Shining a light on safety

Shining a light on safety

The issue of safety will always be of vital concern to transport operators. Truck accidents can be expensive, both in terms of lives and loads lost. NADINE VON MOLTKE examines how safety-critical components can help safeguard against the unexpected.

There is no fool-proof way of avoiding accidents. A truck driver can be highly trained, responsible and alert; but he still runs the risk of a blow-out, hitting a pothole, or being cut off by another truck or car.

Similarly, a truck and its trailer can be well maintained, with tyres and brakes in excellent condition; yet a breakdown may still occur. Accidents happen. So, unfortunately, do breakdowns. Which is why it is essential that operators put as many systems in place as possible to avoid either occurrence from happening, and safeguard both truck and driver should the unforeseen take place.

One such system is TSS, a trailer lamp monitoring safety system designed to ensure that the lights on a truck’s trailer are always working; if not the way they should be, at least enough to indicate a hazard. Alfie Smit, the owner of TSS and patent holder of the system, first hit upon the idea in the 1980s. “The majority of accidents during those years were head-to-tail collisions, often involving a drawn trailer with no lights or a stationary truck that had broken down on the side of the road but wasn’t immediately visible to other trucks or passenger cars,” he says.

Smit’s solution was to create a lamp monitoring system that would guarantee the truck and trailer’s visibility, particularly at night or in poor weather conditions such as fog.

“Often, drivers do not even realise the lights on their trailers are not working,” he explains. “There is no system on a truck that allows drivers to monitor their lights, indicators and hazards without a second person physically standing behind the trailer and checking that they are operating correctly. If a fuse or bulb blows, or the system short-circuits, he will have no idea; and suddenly the truck becomes almost invisible at night or in poor weather conditions.”

Lights are about far more than a driver simply being able to see where he is going. Indicators, stop lights, brake lights, head and tail lights: each is designed either to ensure that fellow road users know what a vehicle intends doing or to  enhance a vehicle’s visibility, a factor made especially important by the sheer mass of trucks and their loads.

Given that lights are safety-critical items, they are legislated; so at weighbridges and road blocks truck drivers are often asked to demonstrate whether all a truck and trailer’s lights are in good working order. “The problem is that these checks are not regular enough, nor do they ensure that a truck’s lights are working even five minutes after the check takes place,” says Smit.

There are any number of things that can go wrong with a vehicle’s lights: faulty fuses, a blown bulb and even an accident can cause a short-circuit or open circuit in the entire system. According to Smit, in the case of a blown fuse a driver may be aware of the fault and over-ride the blown fuse by jamming a bread knife into the fuse box to get through a check point and avoid a fine. While this may be a short-term solution to the problem of no lights, what happens once the truck is back on the open road?

“If an accident has occurred and tail lights have been damaged, the driver will obviously be aware of a problem; but if the system has short-circuited for some reason, he might have no idea that his trailer has no indicators, stop lights or brake lights,” Smit continues. Which is where the TSS system comes into play. Smit has designed an after-market addition to trucks and trailers that not only monitors each and every light and fuse, but is able to kick into safety mode if there is a problem. With TSS installed, a vehicle is always visible on the road.

“Basically, a driver should check that all his lights are in good working order while the truck is still at the depot,” explains Smit. “He than presses the ‘self-learn’ button on the system and the current working conditions are stored by the unit. If there are any deviations from this standard, a warning signal will alert the driver to where the problem is so that he can immediately fix it.”

One of challenges faced by Smit and his team was the advent of LED lights. Because LEDs draw a mere fraction of the voltage previously used to power 12 and
24 V systems, they were extremely difficult to monitor. However, the team soon found a way to overcome this obstacle and now even LED systems can be minutely monitored, as well as a combination of filament and LED lamps.

“We wanted to create a system that does two things,” says Smit. “It needs to monitor lamps and warn a driver if and where there is a problem, so he can immediately attend to it. For example, if a trailer’s tail lights are not working for some reason, the unit switches over to stop lamps. These will now operate at the brightness of tail lights, looking like stop lamps only when the vehicle’s brakes are applied. Once the problem is solved the system will revert back to normal. The system can also be manually over-ridden, ensuring a truck has lights until it reaches a depot.” The system operates across multiple trailer connections.

Smit is not the first to understand the importance of visibility when it comes to trucks on the road. In fact, South Africa is a world leader in the fitment of reflective tape. Legislated in 2004, reflective tape was our country’s initial response to the problem of poor truck visibility. The TSS system takes this one step further.

“Legislation is always the bare minimum,” asserts Steve Morgan, technical automotive specialist at the National Regulator for Compulsory Specifications (NRCS). “At the NRCS we ensure that standards are enforced, but there are many factors that influence exactly what those standards will be.”

According to Morgan, while safety-critical items are a priority in terms of legislation, they need to be affordable as well as perform the crucial function for which they were designed. “When reflective tape was initially legislated, there was uproar from the local trucking community,” Morgan explains. “Reflective tape is expensive, so the new legislation impacted on operators’ profits.”

Six years down the line, the obvious benefit of reflective tape in avoiding costly accidents has resulted in a complete change of attitude. Local operators have acknowledged the legislation’s impact on truck visibility and now support it fully. Which is one reason why Smit believes it is time for more. Arguing that there are still too many breakdowns and accidents as a result of poor lamp monitoring, he is adamant that further legislation is required to combat the problem, particularly as tell-tale signals are already mandatory on indicators and tail lamps.

“All rear lights are equally important and can be monitored,” he says. “Why stop at indicators and tail lamps? Why not legislate tell-tales for the entire system?”

Morgan on the other hand continues to draw attention to the fact that the role of legislation is to enforce minimum requirements. “A specific product cannot be legislated because that would be forcing operators to buy it. As an independent body we cannot do that,” he explains. “What we can do is legislate a concept but, once again, this would only take into consideration minimum requirements.

“The legislation enforcing reflective tape was a reaction to the poor maintenance of vehicles. The need for other systems that deal with poor vehicle visibility is just as strong now as it was then, but the transport industry needs to take some responsibility in terms of what will keep its trucks, drivers and loads safe,” he continues. Which is why Morgan believes that any significant changes will be industry-led rather than legislated.

“Our role is to legislate and enforce that legislation, but it is industry who designs the systems and then puts them on the market, largely as a result of customer requirements,” he maintains. Safety is a bottom-line issue. It may well be costly in the short-term, but in the medium-to-long term it actually saves money. “Accidents result in loads lost, so why not safeguard as much as possible against anything unforeseen happening?” Morgan asks.

Smit agrees. He argues that a system such as his not only prevents accidents but minimises down-time as well. “How many breakdowns are the result of light failures?” he asks. “Drivers need a quick and easy way to measure where the problem is so that they can fix it and keep their trucks on the road. If operators start demanding systems that increase the safety of their vehicles, manufacturers will provide these systems.”

TSS is a case in point. All South Africa’s new International and Freightliner trucks are already fitted with the TSS system, and Smit is currently negotiating with other major manufacturers. In addition, any operator can retro-fit the system to his existing fleet.

While legislation may be useful in setting minimum standards, it is up to industry itself to spearhead significant change by acknowledging that the safety of its drivers, trucks and cargo is an important component of any successful road transport operation.

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