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Study: Cars the main cause of semi-related accidents

With more traffic on Oil Patch roads, driving can, at times, be dangerous -- especially when drivers are not familiar with others' driving styles. Add ice, snow and low visibility to the mix, and a joy ride can quickly change into a nightmare. Oi...

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Press Photo More people are driving on roads in the Oil Patch, and many have different driving styles. It is important to adapt to changing conditions.

With more traffic on Oil Patch roads, driving can, at times, be dangerous - especially when drivers are not familiar with others’ driving styles.
Add ice, snow and low visibility to the mix, and a joy ride can quickly change into a nightmare.
Oil production has increased the demand for semi trucks to deliver cargo for various jobs. As seeing more semis becomes the norm for western North Dakota’s highways and interstate, the possibility for more accidents rises as well.
But truck instructors, like Merle Bobbit at Northern Industrial Training in Dickinson, say the truckers aren’t always to blame. The lack of knowledge passenger vehicle drivers have and their inexperience to handle the changing conditions of North Dakota plays a major role, he said.
“They don’t know how to drive around a truck,” said Bobbit, the CDL programs manager for the NIT North Dakota branch. “They either haven’t been trained or they don’t understand how a truck reacts.”
Semis handle differently


Semi drivers do contribute to some traffic accidents, but research shows it is often the driver of the passenger vehicle, especially young drivers ages 17-24, that unnecessarily endanger themselves by failing to recognize trucks and cars handle differently on the road.
Almost 70 percent of traffic crashes involving large trucks and passenger cars are the fault of the car driver, according to the Commercial Vehicle Safety Alliance, an international non-profit organization that promotes commercial vehicle safety across North America.
NIT offers classes for semi and passenger vehicle drivers. One of those classes is winter driving for small vehicles, which is taught by Diego Sanchez, the North Dakota safety programs manager at NIT.
People that come into his class sometimes think they can drive like they would back where they came from, Sanchez said. But driving styles in Florida, for example, are very different than in North Dakota, and drivers must learn to adapt to their surroundings, Sanchez said.
“The oil industry draws people from everywhere,” he said. “Particularly in my classroom, I have people that have never driven in snow. They have never driven in cold weather.
“That’s dangerous. That’s scary.”
The legal weight for semis without oversize or overweight permits is 80,000 pounds, according to the North Dakota Department of Transportation. In comparison, the average passenger vehicle weighs in at about 5,000 pounds.
“(Semi drivers) are just as human as you are,” Sanchez said, “but they are driving a bigger, heavier piece of equipment.”
More weight and body means more space is needed to maneuver on the road. Most importantly, it means more time is needed to stop.
Depending on the weight and speed, a semi needs about 40 percent more time than a car to stop. Add in other factors - such as more weight, slick roads and reaction time - and the length needed to stop can increase dramatically.
Semi drivers also sit higher up than most vehicles and have more blind spots, particularly along the sides of the semi and behind. Truck drivers are constantly trying to manage their space, Bobbit said.
“Always assume somebody is going to do something they shouldn’t,” Bobbit said.
If drivers don’t know how a semi reacts, they may do things that can put others in danger. Cutting off trucks, following too closely, staying in blind spots and having the wrong attitude can cause unnecessary accidents, Bobbit and Sanchez said.
Weather changes fast


North Dakota is home temperamental weather. The state is the world leader in temperature variation in a single year, recording a low of minus-60 degrees in February 1936 and a high of 121 degrees in July 1936, a swing of 181 degrees.
Dickinson has proven just how quickly the weather can change. Mid-January brought subzero weather with wind chills pushing temperatures to the negative 40s. In the last week of the same month, a heat wave brought relief, and even helped Dickinson break two daily records. The thermometer hit 51 degrees on Jan. 26, breaking a record set more than 80 years ago. The next day, Dickinson saw the second record broken at 61 degrees.
February has also brought contradictory weather. Heavy fog rolled into western North Dakota on Feb. 8, prompting dense fog advisories. Freezing rain has also made roads slick.
“Any time there is a warm up in temperatures, where there is any moisture that is beginning to thaw that comes back into the water form, and then we see a rapid drop in temperature, my biggest tip is always assume the roads are icy,” said Bill Fahlsing, director of emergency services for Stark County. “You can’t necessarily see the ice.”
It’s important for drivers to be aware of changing conditions, Fahlsing said.
“The National Weather Service website is the best resource available,” he said. “They are going to be able to give a forecast for a specific area.”
Drivers can also view the North Dakota Transportation Department’s Travel Information Map by going to dot.nd.gov or by calling 511 to check for road conditions. While it is an excellent tool, it’s not set in stone.
“Just because it is showing that the roads are good doesn’t mean that can’t change quickly,” said Holly Bloodsaw, deputy director of emergency services for Stark County. “The biggest thing is to use common sense. If the roads don’t look good to drive on, just take that precaution.”
Fahlsing said travelers should check the road conditions and weather not only in the surrounding area but also around their destination. He added if drivers are going alone, they should tell someone.
“Follow up with that person, so that if that individual doesn’t hear from you in an appropriate amount of time, they can try to contact emergency service,” he said.
Travelers should also have an emergency kit in their vehicle, especially during the winter months. There may be times when a driver has to stop or becomes stuck in a storm. Having a fully charged phone, survival items and a full tank of gas can save a life if a driver has to sit tight for a few hours before help arrives.
Learning how to be a good driver comes with experience.
But the best way to avoid an accident is to use common sense, be aware of surroundings and be a defensive driver, Bobbit and Sanchez said. Drivers, both in semis and smaller vehicles, should try to anticipate what others will do.
“You can sit people in a classroom,” he said. “I personally believe it comes with time and experience.”
But if there is any doubt, the best thing to do, Sanchez and Bobbit said, is to ease off the gas pedal and give others the space they need - especially semi drivers.
“If you don’t feel comfortable driving in these conditions, slow down,” Sanchez said.

Be prepared
Accidents happen. In North Dakota, the weather changes rapidly. While drivers can’t always anticipate the weather, they can be prepared. Here are some tips to prepare your car for winter driving.
- Make sure antifreeze levels are sufficient.
- Batteries should be in top condition and clean.
- Check brakes for wear and fluid levels.
- Exhaust systems should be free of leaks and crimps to avoid carbon monoxide back up.
- For long trips, have a full tank in case you need to stop along the road.
- Ensure the heater and defroster are working properly.
- Lights and flash signals should be working properly.
- Tires should be properly filled with air and have proper threading. Tire chains may be needed in certain conditions.
- Make sure all aspects of the car are in working condition.
- Carry a winter survival kit that is supplied adequately. A suggested list of items to have on hand can be found at http://www.starkcountynd.gov/des .
Source: North Dakota Department of Emergency Services
Baumgarten is the news editor of The Dickinson Press. Contact her at 701-456-1210. Forum News Service reporter Jonathan Knutson contributed to this report.

Related Topics: WEATHER
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