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EDITORIAL COMMENTS: A trooper's teaching moment

September 7, 2009
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What I did on my summer vacation: While on a road trip scouting out colleges with my son, I got nabbed barreling down a deserted highway on a sunny Saturday afternoon at a speed so high the trooper walked up to the car with disbelief on his face.

“What in the world were you doing driving that fast?” he asked. My son was asleep in the front passenger’s seat. He awoke to three state patrol cars idling behind us.

The trooper walked back to his car to check out my license. My son, confused and groggy, asked: “Why were you going that fast?”

Reckless modeling

Merriam-Webster’s dictionary defines “role model” as a person whose behavior in a particular role is imitated by others.

I’ve written plenty over the years about ignorant safety role models. The CEO who exits safety meetings immediately after giving the intro. The plant manager striding past clanking, clattering stamp presses without hard hat, safety specs or hearing protection. The supervisor who looks the other way when maintenance short-cuts a lockout-tagout procedure, or laborers on a roof have no fall protection. A coworker, supposedly his ‘brothers’ keeper,’ fails to speak up when the fellow next to him obviously is daydreaming.

Now I have first-hand experience being a reckless role model. My son has been behind the wheel for about a year now, still impressionable. My defensive driving trainer (more on that later) said you’ve got to get good driving habits ingrained by the time someone is 20 to 25; after that their approach to driving is cemented.

“Won’t happen to me”

I had plenty of time to think the rest of the trip home. The trooper had my son take the wheel after I told him it was our ninth day on the road and I was tired out and itching to get home. My son patiently, determinedly, locked into the speed limit like a model safe driver. I sat slouched, like the guilty teenager who just had his butt kicked, staring out the window.

What an idiot. Relatives in the area even told me to watch out for speed traps, they’re common in these parts. My attitude? It won’t happen to me. How many times have I written of workers, believing “It won’t happen to me,” who end up either slightly bruised, mangled in an ambulance, or dead on arrival? What if I’d blown a tire out or run over a rodent doing my imitation of roaring down Germany’s autobahn? Our rental car would’ve rolled over and over and cart wheeled off the road like a horrendous NASCAR crash.

So what if driving conditions, the weather, had been rather ideal when the blue lights suddenly flashed in my rear view mirror. So what if I was tired and grumpy and wanted to eat up miles to get home. So many times I’ve written about the assortment of clever or plain stupid excuses, defenses and denials offered up after someone is hurt on the job, or does something to harm someone else.

Driving is like working

One of the steps in my process of restitution called for attending a certified, eight-hour defensive driving class. Turned out I was the sole student the day of my class, giving me hours of one-on-one counseling, you might call it, from a former police officer. I’ll call him “Gus.” His passion and commitment to his subject, directed to an audience of one, covering material he has present thousands of times since he started his school in 1982, reminded me of many a worksite safety and health professional.

Gus took me to school all right. And most of what he said easily applies to the workplace as well as the road.
  • “Don’t take anything for granted.”
  • “You constantly have to think it can happen. The longer you drive (or work at a job), the more you take it for granted.”
  • “There are no excuses. You’ve got to be accountable for your mistakes.”
  • “Most people drive brain dead. (How many people at work are on autopilot?) Use your senses. Hazard recognition is a matter of seeing, seeing ahead; hearing what’s going on around you; being alert to sudden changes in smells (such as inside a confined space); and touch, be aware of changes in the road surface (or the working/walking surface).”
  • “Keep a clear head. Multi-task before or after you finish driving (or your work). Eliminate mental distractions.”
  • “Call me paranoid, a lot of people do,” said Gus, “but you must think a crash, a driving mistake, can happen. Play the ‘what if’ scenario. Think ahead. It’s like playing chess. Think ahead. Anticipate moves.”
  • “Think that other drivers are out to get you. If that’s being paranoid, well, I’ve been driving for 45 years, never had a ticket or a crash. I drive one thousand, a thousand five hundred miles every week to clients,” said Gus. “There are idiots out there driving in a way that can get you killed.”
  • “Speeding is the number one factor in fatal collisions. Speed does kill. More speed kills more.” (Rushing is the workplace equivalent.)
  • “The general perception is speed limits are suggestions. People think they themselves are the best judge of how fast they should be able to drive.” (How many employees look at safety policies as ‘suggestions,’ believing they’re the best judges of their own safety?)
  • “There’s a reason the speed limit is set at whatever it is. It’s based on the design of the highway, road construction and surface, terrain, traffic volume, daytime and nighttime conditions. Side access roads. Entrance/exit ramps. Towns coming up with stop lights. An engineer didn’t pull a number out of the air. They studied all these factors.” (Gus could have been explaining the rationale of any number of workplace safety rules.)
  • “Don’t drive to make good time. Drive to make time good. Enjoy the ride. Driving in the right lane at the speed limit takes a lot of the stress out of driving.”
  • “Let the flow of traffic fly past you. Don’t go with the flow. What if the flow suddenly stops?” (At work, that’d be akin to resisting peer pressure.)
  • “Drive alone. In your own zone. Drive for yourself.

    “You’ve got to look at what is going to get you where you want to go safer, not faster. You gain a couple of minutes weaving through traffic, stressing out, for what?”
  • “It’s your choice how fast you go. Make choices you can live with.” (That last sentence could be posted on any worksite safety bulletin board.)
  • “We are a very tired society. We commute further. Take less time off. Less vacations than any other industrial nation. We always think we can go that extra 20 miles. Always push through our fatigue limits. What are we, in a competition? So we tense up and speed up.” (The same can apply to our approach to working.) Isn’t it great being the most powerful industrial nation in the world?” Gus grins.
  • “Hands-free cell phones are no solution. It doesn’t matter if you have both hands on the wheel. You have to concentrate harder when you’re talking to someone you can’t see. And then there’s that static that makes you focus on what’s being said even more. You’re not seeing the road. Your mind is on the conversation.”


Careless love

Where was my mind at when the trooper pulled me over? I was taking for granted my tire pressure and condition. A clean and smooth road surface. That no deer or possum would cross my path. I put myself at risk, even worse, my son. Careless love. It’s so simple to slip into selfish, deluded and indulgent attitudes and behaviors.

That’s what I learned on my summer vacation.

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