Feds stall on technology that could prevent horrific truck deaths

Five Georgia Southern University nursing students didn't have to die in a traffic jam on I-16 this year.

Mourners view a photograph of Catherine “McKay” Pittman, 21, one of five Georgia Southern University nursing students killed in an I-16 highway crash in April, during services at First Baptist Church of Alpharetta. DAVID TULIS / SPECIAL

A paraplegic musician raising money for charity didn't have to be run down in his wheelchair in Screven County.

Six family members didn't have to perish in a burning SUV on a Kentucky highway.

Actor-comedian Tracy Morgan didn't have to suffer brain injury and broken bones, while another comedian in the limo bus, James McNair, died on the New Jersey Turnpike.

There's new technology on the market that could keep tractor trailers from slamming into the backs of traffic jams or slower-moving vehicles, as was the case in all of those highway wrecks. Known as collision avoidance or collision mitigation, the systems detect impending wrecks on radar and take over the brakes if the driver is too distracted, asleep, intoxicated or incapacitated to slow down. Crashes could be prevented altogether, or at least made less severe.

The trucks in both Morgan's and the nursing students' crashes had older-model collision avoidance that, for unclear reasons, didn't avert the accidents. This year, manufacturers introduced a new generation of systems that take over braking not only for slow-moving vehicles ahead, but stationary ones as well – a major advancement.

A tractor trailer sits on top of a crushed car after a multiple-car accident in Pooler in May. Five people died in the crash, one of three on I-16 this year in which heavy trucks hit cars from behind. IAN MAULE / SAVANNAH MORNING NEWS VIA AP

But that technology, and a federal law requiring it in heavy commercial vehicles, could have been here sooner, the National Transportation Safety Board alleged in a recent report. For decades, NTSB, which investigates highway catastrophes, has been urging the U.S. Department of Transportation to study the technology and help spur its development.

Progress has been slow, insufficient and unacceptable, the agency said. And earlier this month, a Congressional committee dealt another blow to the movement to equip every big truck with collision mitigation technology.

"It should obviously be on trucks," said John Lannen, executive director of the Truck Safety Coalition. "You're talking about the worst of the worst crashes."

Click here to read The Atlanta Journal-Constitution's in-depth report on how Washington bureaucracy has stunted technology that could save lives, and could make stopping for a traffic jam far less treacherous.

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About the Author

Johnny Edwards
Johnny Edwards
Johnny Edwards is a member of the AJC’s investigative team, focusing on the private sector and state and federal regulation. He has worked at the newspaper...