In light of the Jan. 9, 2015 Interstate 94 massive vehicle pileup, it is a good time to reflect on our industry and the many miles we drive every day. The pileup near Galesburg, Mich., involved 193 vehicles and closed both east and westbound lanes for two days. The videos of the accident shown by every major news outlet were shocking. Weeks after the pileup, experts have been questioning how such a massive crash could happen. Speculation about weather, poor road conditions, driver speed and distracted driving are among the suspected causes. This stretch of highway in west Michigan is heavily traveled by water well-drilling companies and industry professionals every day.

This accident is a reminder for all of us to take a moment to reflect on our own driving ability and safety. When an accident occurs on a jobsite or while driving equipment to a jobsite, I try to put myself in the situation. Could I have stopped in time? Would I have been driving distracted? Could I have been driving too fast for the weather conditions? What other variables could hurt me in a collision?

Many of the vehicles used for day-to-day business in the industrial drilling industry are considered medium-duty vehicles with a gross vehicle weight of 10,000 to 26,000 pounds, according to the Federal Highway Administration. A medium-duty vehicle traveling at 60 mph on dry roads will need 315 feet to come to a complete stop. Many drill rigs weigh more than 26,000 pounds, which designates them as heavy-duty vehicles by the Federal Highway Administration. The more a vehicle weighs, the more distance it will take to come to a stop. An average drill rig traveling at 60 mph will take more than 500 feet to stop on dry roads. Inclement conditions, such as rain, snow and ice, increase stopping distance by more than one-and-a-half times.

Knowing the distance required to make a safe stop is only one part of stopping safely. The process of stopping starts before the brake is applied. On average, the brain reaction time to be able to process that the brake needs to be compressed is three-quarters of a second from recognizing that the brake needs to be compressed to physically pushing the brake pedal down. At 60 mph, three-quarters of a second is more than 100 feet traveled. If you are a NASCAR driver or fighter pilot, your reaction time would be a half second. Response time is only as good as our level of concentration on the road. Cell phones, GPS devices and other distractions that take a driver’s focus off the road will decrease reaction time. In the three to five seconds taken to read a text on a cell phone, a vehicle will have traveled nearly 500 feet. Many companies have policies that require vehicle operators to use hands free technology when talking while driving. Some companies are even more strict, implementing policies with zero tolerance of cell phone use while driving.

Of course, we should all obey state and local laws in regards to mobile phones and vehicles use, and we should all be aware of our particular company’s policies. Preparation that includes understanding the distance needed to stop, awareness of road conditions and concentrated focus to allow for quick reaction times can save lives. If it takes 300 feet to stop and you cannot see 300 feet down the road, common sense would tell you to slow down. It is important to follow at safe distances in accordance with your speed, and to increase that distance during inclement weather. The Michigan Department of Transportation has an excellent stopping and sight distance chart on their website:

Since we never know when a crash may occur, we should always use our vehicle’s safety belt or harness. We all know that not everyone takes this simple precaution. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) considers not wearing a safety belt while driving to be an epidemic. According to the CDC, the leading cause of death among people ages 1 to 54 is motor vehicles crashes. A five-year study published in November 2013 by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) showed safety belts saved nearly 63,000 lives. To put it in perspective, roughly 50,000 people die in motor vehicle crashes each year, and another 3 million people are injured. Many of these fatalities and injuries could have been prevented with proper safety belt use.

The NHTSA Traffic Safety Facts, released in 2000 by the U.S. Department of Transportation state that:

  • One crash occurs every five seconds.
  • One crash causing property damage occurs every seven seconds.
  • One crash/injury occurs every 10 seconds.
  • One crash/fatality occurs every 13 minutes.

These statistics quantify into more than 40,000 motor vehicle fatalities in a year, and 8,640 motor vehicles crash injuries every day. In 2013, 24,000 people were injured in heavy-duty vehicles. In the discussion about the choice to wear or not wear a safety belt, I have heard, “It is my choice, and I am only endangering myself.” This statement is not true, and the United States Supreme Court made the following statement 43 years ago in the Massachusetts case Simon v. Sargent to reaffirm that negligence.

“… From the moment of injury, society picks the person up off the highway; delivers him to a municipal hospital and municipal doctors; provides him with unemployment compensation if, after recovery, he cannot replace his lost job; and, if the injury causes disability, may assume the responsibility for his and his family’s continued subsistence. We do not understand a state of mind that permits a plaintiff to think that only he, himself is concerned.” Simon v. Sargent United States Supreme Court 1972: Primary Enforcement Saves Lives -

Wearing a seatbelt is just as important as obeying the speed limit or driving on the right side of the road. In a specialized profession like water well drilling, the loss of practical knowledge and technical experience due to the lack of wearing a seatbelt is devastating.

What other variables could contribute to not walking away from a crash safely? One issue that needs to be highlighted is the amount of hand tools, rig parts and other small components distributed throughout a service truck cab, dash and floor boards. I can hear the defense statement now: “I leave the extra bolts to the brake cylinder on the dash so that I can find them at any time, and I will never lose them.” These parts and tools may become dangerous projectiles in a collision. There is no reason a used pressure switch with an electrocuted spider between the points needs to be on the dash of your truck. A clean and orderly cab could save your life. In regards to projectiles, it is always good practice to properly tie down any items in question in and outside the cab of the truck. Parts that can be removed should be stored in a tool box. Any object not tied down inside or outside the cab could be hazardous to you or neighboring vehicles. All state department of transportation standards and laws should be followed when operating well rigs and service trucks.

It is our obligation to be prepared for an accident at any moment. The best solution to staying safe is to understand our vehicle and its capabilities on all types of roads and weather conditions. Specialized equipment like drill rigs and water trucks require extra attention when driving. Driver fatigue can be just as dangerous as texting. Texting or operating handheld technology increases a driver’s odds of crashing by 23 percent. If your solution is to stay off major highways to avoid high speeds and traffic, consider that more than 50 percent of all vehicle accidents happen on rural roads. The Michigan Ground Water Association convention and trade show is March 5 and 6 and a large majority of our industry, on their way to Battle Creek, Mich., will travel over the same section of I-94 where the Jan. 9 pileup occurred. The only way to improve our industry’s safety standards is to continually reflect on all types of accidents, whether they are on the job or driving to the job.

Brock Yordy is product manager and drill trainer for GEFCO, an Astec Industries Company. Contact him at