Field season is coming up fast as the spring semester winds down, and even though I’m done with fieldwork now, it’s on my mind as my labmates gear up for theirs. Field season safety in particular is on my mind. There have been great recent articles and blogs about the dangers of sexual assault and unwanted contact while conducting fieldwork, especially in remote locations or isolated conditions. But I want to focus on two different, potentially overlooked and very American aspects of safety: cars and guns. Today I’m just talking about cars and road safety, and my next post will be about guns.
Working in the “field,” wherever that may be, often requires driving to field sites. For my own research, I was often driving for more hours in a given day than sampling at each site, due to the distance between field sites and frequency of sampling. While the sheer number of hours I’ve logged behind the wheel may be at the far end of the spectrum, driving for at least two hours per fieldwork day is common for others in my lab and department. Since fieldwork is often collaborative, the driving is also often split between the research team. This means that undergraduate students, technicians, graduate students, and postdocs all rotate driving shifts throughout the day and across the field season. I never gave much thought to trusting my field crew with driving and our field vehicle until an incident a few years back. Two undergraduates who worked for me and I were in the car. One of the undergraduates was driving, and as he was pulling out from a field site, he took a weird angle going up a short hill (this was not on a paved road) and our vehicle rolled over. Fortunately, no one was injured and we were traveling so slowly (since we had just started the vehicle) that the car was not totaled. However, it was a deeply humbling and frankly terrifying experience for everyone involved.
Previously, I thought nothing of handing over the keys to my undergraduate employees. They are hardworking, energetic, and all around excellent people. But did I know anything about their driving records when hiring them? Only that they met the university’s minimum requirements for driver safety – which involves owning a license and having a clean record for some number of years. My school requires no extra training or certification. After this incident, our lab looked into the possibility of proactively signing up all employees (and future employees at their start date) for a local defensive driving course, but this proved infeasible due to a lack of funding. Apparently some universities offer this type of safety
Even if my employees all had perfect driving records and skills, our other revelation was that anything can happen on the road (e.g. we could have been hit by someone else). This is always true, but we had taken for granted that our important work was at the field sites and driving between them was a non-event, almost auto-pilot. I looked at other universities’ safety guidelines for fieldwork and vehicular safety barely gets a mention (check out Duke’s – they literally give more attention to the plague than to car safety). Yet this must be somewhat common. In the past two years at my university, I know of two major fieldwork vehicle incidents. One involved undergraduates driving a car and losing control, skidding off-road and rolling the vehicle multiple times. Thankfully no one was injured. In a separate incident, a van of graduate students was in a head-on collision with another vehicle. This resulted in the driver of the other vehicle dying. Neither of these incidents were reported in campus publications; I only heard of them through friends.
What gives? As someone who wants to be a good and responsible mentor to my undergraduate employees, covering this topic is important. Conversely, we’d had situations in our lab in recent years where technicians felt unsafe driving with a particular graduate student. They felt powerless to complain about their supervisor’s driving behavior, especially since there was no clear resolution. I wish my advisor would allocate money from each grant to cover participation for each lab member in driver safety (is that allowed? Would NIH or NSF or USDA cover that??). If that isn’t allowable, universities need to step up in a way that isn’t just publishing safety PDFs. It’s reminiscent of recent demands for beefed up lab safety protocols after preventable accidents and insufficient (or nonexistent) training for students and other personnel. As someone who doesn’t use flammable or carcinogenic bench chemicals but had years of a trucker lifestyle in the name of research, we need to acknowledge that cars are just as dangerous – so that we as individuals and institutions can prepare and act accordingly to keep everyone safe.
If you do research that requires lots of driving, what’s your approach? How are you training your field crew? Sage wisdom and cautionary tales welcome in the comments. Hope everyone has a safe and productive field season ahead.