Deaths in truck crashes can be reduced if feds take these steps now, national safety board says

Last updated: 04-12-2021

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Deaths in truck crashes can be reduced if feds take these steps now, national safety board says

The independent federal government agency that investigates transportation crashes on Tuesday said limiting how fast trucks can go and installing braking systems to automatically stop trucks before crashing into the vehicle in front of them are among its 10 most wanted safety improvements for the next two years.

The National Transportation Safety Board included several long-standing recommendations designed to reduce crashes on the nation’s highways. NJ Advance Media reported that in January that 5,005 people died in truck crashes in 2019, up 36% over a decade, while safety solutions were ignored by the government and industry.

In trying to end crashes caused by speeding, the safety board called for developing standards to limit how fast trucks and buses can do, and then require they be installed on new heavy vehicles.

The board also called on federal regulators to issue standards for commercial vehicle systems warning drivers of collisions and automatically stopping a truck or bus, and then to require such technology in all vehicles.

“We’ve called for a long time for collision avoidance systems on trucks,” Board Chair Robert Sumwalt said.

The U.S. House last year approved transportation legislation that gave the federal government one year to set standards for automatic braking systems and require them to be turned on when a truck was being driven. Rep. Tom Malinowski, D-7th Dist., a member of the House Transportation Committee said that lawmakersplanned to include the provision in its new infrastructure legislation.

A coalition of 40 safety groups, insurance companies, consumer organizations, labor unions and others asked Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg to include safety measures such as automatic breaking and collision warning systems in trucks in the new $2 trillion infrastructure bill.

Another most wanted safety improvement was ending distracted driving, such as the use of cell phones or other devices by a driver. April is Distracted Driving Awareness Month.

Dan Horvath, vice president for safety policy for the American Trucking Associations, an industry group, said that’s a major issue for truckers.

“We hear it all the time from drivers out there that it’s a huge issue,” Horvath said.

U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., and Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi, D-Ill., have introduced legislation providing funding to states to enforce distracted driving laws.

The safety board said it has spent more than 25 years calling for systems designed to avoid collisions.

“These are marathons and it takes a long time,” said Cathy Chase, president of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, an alliance of consumer, health, law enforcement and insurance industry groups. “Unfortunately, a lot of preventable deaths are happening, which is the true tragedy, while we have the proper technology to prevent or mitigate fatalities and injuries.”

Missing from this year’s most wanted list are efforts to address driver fatigue, including testing for sleep apnea, which has been blamed for at least two recent fatal crashes in New Jersey.

“It does not mean it’s not important,” Sumwalt said. “What we’re looking for are those recommendations that are ripe for action. We felt there were other issues that were more ripe to be implemented.”

The safety board blamed driver fatigue for the June 2014 fatal crash on the New Jersey Turnpike that seriously injured comedian Tracy Morgan and killed fellow comedian James McNair. A Wal-Mart tractor-trailer crashed into a limo bus carrying Morgan and others in Cranbury, setting off a chain reaction collision that eventually involved six vehicles and 21 people.

And the probable cause of the September 2016 fatal train crash at Hoboken Terminal, which killed one person and injured 108 others, was the engineer’s fatigue due to undiagnosed obstructive sleep apnea, the safety board said.

The Federal Railroad Administration and Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration in March 2016 proposed requiring such testing, but the agencies dropped their effortsafter President Donald Trump took office.

The House bill gave the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration six months to study the risks associated with untreated sleep apnea and 12 months to begin drafting a rule to address the issue for drivers of commercial vehicles.

The other 2021-22 most-wanted improvements were:

-- prevent driving under the influence of alcohol and drugs

-- use crash-resistant flight recorders and set up flight data monitoring programs

-- improve the detection and mitigation of pipeline leaks

-- improve the safety of passenger and fishing boats.

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Jonathan D. Salantmay be reached at jsalant@njadvancemedia.com. Follow him at @JDSalant.

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