Date Posted

July 29, 2021

Dave Elniski, AMTA Industry Advisor, Safety & Compliance

Mountains of Risk 

In the 1800s, the British began surveying areas of India, Tibet, and Central Asia [1].  In the 1920s, British mountaineers began the first recorded expeditions with the goal of reaching the summit of Sagarmatha (Sanskrit for “Peak of Heaven” [2]), or Mount Everest as it is more commonly known in the Western world.  It wasn’t until until 1953 that an expedition was able to reach the summit [3]. 

As an aside, much of the recorded history on this subject comes from British records and it is important to note that “first recorded” does not necessarily mean first to the top or first to discover.  Chinese map makers had recorded Mount Everest’s location in the early 1700s [3], and I consider it a fair assumption that people local to the area had knowledge about the mountain and their own system of navigation not captured by Western records. 

Rock climbing is a dangerous, risky activity.  In the way most people would use the word “dangerous”, climbing a mountain like Mount Everest is beyond dangerous.  The risks to human health and safety are enormous; yet, this risky activity is surrounded by a romance and curiosity that drives people to attempt the climb.  Societies celebrate attempts and victories at the climb; those that lose their lives in the process are revered by many as a type of fallen hero. 

What drives people to take such risks?  When mountaineer George Mallory was asked why he wanted to climb Mount Everest, his famously-simple reply was “Because it is there” [4].  He died sometime in 1924 during an attempt to get to the peak.  All I know about Mallory and his climbing partner Andrew Irvine is that they were extremely dedicated to accomplishing a risky task. While their deaths likely caused widespread hurt amongst their family and friends, I respect their desire to do something seemingly impossible despite the hazards to their own health. 

People frequently celebrate those who undertake risky endeavours – as long as the undertaking is done in the spirit of exploration, discovery, or for altruistic reasons.  Risk takers whose motives are selfish and whose actions have the potential to harm others besides themselves are not looked upon so favourably. 

There is another story about mountains and risk – this time fictional but based upon the author’s observations of real-life events.  It comes from John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath with the impoverished Joad family from Oklahoma driving in an old and overloaded Hudson Super Six through the mountains en route to California during the Great Depression.  There is little romance here, but there are misguided hopes of finding work, stability, and an escape from their present misery [5]. 

The driver of the car, Al Joad, realises the tremendous responsibility on his shoulders as his ability to drive the struggling vehicle is directly related to the likelihood of his entire family making it safely to their destination.  Mountains do not present the same sort of adventure as they did for George Mallory and Andrew Irvine; in this story, mountains are a risky part of a journey and would be avoided if at all possible [5]. 

Taking a personal risk and pushing the worn-out Hudson to the point of failure in the spirit of adventure would not have made Al a hero.  Such risk taking is gambling with the lives of others.  Like a pension manager whose personal ambition drives decision making that results in the loss of a workforce’s pension, such risk-taking is not glamorous. 

Risk and glory look different when the mountain is part of the journey than when it is the destination.  Our celebration or condemnation of risk-takers depends on how much the risk-takers are gambling with the well-being of others who don’t share the same ambitions. 

I want to now bridge my thoughts on mountain climbing and risk over to the world of professional truck/bus/commercial driving. 

Climbers and Drivers, Risk and Skill 

Mountain climbers are considered skilled when they perform well on risky climbs.  We would likely not call a mountain climber skilled if the climber recognised the risks in climbing and then choose not to climb; we might not call them a climber at all.  Skilled mountain climbers who complete difficult climbs are celebrated in their community and, like a marathon runner, are respected in large parts of society for the challenges they undertake. 

However, I believe that such an attitude towards risk and skill does not translate well into driving on public roads.  I believe drivers who use a public roadway as their own personal racetrack should save such behaviour for an actual racetrack.  Regardless of their driving skill, those who are reckless on public roadways are gambling with the lives of others.  In the world of safe driving, skill and risk must not be treated the same as they are in activities like racing and mountain climbing. 

To go back to my example of driving from The Grapes of Wrath, my opinion of Al Joad is that he is a skilled driver because he recognises the risks in pushing his equipment and abilities too far for the road conditions.  He becomes “one with his engine, every nerve listening for weaknesses […] that may cause a breakdown” [5, page 307]; his focus is on a safe and successful trip. 

I like the way John Steinbeck describes the devotion of Al to the goal of safe driving.  Steinbeck is not writing a book about safe driving behaviours, but he is describing a skill Al possesses that professional drivers interested in safety should adopt: behaviour modification in response to risk recognition.  Al is portrayed as a somewhat reckless and selfish young man at times in the novel, but when he understands his responsibilities as the family’s driver and recognises the risks present in their trip, his behaviour behind the wheel becomes focused on caution and attention. 

Perceptions of Skill in Professional Driving 

Is skill taking a risky route and navigating it successfully?  Or is skill recognising risk ahead of time and either choosing a different route or choosing not to drive until conditions improve? 

I know professional truck drivers who take pride in driving dangerous roads through dangerous conditions, coming out unscathed at the end of the trip.  For such drivers, it seems that being skilled means recognising a risky driving situation, taking on the risky situation, and being successful.  This perception of skill makes sense to them because their skill was demonstrated by completing the trip. 

In more extreme cases, I have seen drivers describe skill as the ability to introduce extra risk and being successful in the trip.  This is the behaviour of “sensation-seeking”, and Dr. Ron Knipling, an expert in fleet safety management, describes this behaviour in the following way: “People who seek “action” at a party tend also to seek “action” while driving” [6]. 

Are these good measures of skill for drivers on public roadways?  It does take skill to successfully navigate challenging road conditions, but I say that such a view of driving skill on public roads is immature.  A better way to look at driving skill is recognising risk and adjusting accordingly.  Driving skills like evasive maneuvers and emergency braking should be taught in controlled environments so drivers possess them if they are needed, but avoiding these situations in the first place represents even greater skill to me. 

When I read the stories and biographies of professional drivers who have been in their profession for long periods of time and distance without being involved in collisions and other safety-related incidents, I hear these themes: 

  • Conscientiousness for other drivers on the road. 
  • An approach of sharing instead of ownership over the highway. 
  • Pride for not taking unreasonable risks and knowing when to shut down [7]. 

Drivers in public spaces need to be encouraged to identify risk and not feel shame for deciding to avoid risky situations.  To be confident in one’s skills to take on a challenge but to refrain from doing so under reasonable circumstances is a sign of maturity and professionalism.  And I believe that to attain the level of professionalism seen in the industry’s best drivers, the individual person must make the conscious decision to act like a professional. 

Closing Thoughts 

Alberta’s trucking industry is rooted in hard work and entrepreneurialism; it is also rooted in a sense of rebelliousness, hyper-competitiveness, and extreme risk taking [8].  Transportation in general is a high-risk industry when compared to many others, but drivers and those that influence drivers should not be encouraging a mountain climber’s view of risk and skill. 

Highways are shared spaces that grow more crowded each year.  The challenge for today’s industry leaders and workers of all levels is to reconcile a risk-tolerant past with modern-day demands that could not have been foreseen a century ago.  Transportation needs people who can recognise unreasonable risk, decide on safer alternatives, and be willing to adopt new practices as the world changes: for the sake of our workers, the public, the environment, our reputation, and the very sustainability of our industry. 

References 

1 – Derek J. Waller, The Pundits: British Exploration of Tibet and Central Asia, (University Press of Kentucky, 2004) 

2 – “Mount Everest”, Britannica, accessed July 28, 2021, https://www.britannica.com/place/Mount-Everest 

3 – “From First Sight to Summit: A Guide to the Literature on Everest up to the 1953 Ascent”, William Buxton, accessed July 28, 2021, http://www.billbuxton.com/everest.pdf 

4 – “Hazards of the Alps”, The New York Times, accessed July 28, 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/1923/08/29/archives/hazards-of-the-alps.html 

5 – John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath, (ejlp, 2019, for Kobo ePub), Chapter 13. 

6 – “What’s Your Safety Personality?”, Ronald R. Knipling, Safety for the Long Haul, accessed July 28, 2021, https://safetyforthelonghaul.com/2021/04/19/whats-your-safety-personality/ 

7 – “Driver of the Month”, Alberta Motor Transport Association, accessed July 28, 2021, https://amta.ca/what-we-do/driver-of-the-month/ 

8 – Rubak, P.M. (2005). Big Wheels Across the Prairies: A History of Trucking in Alberta Prior to 1960. (BWATP Publisher, 2005).