4.5 percent of all registered vehicles in the American auto fleet are trucks making up roughly 9 percent of total miles traveled. Trucks, however, are significantly overrepresented as a percentage of vehicles involved with fatal work zone crashes. According to statistics cited by NTSB panelists, from 2000 to 2012 large commercial trucks were involved in 23.8 percent of fatal work zone crashes. In 2013, that percentage increased to 28 percent of fatal construction zone crashes. It was a rear-end work zone collision that took the life of James “Jimmy Mack” McNair and inflicted a severe TBI and other life—altering injuries on Tracy Morgan.
On Tuesday morning, an NHTSA hearing was conducted to determine the cause of the 2014 New Jersey Turnpike crash. While the meeting largely focused on the fatigued driver, perhaps the most shocking revelation to come from the meeting is that the accident was completely preventable. To start with, there was only a small likelihood that, even absent the traffic, the driver would have been able to reach his destination before his hours of service limits would have elapsed. Had the driver deferred the journey to the next day, he actually would have made more money due to Walmart’s incentive structure due to layover and sleep pay. Furthermore had the truck driver braked at the same time as he did in reality, but been traveling at the posted reduced speed limit the truck would had been able to stop in time to prevent the accident.
The Commercial Truck Driver Was Fatigued at the Time of the Accident
The first substantive issue to be addressed by the committee was the evidence regarding the fatigued commercial truck driver. While the driver and his immediate family members declined to be interviewed, an NHTSA analysis of his schedule revealed that the driver merely had 4 hours of “sleep opportunity in [the] 33 hours prior and had been awake in excess of 28 hours at the time of the crash.” At the hearing the driver’s schedule was recounted including that he:
- Commuted overnight 800 miles, 12 hours, from his home in Georgia to the Delaware trucking facility.
- This commute caused him to miss a full sleep cycle.
- The driver began driving commercially the following morning after setting out from the Delaware facility.
- The driver continued to drive commercially over the course of the day until arriving at the Bristol facility.
- When the driver accepted the cargo at the Bristol facility he had less than one hour of driving time remaining and 57 hours until he needed to pick up the load.
The fatigued driver then left the Bristol facility and traveled from Pennsylvania to New Jersey. On the New Jersey Turnpike the driver approached the stopped traffic which was visible for more than a half-mile. However, the driver did not brake until he was only 200 feet from the vehicles ahead. The probable cause for the accident’s cause, as adopted by the NTSB board, reads:
The board determines that the probable cause of the Cranbury crash was the Walmart truck driver’s fatigue due to his failure to obtain sleep before reporting for duty. That resulted in his delayed reaction to slowing for the stopped traffic ahead. The speed was in excess of the posted limit and the fact that the passengers seated in the compartment of the limo van did not have an available seat belts and head restraints.
The Truck Driver had Been Identified for Previous Violations
Many trucking companies employ systems that use cellular phones and devices to automatically send messages to truck driver managers and supervisors when a critical event report is produced. A critical event report (CER) is produced when a driver takes action that could produce a rollover. When a driver produces a CER, counseling or corrective action is generally warranted. At Walmart, the truck driver’s employer, a driver’s bonus was apparently tied to the number of CERs produced.
In the fifteen weeks since the truck driver’s hire, he had triggered 9 CER alerts. At the time, Walmart lacked policies and procedures to analyze CER reports. However, the number of reports was apparently significant enough to warrant the loss of the driver’s safety bonus at the company.
Recommendations to Prevent Fatigue Motivated Crashes
The NTSB proposed a number of measures to increase highway safety and reduce the likelihood of a similar accident occurring. Some of the recommendations include:
- Pre-trip safety information – In a social environment such as a limo or coach bus, it is not uncommon for passengers to neglect safety measures. As it has done in the past, NTSB recommends a pre-trip safety bulletin informing passengers of the safety features and emergency exists the vehicle is equipped with. IN this case the board emphasized instruction regarding adjusting head rests to prevent head, neck, and spine injuries. In accidents where the main entrance is blocked and there is a risk of fire, seconds can make all the difference.
- North American Fatigue Management Program – The NAFMP is intended to help drivers and organizations take a comprehensive approach to fatigue management. NTSB recommends that all commercial trucking operations adopt fatigue management protocols. In assessing the risk NTSB board member Robert Sumwalt stated, “I shudder to think what would have happened if this vehicle had caught fire.”
- Modifications to Limo Safety Standards – The limousine involved in this accident was a modified Mercedes Sprinter. The limo was only equipped with a single side passenger exit that can be blocked if the vehicle rolls over. NTSB recommends NHTSA to adopt standards requiring at least one other exit on the rear or roof of the vehicle.
The foregoing represents only a handful of the recommendations issued by NTSB. While this accident was apparently NTSB’s first chance to assess forward collision avoidance systems, the board largely declined to do so because the sampling rate was too low.
Injured by a Commercial Truck?
This tragic accident illustrates how dangerous a fatigue driver can be – especially when the driver is operating a big rig that dwarfs most other vehicles on the roadway. If you or a loved one have suffered a life-altering injury due to a fatigues or reckless truck driver, the experienced commercial truck accident attorneys of The Reiff Law Firm can fight for you. To schedule a free and confidential legal consultation, call us at (215) 246-9000 today.