Not content with attaining one of the lowest rollover rates for fleets operating tractor-trailers, Praxair Inc. challenged trucking's suppliers to build it a safer truck, effectively taking safety innovation to a level higher than it could hope to reach by itself.

“There's no magic bullet for safety,” says Tim Johnson, U.S. fleet manager for Praxair North American Industrial Gases. To be sure, that means the private-fleet operator leaves no stone unturned in its never-ending pursuit of safety excellence. He says that's why the company, which produces atmospheric gases, as well as process and specialty gases, and transports them in a fleet of 1,000 cryogenic bulk tankers, began “challenging outside suppliers to do anything from a tractor or trailer perspective to improve safety and/or our drivers' daily experience.”

A key milestone so far in this continuous improvement effort is the development of the prosaically named Praxair Safer Truck, a combination vehicle that boasts a lower center of gravity to help further thwart rollovers. The rig's trailer — just one of which runs a quarter-million dollars — is built by a Praxair subsidiary, AMKO. The fleet operates predominantly Freightliners.

The low center-of-gravity tractor-trailer was put through endurance testing at a test track, and the trailer was extensively tested at the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute. A trailer filled with liquid oxygen was placed on one of only two tilt tables in North America that can handle vehicles of this size, according to Johnson, and researchers tilted the trailer to the maximum angle possible and were unable to reach a point at which a rollover would occur.

“The impact of this design is clear,” reports Johnson. “We have reduced rollovers by another 65%.” The new design has delivered other safety benefits as well. He says the rig's low profile results in the whole trailer being visible in the rearview mirrors. This increases driver awareness, both while backing and going down the road. Stability is also improved. Going into curves, the vehicle holds the road better and incurs less wind resistance.

Johnson says Praxair views the safer truck program as a work in progress and remains open to considering any technology that might enhance safety. The attention paid to safety has led the fleet to adopt various off-the-shelf products and to push its tractor suppliers to offer both frontal and side air bags.

“We've investigated a number of technologies to assist drivers,” points out Johnson, “such as front and side collision warning. But we also continue to provide driver training for maximum safety, including how to prevent rollovers. It really gets back to the idea there's no magic bullet.

“We think we've done as much [for safety] with equipment design as we can while meeting reasonable expectations,” he continues. “The next step is to help reduce the effect of driver fatigue and inattentiveness. One evolution in technology we are looking closely at is how to determine if the driver is not paying attention. We've piloted several different systems and there's one we are very excited about. We're working with that provider to make the cost more attractive in terms of ROI.”

Even though Praxair is very comfortable exploring high-tech safety solutions, Johnson still affirms the value of training. “We continue to revamp our training curriculum; we're now on the third generation.” He says Praxair stresses repetition and treats every driver, regardless of prior experience, as a new employee and thus a new driver. “The effort put into safety yields results. Since 2004, we've seen all our vehicle accidents drop by 23% and the preventable ones by 30%. Still,” he adds, “you can never stop improving.”

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