Accidents fuel debate over trucking safety

A tractor trailer sits on top of a crushed car after a multiple car accident on I-16 in Pooler, Ga. on Tuesday, May 19, 2015. (Ian Maule/Savannah Morning News via AP)

A tractor trailer sits on top of a crushed car after a multiple car accident on I-16 in Pooler, Ga. on Tuesday, May 19, 2015. (Ian Maule/Savannah Morning News via AP)

Georgia Freightways Corp. owned the truck involved in Tuesday’s tragedy near Savannah. The company ’s record isn’t spotless, but it’s better than average for the trucking industry and is classified as satisfactory, according to data on the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration website.

Georgia Freightways has been cited for nine unsafe driving violations since December 2013. Four were for speeding, two were for failing to use a seat belt, one was for having an unauthorized passenger on board and one was for texting while driving. Its fleet of 23 vehicles has been involved in two crashes in the past two years, one of which resulted in an injury.

Same stretch of road: Interstate 16 in southeast Georgia. Same horrific circumstances: tractor-trailer plows into stalled traffic from behind. Same number of fatalities: five. The crash near Pooler this week was, to one state trooper, almost a re-enactment of the one that killed five nursing students less than a month ago.

And the carnage of both added even more fuel to the already fierce debate over trucking safety regulations.

U.S. Rep. Buddy Carter, a Republican from Pooler, said the wrecks are “tearing our city up.”

“I signed a letter just last week to Secretary Foxx that we need to review our policies and rules about trucks on the streets and on the interstates,” Carter said, referring to U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx. “At the same time, they’re very important. They’re very important to the Georgia ports in moving cargo back and forth. But there is a balance and we can make that balance work.”

In Tuesday’s accident, witnesses told police they saw the tractor-trailer “drifting in and out of lanes” on eastbound I-16, near the highway’s interchange with I-95 in Savannah. Then the truck ran into three cars and a pickup truck before striking another heavy truck, which then rammed into third, the Savannah Morning News reported.

Killed in the crash were: Wendy Melton, 39, of Reidsville, Brittanie Altman, 16, of Claxton, Virgil Moody, 19, of Hagan, Jerry Earnest, 71, of Varnell, and Glenda Adams, 72, of Cohutta. The tractor-trailer driver, David Gibbons, 61, of Pooler, did not seem to be injured.

State Patrol Sgt. Chris Nease, who worked both wrecks, said Tuesday’s was “almost an exact glimpse” of the tragedy on April 22, the Morning News said.

Collision avoidance systems

Federal policy makers are weighing a number of trucking regulations, including some proposals that would loosen restrictions on truck lengths and driver hours. Also under discussion: federal rules that would require safety technologies like speed governors and collision avoidance systems.

The challenge is to improve safety without harming commerce or creating unnecessary restrictions — at a time when trucking is expanding. The Port of Savannah, for example, is expected to grow by 5 percent annually over the next 10 years, which will also result in more truck traffic in Georgia.

Highway safety advocates say Tuesday’s crash and others like it might have been prevented if the trucks had a collision avoidance system. The technology, already used by some trucking companies, applies the brakes and stability control whenever a vehicle is quickly closing on another object.

“Nobody should be surprised that truck drivers who can legally work over 80 hours a week – more than twice a normal work week – are occasionally distracted or fatigued,” said Stephen Owings of Road Safe America. “So that’s another really big reason this equipment should be required on heavy trucks.”

A coalition of trucking safety organizations filed a petition in February asking Congress to require collision avoidance systems on all heavy trucks.

They are also asking that speed governors be mandatory on trucks. All trucks made in the United States since 1992 come with governors that limit the vehicle’s top speed, but truckers are not required to use them. The U.S. Department of Transportation has been engaged in a long, bureaucratic process of creating a rule that would require them to do so.

U.S. Sens. Johnny Isakson and David Perdue both endorse the requirement for governors and have been pushing for the U.S. DOT to swiftly adopt a final rule.

The American Trucking Associations supports the mandatory use of speed governors and is leaning toward supporting collision avoidance systems as well, said the association’s Dave Osiecki.

Truckers resist rules on sleep

But trucking industry and safety advocacy organizations are miles apart when it comes to how many hours truckers should be driving. A controversial “hours of service” rule reinstated in December overturned a 2013 rule that was unpopular with truck drivers because it forced them to take two breaks between 1 a.m. and 5 a.m. each week.

The U.S. House is considering a yearly spending bill that includes a provision to make that change permanent.

Trucking safety advocates say truckers need two nights of consecutive rest if they are to get restorative sleep.

Osiecki counters that the average trucker works a 52-hour week and doesn’t want to be told when to sleep.

Jesse Mitchell, 51, of Claxton, has been a trucker for 25 years. He wasn’t surprised at the immediate backlash that some motorists had toward truckers following Tuesday’s crash. It happens all too often, he said.

He said it’s also all too often that he sees aggressive motorists cutting off truckers or distracted drivers causing accidents.

Distracted driving is believed to be a major factor in a recent uptick in fatal accidents of all kinds in Georgia this year, according to the Georgia Department of Transportation.

“Most of us out here try to do the right thing,” Mitchell said. “We’ve got a few that make us look bad, like anything else. That’s why we have to work to get along, because we’ve got all different kinds of people in this country. It takes all of us to work together and not point fingers at one or the other.”