The images are shocking.
The first collision was between a jackknifed truck and a passenger truck driven by Kaleb Whitby. His vehicle spun around and flipped upon hitting the semi-truck, and he could see another tractor-trailer coming directly at him.
Saturday’s semi-truck pile-up in Eastern Oregon involved between 50 and 70 cars, according to Oregon State Police.
Dangerous driving on black ice
“Black ice” is a thin coating of glazed ice on the roadway surface. It forms from freezing rain, or melting ice and snow, when the temperature is within a couple degrees of freezing. In colder conditions, black ice will form on the highways because of the heat caused by tires on the road.
Driving on black ice is notoriously dangerous.
Tractor-trailer drivers are trained to:
- Pay close attention to the road and weather;
- Brake and accelerate slowly in icy conditions;
- Watch for signs of black ice, such as ice build-up on mirror arms, antenna or the top corners of the windshield.
The stretch of I-84 where Saturday’s truck crash occurred is on a slight hill with a curve.
The Oregon State Police will have to investigate the causes of each collision.
Amazingly, no fatalities were reported, although several people were hospitalized with serious injuries.
Commercial truckers who admitted to falling asleep while driving are believed to cause more than 750 fatalities and 20,000 injuries every year.
In truth, that estimate is likely quite low.
It’s almost impossible to know how many truck accidents sleepy truckers cause. The same is true for car accidents – very few drivers admit to falling asleep at the wheel and causing a crash.
But what we do know is fatigued driving is a bigger problem for truckers compared to other drivers, due to the sheer amount of time they spend behind the wheel.
Safety Rules Change Keeping Sleepy Truckers on the Road
The new changes in the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration’s (FMCSA) hours-of-service rules probably won’t help. Truckers are no longer required to take 30-minute break every 8 hours, or 2 overnight breaks between work-weeks.
Some semi-truck drivers found the safety changes implemented last year prohibitive, and believe the FMCSA rule change is helping them.
None of these rules address what many believe to be the real problem for truck drivers: the pay-per-mile system. When truckers are paid per-mile, instead of per hour, they have a lot more incentive to keep driving instead of stopping to sleep.
The risk of a crash effectively doubles from the eighth to the tenth hour of driving, and doubles again from the tenth to the eleventh hour of driving alone.
- FMCSA, 2000
Fatigued truck drivers operating huge, heavy tractor-trailers put everyone on the road at risk.
Earlier this year, comedian Tracy Morgan and several others were seriously injured —one man was killed—when a tired trucker rear-ended their vehicle at a high speed. The truck driver had been awake for more than 24 hours at the time of the crash.
The trucking industry is getting a holiday bonus from the U.S. Congress.
The federal spending bill just passed for 2015 includes a provision that will undo many of the safety changes the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) implemented last year.
The current rules, mandating a 30-minute break every 8 hours, and 2 overnight breaks between work-weeks, are hurting drivers, the carrier representatives claim. They successfully argued for the new rule, which removes overnight restrictions from the 36-hour overnight breaks.
The pay-per-mile system means that truckers aren’t paid for the hours they spend loading, re-fueling, or taking mandatory breaks. If trucking carriers were truly concerned about truckers’ safety and quality of life, they would pay drivers by the hour.
Smart-Trucking.com, a website run by truck drivers, calculated driver’s costs and time, and found that many drivers are making less than $4.00/hour.
Big trucking companies say that their revenue growth was slowed in 2013 because of the slow implementation of the new FMCSA regulations.
In reality, they’re making more money than ever. The average net profit margin was about 6 percent for last year. That’s a big increase from 3-4 percent range the previous three years.
Trucking companies could be paying drivers more: they choose not to do so.
Carriers have more interest in their bottom line than in public safety.
They have likely calculated that it’s less expensive to manage turnover and pay per mile than it is for them to pay experienced drivers by the hour. It’s a risk calculation – similar to what insurance companies do – and based on those profit margins, it must be working for them.
If the current safety rules are hurting truckers, it’s because carriers are defraying their own costs on the backs of truckers.
And the government is allowing the trucking industry to make more money, pay drivers less, and make our roads more dangerous.
Most long-haul semi-truck drivers in the U.S. are not paid a salary.
They are paid per mile.
Some jobs pay bonuses, but most of a trucker’s “On Duty, Not Driving” time—loading, unloading, refueling, break time— is unpaid.
So, when truckers are waylaid by bad weather, stuck in traffic, or taking their mandatory breaks, they are basically unpaid.
Does pay-per-mile contribute to truck accidents?
Paying truckers per mile puts incentives on unsafe behaviors. If a driver paid per mile is put off-schedule by a sudden traffic jam, that driver may drive too long and skip breaks to make the miles.
A recent study from Australia, under review by the Federal Motor Carrier Administration, supports this theory. Researchers found that truck drivers who are paid by distance (in Australia, kilometers), or paid per trip, take fewer breaks—and take more drugs.
A tired trucker or trucker who has used drugs to stay awake trying to make up miles is a recipe for a serious truck accident.
The high rate of truck driver turnover
Experienced truckers are leaving the industry because they’re not making enough money for their time and effort. This is creating a safety issue: inexperienced drivers are more likely to be responsible for a fatal crash.
For long-haul carriers, it’s a revolving door: they had turnover rates of 99 percent in the first half of 2013.
Although it makes sense from a safety perspective, it’s unlikely that major trucking companies would be willing to consider the pay change.
Trucking carriers argue that customers are paying fleets by the mile. Therefore, fleet drivers should be paid by the mile, too.
“Disconnecting driver pay from how we get paid by our customers is a very frightening thought for this industry…”
The trucking industry would be committing “financial suicide,” with hourly pay, said Steve Gordon, COO of Gordon Trucking Inc.
It’s illegal. The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration has a blanket ban on commercial drivers using a hand-held cellular phone or texting while driving.
It’s unsafe. Truck drivers are 23x more likely to crash if they are texting.
And a number of trucking carriers claim that texting and driving is grounds for a driver’s immediate dismissal.
So why are these truckers still texting and driving?
It’s shocking to hear that truckers are so blatantly disregarding the law, their safety, and, most importantly, the safety of everyone else on the road.
Federal rules are strict, but it’s the state’s responsibility to enforce them.
Fewer than 16,000 tickets were issued to commercial drivers last year for using cell phones. There are about 3.5 million truck drivers in the U.S.
States need to step up enforcement on those commercial drivers who are putting everyone on the road in danger.
About half of the deaths from semi-truck accidents involve an underride collision.
When a passenger vehicle is pushed under a semi truck, the top of the car is crushed and the passengers are injured and often killed by striking the underneath parts of a semi-truck or trailer.
Cars are designed to absorb the energy from the sides, not from the top.
Safety features –like airbags and seatbelts– are almost useless when the impact comes from the top down.
Underride guards, which are basically steel bars on the back of tractor-trailers, are supposed to prevent underride collisions by keeping the vehicle from sliding under the trailer.
Truck safety laws are out-of-date
1. Not all trucks have underride guards.
The U.S. government doesn’t require tractor-trailers to have front or side underride guards (for perspective, Europe has required underride guards on large trucks since 1994). Furthermore, many heavy trucks are exempt from the rear guard rule.
2. The guards we use are massively flawed.
The standards for rear underride guards are extremely out-of-date. Canadian regulations require a guard that withstands about twice as much force as required by the U.S. rule.
IIHS tests found that even the strongest guard left almost half of the back of the truck open to underride.
Ignoring the problem
IIHS has been working with trucking companies to test redesigned tractor-trailer guards. In 2011, IIHS shared the results of their studies, and asked NHTSA to require rear underride guards that are strong enough to remain in place during a crash. See Crash tests demonstrate the need for new underride guard standards.
Nothing was done.
Just recently, NHTSA agreed to look at the safety standards for underride guards after a public shaming by a family who petitioned the agency after a horrifying underride collision killed 2 girls.
If something could be done to make underride guards stronger, then why wasn’t it being done?
– Marianne Karth, crash survivor and truck safety advocate
Hopefully, NHTSA will finally address this serious truck safety issue.
It’s a horrible—but common—story about a truck crash.
A tractor-trailer transporting goods for Walmart rear-ended a limo bus on a highway.
Law enforcement’s investigation shows that the truck driver had not slept for 24 hours prior to the crash, and that he failed to pay proper attention as he approached stopped traffic.
One passenger was killed and several others were seriously injured in the truck crash, including comedian Tracy Morgan. A lawsuit was filed for the victims’ damages.
This week, Walmart’s attorneys filed the defense response to the suit: blaming the victims, claiming that the severity of the injuries was due to passengers failures to wear safety belts.
Any attorney who’s worked on trucking and auto accident cases has seen this defense tactic. It’s a big mistake in this case.
The Walmart truck was going 65 mph …
If you have been lucky enough to avoid seeing a crash at this speed, you can’t imagine the damage that it does.
Here’s how this works in a trucking case:
1. Walmart has to prove that a safety belt would have prevented the injuries and death, which would put some fault on the victims.
2. To do that, Walmart has to hire an expert truck accident reconstructionist.
3. The accident reconstructionist would have to defy common sense and physics, and prove that a belt can save you when an 80,000 truck rear-ends you at 65 mph.
… Which is 20 mph over the speed limit
Walmart’s defense team must also show that the driver’s speed was not a factor.
Their defense states the injuries and death were totally or in part caused by the victims themselves: therefore, it doesn’t matter that the driver is speeding.
Aside from the truck’s speed, it was a rear-end collision on a highway: that usually only happens when a driver falls asleep.
We can see you, Walmart.
Walmart is fighting an uphill battle.
Instead of doing the right thing, accepting responsibility for the actions of its truck driver and settling this case, Walmart attorneys are going to drag the injured victims and the family of the deceased through a long, painful court battle.
And they’re doing it publicly.
Does Walmart think we can’t see them?
Or do they just not care?
It’s rare that hiding information helps to solve a problem.
This is not an exception.
The Safer Trucks and Buses Act, a bill introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives by Rep. Barletta, would remove the trucking carrier safety rankings from public view.
Anyone can check a carrier’s safety record on the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration’s website.
Why hide truck safety records?
The proposed law would remove access to the safety scores – rendering them inaccessible and useless.
Proponents argue that the scoring system is flawed. The American Trucking Association says that “data and methodology problems plague the system” so the scores are inaccurate.
Smaller carriers in particular take issue with the safety rankings. One safety violation has a bigger effect on their CSA scores, since the BASIC (Behavioral Analysis and Safety Improvement Categories) categories are graded on a curve.
That means the motor carriers with the worst safety records are still at the bottom, even if they improve.
I’m not sure that’s really a problem, but even if the CSA’s safety scores are not perfect, removing scores from public safety solves nothing, and limits the public access to potentially important information.
If the way the Department of Transportation measures trucking carrier safety is not an accurate reflection of the carrier’s record of road safety, then propose a concrete way to fix it.
Less transparency is not the answer.
Long hours on the road. Stressful situations. Days away from home. Trucking can be a tough job. It’s not for everyone.
30,000 tractor-trailer drivers are needed across the U.S. right now, the American Trucking Association (ATA) estimates.
Another 100,000 will be needed every year for the next decade. Economic growth leads to more goods being shipped on highways, and more pressure being placed on trucking companies and their drivers to deliver.
The ATA blames the shortage on new hours-of-service rules. Some carriers evidently ignore hours-of-service rules and leave fatigued drivers on the road. Others have worked around the shortage by keeping on dangerous drivers with a long list of safety violations.
The result? An 18% increase injuries and fatalities from truck accidents, in the last few years alone.
Looking to veterans
A strong work ethic and problem-solving under pressure. Technological savvy. Respect for policies and the importance of procedures. Physical fitness.
Is there any other group more prepared for the demands of truck driving than veterans?
The Military Skills Waiver program is set up to help get returning veterans who have safely operated military vehicles a job in commercial truck driving. Recently returned vets can bypass some of the commercial driver’s license application process and the fees.
It’s also easier for vets with limb impairment to get a CDL to drive interstate trucks by passing a Skill Performance Evaluation.
The trucking industry needs to stop complaining, and start hiring.
Chameleon carriers are trucking companies that shut down to hide from penalties after multiple safety violations or accidents—and then re-open under a new name.
For more, see Chasing the Chameleon.
These carriers run some of the most dangerous trucks on the road: 18% of suspected chameleon carriers were in serious truck crashes, according to the GAO.
That’s three times as many crashes as other carriers.
How does this happen?
In the CNBC report, Anne Ferro, administrator of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, said that only about 2% of all new DOT applicants are checked to see if they’re chameleon carriers.
That’s pretty inspiring for trucking companies looking to avoid safety regulations and fines.
Closing the loophole
The FMCSA is updating the vetting methods to spot chameleon carriers when they apply for a new DOT number.
The new plan to catch chameleon carriers is based on an application algorithm. When a new trucking company applies for a DOT number, their address, phone number, and listed officers will be automatically checked against closed carriers who have been:
– Issued multiple fines;
– Involved in fatal crashes;
– Declared bankruptcy;
– Or declared unsafe by FMCSA.
This process is in beta testing now and scheduled to go into effect in 2015.
Even if it is not fully effective at catching chameleon carriers, it’s better than our current systems: waiting until they cause fatal crashes.