TIM SAKRY Safety Manager, Bauerly Cos.

The accident that started it all happened on the evening of Oct. 2, 1997, in the northwest Minneapolis suburb of Brooklyn Park. A semi-end dump truck operator thought she could haul more loads of dirt per hour by running red lights at a quiet county road intersection. Each time she took the risk, her probability for a crash compounded.

At about 11:00 that night, her luck ran out. Plowing through the intersection at full speed, the dump truck slammed into the side of a Geo Metro subcompact, pushing the car down the road sideways 160 ft and killing its driver, a 21-year-old woman who was five months pregnant.

Investigators discovered that the dump truck operator was not only holding an invalid commercial driver's license, but the truck also had insufficient tire tread, faulty brakes and was overloaded by 6,500 lb. If the truck and documents had been inspected earlier that day or the night before, the vehicle would have been put out of service until the operator was replaced and repairs were made.

A year later, the operator, whose commercial license had been revoked for drunk driving, was convicted on two counts of criminal vehicular homicide and sentenced to two years in prison. Because of the carelessness of the operator and her employer, the Minnesota Dept. of Transportation launched an official investigation into construction truck crashes and suggested ways to improve safety.

James Denn, transportation commissioner at the time, demanded that local contractors find a consistent method to educate their operators and trucking subcontractors on how to drive vehicles safely in and around MnDOT jobsites. If not, he said the department would impose its own certification guidelines, increase random roadside vehicle inspections and tighten over-the-road regulations on such vehicles as semi-end dump trucks, belly dumps and concrete-transit mixers.

"It was an ultimatum," says Rick Johnson, truck safety manager of Tiller Corp., a Maple Grove, Minn.-based concrete and asphalt contractor employing 50 full-time truck drivers. Tim Sakry of Bauerly Cos., a safety manager with 400 drivers in Sauk Rapids, says contractors wanted to devise their own "police effort" with MnDOT rather than having one imposed on them.

GOOD COP State police Capt. Urquhart helped organize CTOT advisory and board amd steering committee.

The stakes were high. The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration in 1999 estimated that truck crashes cost liable parties an average of $3.5 million for fatal accidents similar to the crash in Brooklyn Park and $217,005 for injury accidents. Nationwide, that totaled $32 billion annually. And Minnesota knew it had a construction problem. In 1997, safety out-of-service rates for trucks on Minnesota Dept. of Transportation projects ranked twice as high as the national average, according to Capt. Ken Urquhart, District 4700 commander of Minnesota State Patrol's Commercial Vehicle Section.

In 1998, Tiller, Bauerly and several local construction firms, along with Minnesota state agencies and trade associations, responded to the challenge by starting a one-year pilot training program tailored specifically for construction-truck safety and operations. That pub lic-private collaboration today has developed into a multi-course curriculum administered and instructed by St. Cloud State University, MnDOT, Minnesota State Patrol and safety managers from local specialty contracting firms.

Originally starting with less than 200 participants, the state's Construction Truck Operator Training (CTOT) program now trains more than 1,200 each year and is starting to attract unexpectedly broader interest in the upper Midwest.

It is no secret that vocational trucks are responsible for a large proportion of injuries on projects (ENR 6/12/00 p. 36). According to a landmark 2001 National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health report, Building Safer Highway Work Zones, there were 841 road construction fatalities between 1992-1998. Of 492 occurring inside work zones, the leading cause of death for construction workers on foot was trucks (61%), followed by construction equipment (30%). In the 110 fatalities where equipment operators were victims, NIOSH found that the primary causes were heavy equipment (53%) and trucks (26%).

FINAL EXAM Hands-on training puts drivers in real-life scenarios.

The agency now is researching visibility around materials and equipment on jobsites in order to evaluate "the effectiveness of prevention measures in work zones," says David Fosbroke, NIOSH statistician in Morgantown, W. Va. These include such things as proximity alarms and sensors. Fosbroke hopes to use the data to develop training materials, but results are at least three years away.

CTOT is ahead of the game. Many safety professionals agree that construction trucks are a big safety issue but complain that this risk-management niche does not offer "a heck of a lot" in terms of comprehensive, hands-on training for truck drivers, says Rick Longstaff, president of Burlington, Wis.-based Vista Training, a supplier of equipment training videos and books.

And the prevalence of small independent trucking firms in the industry makes the training and safety job harder. This is especially so in the Midwest, says Wayne Murphy, director of highway/heavy division for the Associated General Contractors of Minnesota. "Construction truck driving is different from driving over the road. Many truck drivers in Minnesota are teamsters, but they don't have a training program like this that I'm aware of," he says. The International Brotherhood of Teamsters has been looking at ways to establish regional training programs but advises drivers to attend entry-level and finishing courses at the Professional Truck Driver Institute in Alexandria, Va. PTDI offers classroom and hands-on courses for all types of trucks but none are yet geared solely toward construction.

"Just because you know how to drive a truck doesn't mean you know how to drive a construction truck," says Larry Ouellette, driver improvement program coordinator and CTOT lead instructor at St. Cloud State University's Minnesota Highway Safety and Research Center (MHSRC). The 160-acre, 29-year-old training facility features a 3-mile-long paved and 1-mile-long off-road test track for cars, trucks and snowmobiles. Ouellette and his team specialize in teaching drivers advanced techniques for handling such things as skids, blowouts, unusual weather and collision avoidance. In addition to CTOT, MHSRC trains 1,200 law-enforcement officers and 18,000 senior citizens each year.

The CTOT program has a seven-course curriculum covering advanced driving, behind-the-wheel training, transporting hazardous materials, securing loads, permitting and load limits. MHSRC coordinates the program, while MnDOT provides community outreach and the Minnesota State Patrol monitors vehicle inspections. Officials from all three agencies instruct CTOT classes in the field. Courses range in length from four to eight hours and cost between $25 and $200 per person. Most contractors pick up the costs for their employees.

CTOT typically begins in January and wraps by the end of April. "Getting the facts before the season starts is the biggest plus," Sakry says. "It also helps break down barriers" because drivers already know state inspectors from attending the classes, he adds.

Safety programs generally are a tough sell because "measuring something that doesn't happen is the hardest part," says Ouellette. But contractors using CTOT are seeing results in insurance premiums. Johnson says that having drivers enrolled in CTOT each year has lowered his rates by as much as 50%. Likewise, Sakry says his company's truck inspection and out-of-service rating has become "significantly lower" than the state average.

Urquhart, who leads a group of state police commercial vehicle inspectors, helped to organize CTOT's public-private steering committee, which meets twice each year. He says CTOT is starting to educate drivers in smaller firms not actively involved in any specialized truck training. "We want to get the ones who take the risks every day," he says.

Despite its success, CTOT is in danger of leveling out as it runs through interested drivers and companies. MnDOT only "recommends" that drivers are CTOT trained–the certification is not yet a state requirement for contractors competing for MnDOT jobs. Howard Steele, state police training director, fears that CTOT may eventually become a refresher program for returning attendees. But not yet. MHSRC expects next year's program to attract 1,800-2,000 attendees, CTOT's all-time highest.

(Photo top and middle by Tudor Hampton for ENR, bottom courtesy of MHSRC)