June 17, 2021

Safety expert reflects on emotional toll of truck accident


‘It changed a lot about the way I drove and my thoughts on distracted driving’

One mistake behind the wheel can lead to devastating consequences to you and those around you.

Semi truck accidents are unfortunately a common occurrence on our nation’s highways. Many drivers won’t admit it, but it’s easy for those who have managed to evade these harrowing events to lull themselves into the “It’ll never happen to me” mindset.

The truth: Many victims of traumatic accidents feel similarly right up until the moment of impact. Drivers able to walk away with their lives and no one else hurt will most likely tell you that it altered their driving habits forever.

This is the case for Brian Runnels, Reliance Partners’ director of safety, when he reflects on an accident that changed his driving career forever. Nearly 25 years to the day of the accident, Runnels remembers the crash vividly. While he’s thankful that no one was seriously injured, he said the emotional scars have never really healed, and that it could’ve been avoided if he wasn’t distracted and reacted improperly.

“It changed a lot about the way I drove and my thoughts on distracted driving, seeing trucks barreling down the road or following somebody too closely,” Runnels said. “There’s no skill involved in handling distractions or following too closely. … They’re lucky, but sooner or later, their luck is probably going to run out.”

The most dangerous time in truckers’ careers is the first 18 to 30 months on the job, according to Runnels. Speaking from experience, he reasons this to be the period that many start to get comfortable — perhaps in some cases too comfortable — with their routes and day-to-day tasks. Runnels was in his second year behind the wheel when his crash occurred.

That fateful day came in June 1996, when he was hauling a load of Styrofoam cups east out of California. Just as he crossed the Colorado River into Arizona, a car pulled out in front of his truck, causing him to slam on the brakes and sending him into the median. He eventually overturned.

“It’s a very surreal feeling to have the driver’s side mirror smash through your driver’s side door window and watch the pavement fly by right underneath you,” Runnels said, describing the moment of impact. His wife, who was in the bunk at that time, was tossed about the cab and fell on top of him.

His efforts to avoid the collision were ultimately in vain, though, as Runnels slammed into the passenger vehicle.

Although the driver of the passenger vehicle lacked a sense of awareness when pulling onto the freeway, Runnels equally blames himself for his inability to avoid the accident. It just so happens that as the car was pulling out, Runnels took his eyes off the road to load a cassette tape.

As his truck turned sharply to the left, he recounted that a truck in that lane had been flashing his lights to let him over in the seconds preceding the crash.

“In the 10 seconds or so that it took me to flip that tape over, he was over there pretty much the entire time, and I didn’t know that I had that option to get out until it was too late,” Runnels said.

Thankfully, no one was seriously injured in either vehicle. However, after 25 years, Runnels is still haunted by his actions — or inactions — from the event that lasted just a few seconds. What’s troubled him the most is not knowing the emotional impact the wreck had on the occupants of the vehicle he had hit. After all these years, he still wonders how the passengers and their extended family view truckers and the industry at large.

“The gentleman and his wife that I hit were older, so they probably had children, grandchildren and maybe even great-grandchildren. I realize after 25 years that it’s quite possible that everybody within that family is now anti-truck,” Runnels said. “I did my part in damaging the image of the industry. I’ve been trying to fix it ever since, but the damage has been done.”

Runnels suffered from depression after the accident for a number of months and even stepped away from the industry for about a year and a half. He recalls his first experience back behind the wheel as very nerve-racking.

“I can understand why a lot of drivers don’t come back [to the industry] or a lot of drivers try and come back and can’t because of the trauma experienced,” Runnels said. “I went to work for a small mom-and-pop carrier, in which they threw me the keys and told me my first load was heading to Chicago — it was horrifying,”

Although the accident induced anxiety for quite some time, it marked a turning point for Runnels, who went on to record over 2 million consecutive driving miles without an accident. Safety ultimately became the focal point of his career, as he went on to become an effective driver trainer and risk manager, most recently serving the insurance and risk management side of the industry.

Unlike most training courses that don’t touch on the emotional side of accidents, Runnels has shared his story with many drivers over the course of his career to remind them of the shocking realities that follow negligent driving habits.

“Did I want it to scare the drivers that I was training? To a certain degree, absolutely,” Runnels said. “I wanted them to be thinking about the potential consequences of their actions, and by and large, it’s not something that’s discussed like that because there’s not a ton of folks that have experienced it.

“Let’s talk about how many lives that one wreck can affect. It doesn’t necessarily have to result in a fatality; it doesn’t necessarily have to result in major injuries either, but the image of the industry gets horribly tainted by these accidents.”