The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) is tasked with investigating serious transportation accidents.
On August 11, the NTSB issued their initial report on a 2014 fatal truck crash that killed one man, and seriously injured several others—including actor Tracy Morgan.
Six important details from crash report
1. The truck could have stopped at 45 mph.
The crash occurred at the start of a work zone. Multiple signs, beginning a mile back , alerted drivers to the work zone speed limit: 45 mph.
The truck driver never slowed down, and struck the rear of the limo van at 65 mph.
Had he been traveling at or below the speed limit of 45 mph, NTSB’s investigation showed that the trucker would have had time to brake and stop before hitting the limo van.
2. Walmart’s truck did have a collision avoidance system.
Walmart Transportation trucks are equipped with forward collision warning systems. The driver should have heard a pre-crash warning to brake.
Unfortunately, the systems don’t have data recorders—“black boxes.”
That means the only person who would know if the crash avoidance warning actually worked is the driver.
3. The truck driver was probably really fatigued (or asleep) …
“His fatigued condition diminished his awareness, and he failed to reduce his speed or respond appropriately to the slowed vehicles ahead of him, resulting in the crash.” – NTSB crash report
“Driver fatigue” sounds like a problem that a trucker can solve with a break, or a nap.
When the crash occurred at 1 a.m., the trucker:
- Had been on duty for 13 hours, 32 minutes of his 14-hour shift;
- Had driven 12 hours from his home to the Walmart distribution center just before his shift started; and,
- Could have only slept 4 out of the previous 33 hours—at most.
Was the truck driver tired, or was he actually asleep?
4. But he never spoke to investigators.
The trucker’s attorney said the NTSB’s “facts are wrong” about the driver being awake for 28 hours at the time of the crash. He said the investigators never spoke to the truck driver.
NTSB says the truck driver refused to be interviewed (very likely, I would add, at the advice of his attorney). He is facing criminal charges in New Jersey for the crash.
This also left investigators puzzled about another unanswered question: why did the trucker accept the final load on his shift that night? He couldn’t have had it delivered before he hit the maximum hours he could legally work.
5. The limo van’s interior had been modified, and passengers couldn’t get out.
Partitions had been added to the limousine van, separating the passengers’ area from the front seats, and from the rear compartment.
Passengers could only get in or out through one side door. After the crash, rescue efforts were delayed: witnesses and the first responders couldn’t get to the victims inside the limo van.
6. Injuries were probably worse because passengers didn’t wear seat belts.
The board also concluded that the passengers in the limo van weren’t wearing seat belts.
“The serious injuries sustained by the passengers seated in the passenger compartment of the limo van were caused by flailing and secondary impacts with the interior, other occupants, or intrusion/contact with the vehicle sidewall and roadway …” - NTSB crash report
It’s not that seat belts would have prevented injuries: a massive semi-truck struck the vehicle at 65 mph, but the injuries could have been reduced.
The NTSB investigation points out that occupants of buses, vans and limousines often don’t wear seat belts. The recommendation: limo drivers should give reminders to buckle up, even though these vehicles are designed for passenger conversation and comfort.
“Seat belts save lives, no matter what type of vehicle we are in and no matter who is driving,” NTSB Chairman Christopher Hart added.
A note on seat belt safety, brought to you by Coluccio Law:
Late on Friday, Senator Cory Booker introduced The Truck Safety Act (S. 1739).
The bill would update Reagan-era insurance minimums; pay truckers for their time instead of their mileage; and, make commercial trucks use some of the same safety technology as passenger cars.
Fixing the minimum amount of insurance for trucks
The minimum amount of insurance for a commercial truck in 1980: $750,000
The minimum amount of insurance in 2015: $750,000
Booker’s proposed bill includes a long-overdue market correction: raise the insurance minimum to $1.5 million, and tie the insurance levels to inflation so we don’t have this problem again in another 30 years.
Trucking groups are fighting this fix to the insurance minimum: they shouldn’t be.
Liability and damages in a wrongful death caused by a trucking accident is far more than $750,000. Inadequate insurance puts all drivers, including truckers at risk, especially owner-operators who can’t cover the cost of a court judgment.
It’s also a serious safety issue.
One of the reasons for an insurance minimum is to set an entry-level safety standard for commercial truck drivers.
In short, if you can’t afford the minimum insurance coverage, then you can’t afford routine truck maintenance, brakes, tires and equipment.
That means your truck isn’t safe, and we don’t want it on our roads.
Fixing the pay-per-mile system
The trucking industry pays drivers by the mile, not by the hour. When truckers are stuck in traffic, waiting to unload, or taking their mandatory breaks, they are basically unpaid.
Paying truckers per mile puts an incentive on unsafe behaviors. A trucker may drive fatigued, skip breaks, or speed to make the miles lost from a traffic jam or a sudden storm.
Crash-avoidance braking is a standard safety feature on almost all new cars – but not on heavy tractor-trailers, which can weigh 30 times more than a car.
Requiring this technology in trucks could prevent thousands of serious truck crashes a year.
This bill would require rule-making for commercial motor vehicles to have systems such as forward collision warning systems and lane departure warning systems, and force consideration of speed limiting devices.
What’s Next for Truck Safety Act?
On the whole, Booker’s bill would truly advance commercial motor vehicle safety in the U.S.
Unfortunately, the bill is a long shot.
A competing bill, Senator John Thune’s S. 1732, proposes stripping resources from NHTSA, the federal trucking safety watchdog. This bill would let trucking carriers to hide their safety ratings, and allow teenagers to drive 80,000-pound commercial trucks on our highways.
GovTrack gives that bill an 11% chance of being enacted.
Last month, the House of Representatives quietly passed HR 2577.
It is a bill to fund transportation—but it has provision to stop the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration from updating the minimum insurance policy for commercial trucks … an insurance minimum that hasn’t been updated since 1980.
What the trucking groups have wrong
The Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association (OOIDA), which lobbied for this legislation, issued a statement about HR 2577*. They thanked the House for halting “the FMCSA’s rush to raise these (insurance) requirements.”
It’s been 35 years since the trucking insurance minimum was raised. By no stretch of the imagination is that a “rush.” This is a long-overdue market correction.
OOIDA’s statement makes several other specious claims. Among them:
- that current minimum is sufficient; and
- that raising the minimum insurance requirement will hurt small companies and owner-operators.
Their reasoning: FMCSA data shows “99 percent of crash damages are covered under current requirements.”
First of all, not all trucking groups agree. Trucking Alliance, a lobbying group of large trucking companies, did their own study. They looked at almost 9,000 truck accidents, and found that 42% percent of claims settlements were more than $750,000.
Insufficient insurance doesn’t protect truckers
OOIDA says they want to help and protect small trucking companies and owner-operators.
Blocking a market correction for insurance rates doesn’t do either.
How does it help truckers to have to pay for a minimum insurance policy that doesn’t offer them protection? Motor carriers have to buy the policy, but could still be liable for remainder of a settlement in 42% of insurance claims.
Even if $750,000 covered 99% of the 100,000 people injured in truck accidents every year, the remaining 1% would be the 4,000 truck crash fatalities.
I have seen what happens when an 80,000 lb. truck collides with a car. Liability and damages in a wrongful death caused by a trucking accident is far more than $750,000.
And fatal truck crashes are absolutely devastating for everyone involved – including the trucker.
Inadequate insurance puts a trucking company and a trucker at risk; especially owner-operators who may not be able to cover the cost of a judgment.
OOIDA also argues raising the minimum requirements would raise rates for many small or independent truck owner-operators.
That may be true: insurance rates are usually somewhat commensurate with coverage. By that logic, the cost of a policy would not have changed much since 1985.
But let’s assume rates will go up for truck insurance policies – because that is exactly what is supposed to happen.
If you can’t pay for basic insurance, you shouldn’t be driving a semi-truck on our public highways.
One of the reasons we have a minimum for truck insurance is to establish an entry-level safety standard for commercial truck drivers.
If you can’t afford insurance, then you can’t afford routine truck maintenance, brakes, tires and equipment.
And we don’t want your truck on the road.
Minimum insurance coverage should have been tied to inflation from the start. This adjustment is far from radical, and it is decades overdue.
*OOIDA’s statement is ridiculous, and I’m not going to give it credence by linking to it. You can find it by searching “U.S. House to FMCSA: No arbitrary insurance increases”
What’s really wrong with the trucking industry? Truckers should be paid by the hour.
In June, the US House of Representatives passed a transportation bill – HR 2577– with a strange provision: it stops the Department of Transportation from updating minimum trucking insurance requirements.
Commercial truck insurance minimums haven’t changed in 30 years.
The federal government sets a “floor”: a minimum amount of insurance coverage commercial trucks must carry.
There are good reasons for this, primarily:
- Medical bills, lost wages, and other expenses from truck accidents are covered by the trucking companies, not by the injured persons or the taxpayers; and
- It establishes an entry-level safety standard for commercial truck drivers. If you can’t afford insurance, then you can’t afford brakes, tires, maintenance, etc.
The concept is good. The practice is flawed.
That insurance minimum hasn’t been adjusted for inflation since Reagan was President.
The minimum amount of insurance for a commercial truck, set in 1980: $750,000.
The minimum amount of insurance in 2015: $750,000.
A trucking company that had a minimum insurance policy in 1980 still has the same amount of coverage in 2015.
The problem: costs have increased dramatically.
$750,000 no longer covers catastrophic truck crashes. The bar setting the entry-level safety standard is considerably lower.
Truck insurance needs to catch up with inflation
If minimum trucking insurance rates were tied to the rate of inflation, that number would be a little under $2 million.
In sheer buying power, the current equivalent of 750,000 dollars in 1980 is about $2,150,000.
If rates were tied to medical costs – the bills that are supposed to be covered by this insurance after a truck accident – the minimum would be closer to $4 million.
By every metric, the trucking insurance minimum is at least $1 million off—far too low.
And thousands of trucking accident victims are paying for it.
Congress needs to get out of the way of this long-overdue correction to trucker’s minimum insurance limits.
What happens next?
The House of Representatives attempt to interfere with the FMCSA’s long-overdue increase in insurance requirements (and rolling back trucking safety provisions) could derail entire transportation bill for 2015 – 2016.
The Senate version of the transportation bill, which could go to a floor vote as soon as this week, is different than the House version. It doesn’t directly prohibit FMCSA from updating the 1980-level of minimum insurance requirements. But it does force FMCSA to give Congress an assessment of truck crashes exceeding the minimum insurance coverage, and the potential effects of increased insurance premiums for carriers.
This is a “forward collision avoidance and mitigation braking” system.
When radar and sensors detect a slow-moving vehicle or stopped car ahead, the “F-CAM” system warns truck driver.
If the driver doesn’t brake, the system takes over to avoid an imminent rear-end crash.
Crash-avoidance braking is a standard safety feature on almost all new cars.
But not on heavy tractor-trailers, which can weigh 20-30 times more than a car, and take much longer to stop.
Requiring this technology in trucks could prevent 2,500 truck crashes a year, and hundreds of crash deaths. The economic benefit of preventing those accidents: over $3 billion, according to the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration.
In Europe, these emergency braking systems will be required in all new trucks by November 2015.
Some U.S. trucking carriers use crash-avoidance braking systems voluntarily. Ted Scott, director of engineering for the American Trucking Association said, “many of our companies using them are seeing some significant safety advantages.”
So why aren’t collision-avoidance braking systems mandatory in commercial semi-trucks in the U.S.?
The first self-driving commercial truck in the U.S. is officially on the road in Nevada.
Freightliner, the creator of the autonomous truck, compares the Highway Pilot system to the autopilot on commercial airplanes.
Using stereoscopic cameras and radar sensors, the semi-truck can be switched to autonomous autopilot on the highway.
The truck can steer itself between lane markers, adjust speed, and brake.
It cannot change lanes to pass, or use highway ramps. The truck driver resumes full control by touching the wheel or brakes.Right now, the system is limited to use on highways during daylight hours with clear weather.
With only one truck on the road, it’s hard to predict the long-term effects of autonomous trucking systems.
They do have the potential to improve efficiency. Steady speed will reduce fuel consumption. The auto-option can leave the trucker free to make calls, update route plans, schedule dock time, and do other tasks that would normally distract the truck driver from the road.
More importantly, removing some of the potential for driver mistakes could reduce the number of truck crashes. Currently, about 90% of truck crashes are attributed to human error.
What do you think of autonomous semi-trucks on the road? Let me know – @kevincoluccio
It could have been much, much worse.
Last week, an oversized load on a flatbed semi-truck struck a bridge in Seattle.
The truck was on bottom ramp, heading south on the Alaskan Way Viaduct.
If you’re not familiar with the Viaduct, here’s what it looks like from the side. The oversized load was on the lower bridge.
The truck driver hit the bridge supports with his load of giant metal spools. The spools were about 12 feet in diameter, and 700-1000 pounds each, according to Seattle Police Department.
One of the spools was tilted against the side rail, above the street below.
If the spools had fallen, or the bridge cracked, the results could have been catastrophic.
A Trucker’s Mistakes
First of all, the truck driver and his employer Midwest Specialized Transportation failed to get a permit for driving on the Viaduct, which has a 14-foot height limit.
Had they applied for a permit, the trucker would have known the clearance restrictions, and could have gotten help from the city of Seattle to plan another route.
The truck driver—who should be thanking his lucky stars that no one was injured or killed—was cited $428 for failing to obtain a permit and striking the bridge.
Secondly, it looks like the driver should have had a pilot car escort him through the city.
When load height exceeds the legal limit, it becomes the responsibility of the permit holder to check all underpasses, bridges, overhead wires or any other structures for impaired vertical clearance, and to bypass or arrange clearance at such locations. If you have any questions, call Seattle Transportation Traffic Permits at (206) 684-5086.
14’1” through 14’11” high: 1 pilot car, front
15’ 0” through 15’ 5+” high: 2 pilot cars, front and rear
15’ 6” high or over: City of Seattle Commercial Vehicle Enforcement escort required
Finally, the truck driver should have been able to see for himself that the load was too tall.
There are clearance signs on the Viaduct. A driver behind the semi truck saw the crash:
Seattle Cleans Up
Seattle’s police and fire departments managed to clear the crash site in about two hours. This is remarkable, considering that a truck crash in March took 9 hours to clear, and gridlocked the city for hours.
An overnight inspection by Washington State Department of Transportation determined that the Viaduct was stable, and safe for driving.
This went as well as could be hoped, given the circumstances.
But truck crashes like this remind us that everyone on the road is relying on semi truck drivers and their companies to plan their routes, follow the law, and drive safely.
Image (altered): Seattle – Alaskan Way Viaduct 02″ by Joe Mabel. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.
Trucking companies must drug-test all applicants when hiring truck drivers. A driver must be tested again if he or she is involved in a truck accident that results in a serious injury or fatality. Those results are shared with The Department of Transportation (DOT), which regulates the trucking industry.
Currently, The Department of Transportation (DOT) accepts only one type of drug test: urinalysis.
Last week, The Drug Free Commercial Driver Act of 2015 was introduced in both the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives. The bill would allow the DOT to recognize hair sample drug testing.
Why we need new drug tests for truckers
Urinalysis not very effective in detecting drug use: it only detects drugs used in the previous 2 or 3 days, at most.
Hair testing detects drugs used in the past 60 to 90 days.
Some carriers already use hair testing; the alarming data provided by these companies is part of the basis for the new legislation.
J.B. Hunt Transport data from driver applicants’ drug tests for the past 8 years:
- 110 driver applicants failed a urinalysis
- 3,845 driver applicants failed a hair test
This carrier used hair tests, but many others don’t—in part, because the DOT doesn’t accept the results.
What this means is that the thousands of licensed truck drivers who failed that hair test could have easily passed a urine test, and be driving for another fleet.
Why the trucking industry supports new drug tests
It’s unusual to see industry groups lobby for more—not less—federal regulation.
“ATA is committed to improving highway safety, including doing all we can to prevent individuals who use drugs or alcohol from driving trucks…”
- ATA President and CEO Bill Graves.
In fact, many major carriers have pushed for new drug-testing rules for years. Here’s why:
- Some trucking companies already perform hair tests on their drivers. The new law would let them send those results to the DOT—and stop using the relatively useless urinalysis tests.
- Drugged truckers increase the risk of truck accidents. That makes those drivers an insurance liability to the entire fleet.
- Truckers spend a lot of time behind the wheel: they need highways to be as safe as possible. Thousands of truckers who could pass a urine test, but not necessarily a hair test, are currently on the road.
Follow the progress of the bill on GovTrack.Us
For more on trucking law and safety, follow @kevincoluccio on Twitter
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.