Technology that could curb truck deaths is mired in DC bureaucracy

Deadly, rear-end tractor trailer crashes

After a spate of deaths, highway safety advocates want the federal government to make collision avoidance and mitigation systems mandatory on all heavy vehicles. Some fatal crashes in recent years:

Elizabethtown, Ky., March 2, 2013: When northbound traffic on I-65 slows for a disabled vehicle, a Kentworth tractor trailer rear ends a Ford Expedition carrying an extended family returning to Wisconsin from a trip to Orlando, Fla. The Expedition is pushed into another car and catches fire. Two children, ages 15 and 12, escape, but the flames engulf six others.

Cobb County, Nov. 14, 2013: A tractor trailer collides with construction traffic on I-75, causing an eight-car pileup with black smoke billowing into the sky. Gregory Alan Millsaps, 47, dies when his SUV is engulfed in flames. A passenger in a minivan, Barbara Phenicie, 71, is flown to WellStar Kennestone Hospital and pronounced dead.

New Jersey Turnpike, June 7, 2014: A Wal-Mart truck hits a limousine-van carrying actor-comedian Tracy Morgan and others, killing comedian James "Jimmy Mack" McNair. Morgan suffers head trauma, a broken leg and broken ribs. The truck driver, Kevin Roper of Jonesboro, Ga., had been awake for 28 hours, NTSB investigators said. The truck had an older-model collision-avoidance system that didn't avert the accident.

Bryan County, April 22, 2015: A tractor trailer runs into the back of a traffic jam caused by another wreck further up I-16. The truck hits two cars carrying Georgia Southern University nursing students en route to a Savannah hospital for clinical training. Five women die and two are seriously injured. According to a lawsuit, truck driver John Wayne Johnson didn't apply his brakes or try to swerve, striking the cars at highway speed.

Screven County, May 20, 2015: For unclear reasons, a loaded fuel tanker strikes a musician in a wheelchair and his escort van on a straight, flat stretch of Ga. 21. Frank Barham, 59, a paraplegic and chromatic harmonica player, dies while wheeling from Atlanta to Savannah to raise money for charity. The escort van catches fire, killing passenger Margaret Kargbo, 36.

Chattanooga, Tenn., June 25, 2015: A tractor trailer crashes into construction traffic on I-75, killing six people, including two children. According to news reports, truck driver Benjamin Brewer tested positive for crystal meth, and National Transportation Safety Board investigators said he had been on duty for 50 hours straight.

NTSB investigative findings

According to a special investigative report released this year by the National Transportation Safety Board, in 2011 and 2012 two-vehicle rear-end crashes caused 3,491 deaths — 2,700 of them attributed to a passenger vehicle, tractor trailer, or other commercial truck striking another vehicle from behind. The NTSB analysis found that 2,220 lives might have been saved by collision avoidance systems.

Here’s a breakdown of 2011 and 2012 rear-end wrecks caused by …

Passenger vehicles

Fatalities: 2,292

Potentially preventable: 1,884 (82 percent)

Injuries: 1,027,756

Potentially preventable: 962,878 (94 percent)

Commercial vehicles (such as heavy pickups, box trucks and dump trucks)

Fatalities: 109

Potentially preventable: 89 (82 percent)

Injuries: 12,086

Potentially preventable: 10,529 (87 percent)

Tractor Trailers

Fatalities: 299

Potentially preventable: 247 (83 percent)

Injuries: 10,563

Potentially preventable: 8,344 (79 percent)

* The NTSB report listed fatalities in three categories based on vehicle classes. Injuries were divided between passenger vehicles, commercial vehicles and commercial tractor trailers.

Technology that’s already on the market could prevent tractor-trailers from slamming into the backs of cars, sparing the lives of people like the 13 killed on I-16 this year.

But only if most, if not all, big rigs have the latest systems plugged in.

After a spate of deaths from rear-end tractor trailer crashes in Georgia and elsewhere, including one in New Jersey last year that seriously injured comedian Tracy Morgan, road safety advocates are again pushing the federal government to make the technology mandatory on all heavy commercial trucks. It uses radar to detect stalled traffic ahead, then takes over braking if the driver doesn't react.

The effort to require such systems on the biggest trucks on the road has been mired in Washington bureaucracy, though.

The federal agency that investigates highway catastrophes is accusing the U.S. Department of Transportation of stalling, scolding the department for not taking steps sooner to spur the technology’s development and mandate it for commercial vehicles.

If such systems had been in place in 2011 and 2012, they could have saved 250 people who died in rear-end tractor-trailer crashes, according to a recent report by the National Transportation Safety Board.

And earlier this month, the powerful House Rules Committee refused to consider an amendment to a $325 billion transportation policy bill. The measure proposed by Rep. Hank Johnson, D-Lithonia, would have required the technology on commercial motor vehicles after three years.

Through a spokeswoman, Rules Chairman Pete Sessions, of Texas, would not provide an explanation, saying the committee handles too many proposals to comment on them individually.

“The rules committee decided in its abundant wisdom that it was not in order,” Johnson said. “They don’t have to give a reason.”

Even if the government does set a new standard, it would take years to implement because older-model trucks can’t be retrofitted and the systems would have to be gradually phased in on newer trucks.

“Nothing moves quickly in Washington, unless it involves planes,” Stephen Owings, a safety advocate from Atlanta whose son died in 2002 when a tractor-trailer struck him from behind on a Virginia highway. “Unfortunately, too many people are like I was before my son was killed. They might have a bad experience with a truck, then they just move on.”

How the federal government regulates commercial vehicles has major implications for Georgians right now. Truck traffic is expected to grow once the Savannah Port is deepened and more container ships dispatch their cargo to metro Atlanta and beyond.

Yet a recent Atlanta Journal-Constitution analysis found that the rate of commercial vehicle crashes in Georgia jumped 38 percent between 2011 and 2013, while state safety inspectors checked fewer vehicles and removed fewer drivers for infractions.

Reducing highway carnage

Automatic braking systems available since the mid 2000s could detect slower-moving vehicles ahead. Recently, the technology got even better. Software introduced this year can react to stationary cars.

Through a radar device mounted on the front bumper, a truck barrelling toward traffic can detect an impending collision. If the driver is too distracted, intoxicated, incapacitated or fast asleep to slow down, automatic braking takes over. Many newer-model cars already have the systems, known as collision avoidance or collision mitigation.

Rep. Johnson said the months of carnage on the expressway between Macon and Savannah prompted him to question why tractor-trailers shouldn’t have the same technology already in cars.

Detractors, though, complain that the technology might actually cause more crashes, giving irresponsible drivers an excuse to take their eyes off the road.

Independent truckers also contend it would also give an economic edge to the companies hiring the most inexperienced drivers and force small businesses to pay thousands of dollars per truck for the systems, while bigger haulers would get bulk deals that cost only hundreds of dollars per truck. While current list prices range from about $4,000 to $7,000 per vehicle, the price could drop to as little as $500 if the systems were mass produced.

The Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association, a truckers’ lobbying group, has its reasons for being wary.

With driver shortages plaguing the industry, big trucking companies have been churning out more drivers with less training, and automatic braking might become a “crutch” for inexperienced drivers, said Scott Grenerth, the association’s director of regulatory affairs.

He's also not convinced the technology can stop crashes, rather causing trucks to hit cars at slower speeds if the systems even work at all. Experts for manufacturers interviewed for this story concede that's a risk, which is why they prefer the term collision mitigation to collision avoidance.

“Our bigger, broader concern with this,” Grenerth said, “is that this and other technologies — gadgets, gizmos, whatever you might want to call it — are not replacement for a well-trained driver.”

One crash after another

The truck driver and collision avoidance systems came under scrutiny in April, after five Georgia Southern University nursing students were killed and two others suffered catastrophic injuries after a truck smashed into their vehicle. At the time, the student nurses were in traffic caused by another wreck further up the interstate near Savannah.

The truck in the crash was equipped with collision avoidance, according to a lawsuit filed on behalf of victims. Plaintiffs’ attorney Joe Fried said it’s not clear why it didn’t work, but most likely because it was an older-model system that couldn’t react to stopped cars. (The Wal-Mart truck in Morgan's crash also had an older system that for unclear reasons didn't avert the accident.)

Fried, who represents three of the victims in the I-16 crash, said documents show truck driver John Wayne Johnson had been fired from an earlier job in 2011 after falling asleep at the wheel and crashing a rig, but U.S. Express/Total Transportation of Mississippi hired him anyway.

A month after that wreck, motorists saw another semi drifting in and out of its lane on the same stretch of I-16. It slammed into the back of construction traffic in Pooler, striking three cars, a pickup and another 18-wheeler, and killing five more people. Truck driver David Gibbons might have fallen asleep, police said.

Then in June, a tractor-trailer driven by 56-year-old Christopher Hinson struck the back of a Toyota Scion along I-16 in Truetlen County, killing three people. The driver said he was distracted by a deer, according to Georgia State Patrol.

For its recent report, NTSB investigated nine rear-end crashes from 2012 to 2014, caused both by cars and commercial vehicles, in which 28 people died and 90 were injured. It highlighted a 2013 crash on I-65 in Kentucky, in which six family members burned in an SUV, struck from behind by a trucker who had been on the road beyond the legal hours limit and was likely exhausted, NTSB said.

Five years earlier, the board had recommended that DOT find out if warning systems with automatic braking could reduce accidents, and if so, require them. DOT’s “lack of progress” has been unacceptable and disappointing, the report says, because it’s clear now that the systems can prevent crashes, or at least make them less disastrous.

The board is calling on manufacturers to, at a minimum, make collision warning systems standard both in commercial trucks and passenger vehicles. It’s also imploring DOT to establish performance requirements and testing procedures “as soon as possible,” setting standards for reliable products.

No quick fix

After their son Cullum died in a crash on his way back to college, struck from behind by a truck on cruise control, Owings and his wife formed Road Safe America, a nonprofit promoting driver safety. It was one of four groups that petitioned the U.S. Department of Transportation in February to make collision avoidance systems federally required for vehicles heavier than 10,000 pounds.

Unless Congress decides to pass Johnson’s bill or a similar one, DOT rulemaking is the only avenue safety advocates have left, and it’s a protracted process. Just getting DOT to agree to consider a petition can take years, then studying the technology and hearing from supporters and detractors can take years more.

Five months after being criticized for foot dragging, DOT’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration agreed in October to consider the collision avoidance petition, faster than expected.

“The agency is unable to estimate at this time when it will be ready to make a decision on whether to issue a final rule,” a DOT spokeswoman said in an email.

Owings said he’s hopeful the agency will fast-track a ruling, given the years it would take to enact the new regulation, then to give trucking companies time to update their fleets.

“It’d make us a lot safer than we are now,” Owings said, “and as time went on, we’d get a lot safer. You’ve got to start somewhere. It’s just like seat belts.”

According to an industry estimate, only 8 to 10 percent of tractor trailers in the U.S. had collision avoidance as of 2013, the NTSB report said. The Truck Safety Coalition, which co-filed the petition, estimates the figure is less than 3 percent.

“This is one of those cases where there’s a known problem, and you have an effective solution to the problem, and we should all be working together to move forward on this,” said John Lannen, executive director of the coalition. “There’s literally lives at stake.”