,” Mr. McGuire said. “Devices designed to solely prevent accidents and injuries are extremely difficult to argue about the payback.”

Ram trucks offer steering-wheel controls, including telephone, radio and, in some cases, trip settings for GPS navigation. “You have all those capabilities on the steering wheel so drivers can keep their hands on the wheel,” Mr. Cappa explained.

As with any large vehicle, backup sensors and cameras are among some of the most critical safety features developed in recent years, and they’re especially important in commercial vehicles when the rear view could be hindered by the load size or even the size of the truck itself. “When hauling a full load, drivers often don’t have vision to the rear, and these systems provide visual and audible information about what’s going on around the vehicle,” Mr. Cappa said.

Wireless capabilities are also becoming increasingly important to commercial vehicle operators. With Ram’s UConnect system, a driver can wirelessly answer a call through the speakers inside the vehicle. “It’s becoming the norm to have a phone operate through a vehicle, and all of our vehicles are available with the technology,” Mr. Cappa said.

The UConnect system also works for navigation, which will automatically reroute away from traffic or construction. According to Mr. Cappa, “It’s all about utilizing the wireless, real-time UConnect system and all the technologies that are enveloped under its umbrella to help drivers get to where they need to go  as quickly — and safely — as possible.”

Cruising in comfort

When drivers spend this much time behind the wheel, it’s important they remain as comfortable as possible, which also can help prevent injuries.

“Driver comfort is paramount if they’re going to enjoy driving a vehicle all day,” Mr. Tabel said. “We have the ability to add things like a suspension seat to help with overall ride comfort.” Isuzu also offers adjustable seats that can accommodate shorter drivers and tall drivers.

 Comfort goes beyond the cab, too. Truck or van design should take into account all the ways the driver is using it to deliver product all day long. Low step-in height is an important factor, according to Mr. Cappa. “Think of it in terms of a stair master machine, and doing that hundreds of times a day,” he advised. Inside the back of the van, Ram vehicles have a high roof so that drivers are not bumping their heads or hunched over for long periods. “It’s about ease of access and ease of movement to prevent long-term injuries for someone who’s using the vehicle every day with the exact same movement.

“Never underestimate the importance of comfort and keeping drivers healthy,” Mr. Cappa continued. “From their first day on the job, operators are in and out of the vehicle day in and day out. They need to feel comfortable and at ease. It doesn’t have to drive like a passenger car, but it can’t be difficult, and Ram vans take it easy on operators.”

Driver safety is a critical factor in fleet management and one that must not be overlooked; it could come at a price much higher than the vehicle sticker. While most accidents have the obvious considerations, Mr. McGuire cautioned of implications that may go unrecognized. “A driver, through no fault of his own, broadsided a passenger car that had run a red light,” he said. “The driver was completely legal, but due to the nature of the accident, the driver wasn’t able to drive a truck again because he mentally couldn’t deal with what had happened.”

Residual effects of accidents and driver injury can cost companies and individuals money, well-being and, in some cases, their business or livelihood. The risk is too great to take lightly the human aspect of fleet management, and driver safety is an investment worth consideration.