By John Kearney

On a Thursday afternoon in late April, an 18-wheeler lost control on Interstate 70 outside of Denver and plowed into a line of eastbound traffic that was stopped because of an accident ahead. The crash caused a fire that engulfed numerous vehicles; four people were killed, and two more seriously injured. In his statement to police, the driver said that his brakes failed, and that the downhill grade caused the rig to accelerate; it was traveling at an estimated 85 mph when it collided with the line of stopped traffic. Another trucker who saw the semi speed past told the police the driver was wide-eyed with terror.

Determining exactly what happened to cause this accident is now a matter for the courts and will in all likelihood involve a fair amount of conflicting testimony; according to the Jefferson County District Attorney, the semi was completely destroyed in the collision and fire, making a mechanical inspection impossible.

What is clear, however, is the glimpse this unfortunate incident gives us into the relationship of truckers with the rest of motorized humanity out there on the road. Truckers are the professionals of the highway system; their job—in addition to moving 70% of the nation’s freight and keeping the economy going—is to anticipate, and sometimes compensate for, the behavior of other drivers on the road.

To do that, they need to know how to deal with rare, scary, and very bad situations. The best way to learn that is the way commercial pilots learn it—in a simulator. I don’t know if that would have helped this particular driver in this particular situation or not. I do know that in a simulator he could have replicated what happens when your brakes go out on a mountainside, learned the best ways to deal with it, and practiced until the muscle motions were built into his memory. I know that simulator training could give that kind of ability to every commercial driver out there, and that the highways would be safer for it.

And I know that now—with the crowding we have on the roads, and the pressures truckers are under, and the number of lives at stake—it’s time to make simulator training mandatory, just like it is for pilots. The drivers need it, and so do the rest of us.

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