Roy Cooper retired last August after driving a semi, accident-free, for more than 40 years.
“People, including truck drivers, do stupid stuff. It’s getting worse. I didn’t want to die out there on the road,” he said. “It’s not just truck drivers, but the motoring public. They cut you off. I was looking forward to the day when I didn’t have to take evasive action to avoid a crash.”Cooper, of Coloma, was one of the 5 million over-the-road truck drivers navigating the nation’s highways. In 2013, he was recognized by the national Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association for 35 years of safe, accident-free driving of a commercial tractor trailer.According to Michigan State Police, semis account for 12 percent of all deadly crashes in the state. Particularly troublesome for police agencies in Southwest Michigan is I-94, where in the first week of wintery weather in December, 10 of the 12 drivers ticketed in a 32-vehicle crash near Paw Paw were truck drivers.Police said the semi drivers, like many other motorists, were going too fast for road conditions. And in December, police said, the holiday rush of deliveries increases semi-truck traffic on snowy highways.State police in Michigan, Indiana, Illinois and Ohio held a highway enforcement campaign Dec. 4-8, 2017. The Michigan initiative was called “Eyes on 94.”Inspector Patrick Morris, assistant division commander in the Michigan State Police Commercial Vehicle Enforcement Division, said MSP had 54 police units dedicated to the operation state-wide across the I-94 corridor.Troopers stopped more than 700 trucks in five days, ticketed 350 and issued warnings to 373 others. “The I-94 corridor is a major traffic thoroughfare for commercial traffic,” Morris said. “Berrien and Van Buren counties definitely have seasonal issues as it pertains to overall crashes during the winter months.”He said the most common driver-related behaviors causing accidents include following too close, speeding, improper lane use and cell phone use. Pressure on truck drivers to meet time schedules is also a factor.
Driving a big rig
Linda Butera of St. Joseph drove a semi, accident-free, for six years.But luckily, she said, she drove for a company that did not place time-pressures on its drivers.“If it took two days, they gave us three. I did drive for a (good) company. I think a lot of (semi drivers) are pressured,” said Butera.She drove for Superior Carriers out of Markham, Ill., and hauled Shell chemicals.“Any time we had to go west, from October to March, we were not allowed to take I-80 through the snow zones. That was the company’s rule. Even I-40 got very bad, with the ice and snow, and the mountainous areas there,” Butera said.The average semi weighs 80,000 pounds loaded, while the average passenger car weighs 5,000 pounds. “There are a lot of people out there who take dangerous actions when they don’t have to. Maybe they have deadlines. I really don’t know. It’s hard to tell why people do what they do,” Butera said. “I thought this years ago, people who have never been in a semi don’t understand how hard it is to stop quickly.”Butera said other semi drivers sometimes made fun of her for her cautious driving. She said she drove for one company that had a device on the trucks so if a driver exceeded 65 mph, the engine would cut out.“A lot of the people I talked to on the road said there’s ways of disconnecting it to get your speed back. I’d be passed a lot on the road. But most of the people who passed me (in winter weather) ended up in ditches and I drove past them and kept driving,” Butera said.She said not all states require vehicles to move over a lane for emergency vehicles alongside the road.“I always did it, whether or not it was the law. But sometimes you can’t. You put your turn signal on to move over and people don’t want to get stuck behind a semi so they speed up, and you’re stuck. You can’t move over,” she said.
No excuses
Walt Heinritzi, executive director of the Michigan Trucking Association, said truckers are required to deliver their loads on time and in a safe manner. He said time schedules are not an excuse for driving too fast in weather conditions that are not conducive to speed.“Unfortunately, when you’ve got an industry that’s as fast as trucking, things sometimes happen that we wish wouldn’t,” Heinritzi said in a phone interview. “I think a lot of these accidents on I-94 are weather-related. You have to use common sense and exercise prudence, whether you’re driving a car or a truck. You have to slow down.”Heinritzi said the trucking industry is facing a shortage of drivers.“There’s an increased demand in trucking services, and we have an aging driver population. The whole country is aging, and truckers are part of that. More people are retiring, and it’s difficult to attract people who are qualified,” he said.Cooper said the qualifications are not strict enough.“With the large carriers, as long as you can get your CDL (commercial driver’s license) and get behind the wheel, you’ve got a job,” he said.He said everyone, not just truckers, is “trying to beat the clock.”He said most trucking companies now are using ELDs, or electronic logging devices. Instead of the trucker manually filling out a log book, the device records the trucks movements.“If you have a driver held up in traffic in Chicago, and he needs to take his (mandatory) break and he’s got like five or 10 minutes left, he’s going to push it to get to a truck stop,” Cooper said.But, he said, it’s not just the truckers.
It’s ‘All about me’
“Everyone is in a hurry,” Cooper said. “I ended up putting a dash cam in my truck because people don’t want to take responsibility for their own actions. Truck drivers now-days, yes that’s part of the problem. But there’s no common courtesy out there on the highways. It’s ‘all about me.’ People are thinking about where they have to be, and sometimes it’s a car driver that does something stupid.” Bridgman Police Chief Daniel Unruh said his officers, who generally work within the city, tend to stay off the freeway during inclement weather unless they are responding to help another agency with a crash. “We lost one of our patrol cars a couple years ago due to a careless driver not paying attention to the weather and road conditions,” Unruh said. “The squad car was struck while we were assisting Baroda-Lake Township Police and luckily our officer was not in the car. The car was pushed into another vehicle that the Baroda-Lake Township officer was standing near, and he suffered back injuries from this crash.”Several police officers or their squad cars have been involved in accidents over the years while investigating crashes on the interstate.Unruh said while he was working for the Berrien County Sheriff’s Department in the 1990s, his squad car was hit by an out-of-control semi in Watervliet Township while he was working at a crash scene. Luckily, he suffered just minor injuries, but the squad car was heavily damaged.Last month, Coloma Township Police Lt. Wes Smigielski was sitting in his patrol car at an accident scene on I-94 when a semi slid and slammed into him. He, too, considered himself lucky to have sustained relatively minor injuries.Unruh said it’s not just semi drivers that are to blame.
“I think in our area of I-94 we’ve had just as many passenger vehicle accidents or slide-offs as semi-trucks. Drivers don’t slow down or use more caution until it’s too late,” he said.Unruh said many drivers mistakenly believe that if they are driving the posted speed limit they are not breaking the law if they lose control and crash. That is not true.“Motorists must operate a vehicle at a safe speed that they can maintain control of the vehicle during all types of weather and road conditions. If not, they can be cited for driving too fast for conditions if they are involved in an accident,” Unruh said.He said all motorists including semi-truck drivers, need to understand that it takes more time and a greater distance for a semi to suddenly slow down or stop, especially on wet, snow-covered or icy roads.Cooper said that in some states, there are flashing overhead signs along the freeway with tips for motorists such as “Do not tailgate,” and “It takes longer for a truck to stop.” He said perhaps the state government should consider something like that in Michigan.“Instead of putting so much emphasis on enforcement, maybe putting more into educating the motoring public might help,” he said.

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