Changes can avert truck tragedies

Darren Penn is president of the Georgia Trial Lawyers Association.

Recently, for the second time in less than a month, five innocent lives were lost on I-16 when the driver of a tractor-trailer reportedly failed to stop – or even apply the brakes – before slamming into drivers trapped in standstill traffic in front of them.

These tragic crashes occurred just miles apart and have eerie similarities that highlight one very stark reality: Lives are being lost at an alarming rate due to the recklessness, carelessness or lack of awareness by tractor-trailer drivers. We as a country are not doing enough to change that.

For years, highway safety advocates have called on Congress, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the Department of Transportation’s Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration to address the disturbing number of commercial motor vehicle-related fatalities and injuries across the country. While incremental progress has been made in certain areas, many options remain readily available that would immediately make our highways safer for everyone.

Highway safety advocates agree that requiring the installation and use of forward collision-avoidance and mitigation systems and speed governors on all tractor-trailers would reduce the number and severity of truck crashes.

Forward Collision Avoidance Systems: This technology alerts the driver and takes over the brakes and engine of the tractor-trailer when an imminent collision is anticipated. It's already fully developed and is a standard feature on most new automobiles. Estimated cost? Less than $500 per vehicle to retrofit current tractor-trailers to meet this standard. On average, according to NHTSA, two to three rear-end collisions involving tractor-trailers occur somewhere in the U.S. every hour.

Speed Governors: Every tractor-trailer manufactured since 1992 comes from the factory with a speed governor as standard equipment. It sets a pre-determined speed limit the vehicle cannot exceed. Unfortunately, many trucking companies and individual truckers opt not to use them, putting profits ahead of safety by racing the clock and risking lives. However, companies that voluntarily require the use of speed governors report that, in addition to being safer on the roads, their tractor-trailers also are more profitable due to saved fuel; they last longer because of the reduced wear and tear; and they have lower liability costs by reducing the number and severity of crashes.

Numbers don’t lie. Georgia is among the top five states in the U.S. in truck-related fatalities. The U.S. Department of Transportation estimates there are nearly 100,000 injuries and 4,000 deaths nationwide each year as a result of tractor-trailer crashes.

How many more lives must be lost as a result of under-regulated tractor-trailers before our leaders get serious about holding the trucking industry to the highest standards of safety? It is the Georgia Trial Lawyers Association’s top priority to save lives. I am confident that requiring the use of forward collision avoidance systems and speed governors on all tractor-trailers would be counted among the most significant safety improvements to our highways in American history.