Large commercial trucks are undoubtedly a vital and necessary part of the American economy. Eighteen-wheelers, flatbed trucks and large box trucks are responsible for carrying the vast majority of goods to businesses, markets and retail stores. Commercial delivery trucks deliver packages and goods to both residences and business. Construction vehicles travel along our highways and roadways to both urban and rural worksites. We are extremely reliant on large commercial trucks, but that does not mean that they should escape reasonable safety regulations that are designed to prevent unreasonably risky behavior.
In this first part of a two-part article series, we will identify and explore a number of the recommendations raised by National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) regarding highway transportation and commercial trucks. The agency claims that Congress has, for too long, rested on its laurels. As 2014 represents the fourth year where trucking accident fatalities increased, the time to take action is now. Otherwise, we are likely to the trend and the pattern of fatalities increasing on a yearly basis is likely to continue through 2015.
Tracy Morgan and the North Central Texas College Softball Team Crashes Sounded The Alarm
The commercial trucking accident on the New Jersey Turnpike that took the life of comedian James “Jimmy Mack” McNair and severely injured actor and comedian Tracy Morgan was the first wake-up call for American motorists that something was amiss regarding the safety requirements for commercial drivers. Following the accident where the driver, Kevin Roper, was driving Wal-Mart tractor-trailer, reports surfaced that Mr. Roper had not slept for more than 24 hours. For many Americans, and perhaps not altogether different from the accident that took the life of Jane Mansfield and galvanized public support for safety measures such as the Mansfield bars, these events involving a beloved actor represented a cultural moment or realization where a large number of Americans came to understand that a similar fate could await them simply due to their status as a motorist. From that realization, regular people were outraged that a fatigued driver could be permitted and expected to drive and have asked their representatives to do more.
While it was not reported as widely as the Tracy Morgan accident, the October 2014 accident that involved a Texas college softball team was, at least equally disturbing and heart-rending. In this instance, the driver of a 2013 Peterbilt tractor, Russell Staley, was about 50 miles north of the Oklahoma-Texas border. He was driving in the left lane of the roadway when his vehicle began to veer further to the left. The tractor-trailer traveled onto the median, and then onto the other side of the roadway crossing into oncoming traffic. According to the NTSB, the truck initially hit struck the bus carrying the 15 softball players directly behind the driver-side door. Four students were fatally injured in the crash; others suffered catastrophic injuries including one instance of a broken pelvis.
According to an eyewitness who helped the driver, when asked as to how or why he lost control of the vehicle the driver responded, “I run off the road, and that’s all I remember.” A police investigation uncovered a number of prescription drugs and drug paraphernalia that emanated the odor of burnt marijuana. The driver told police that he had been distracted before the crash, but he apparently failed to elaborate any further. Investigators are probing whether the distraction was due to the driver falling asleep, being rendered unconscious due to prescription or illegal drug use, or whether a mechanical problem with the vehicle had diverted his attention.
Unfortunately, the type of commercial trucking accidents discussed above is not uncommon. NTSB is also investigating an April 2014 tractor-trailer crash where the commercial truck crossed the median into oncoming traffic. This particular accident took 10 lives and injured 40
NTSB’s Most Wanted List Targets Commercial Trucking Safety Improvements
The Most Wanted List announced by NTSB identifies the commercial trucking industry as one where safety changes are necessary to reduce the number of preventable injuries and accidents. NTSB reports that in 2012 alone, almost 4,000 people were wrongfully killed and more than 100,000 people suffered an injury due to a trucking accident As the rate of fatal accidents has increased year-after-year NTSB has identified a number of key areas in the commercial trucking industry to target in order to improve. Working with Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) and National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), the key areas identified for commercial safety improvements are:
- Measures that keep fatigued drivers off of the roadways including science-based and data-dependent rules for hours-of-service regulations.
- Improved utilization of proven life-saving technology.
- Routine inspections of commercial vehicles and proper fleet maintenance must be improved.
- Driver distractions must be minimized while still preserving access to mission-critical data and information.
- Substance abuse by commercial motor vehicles operators must be curtailed.
- Enhanced measures to ensure a driver or operator’s medical fitness for duty should be enacted.
The remainder of this post will address the first item on NTSB’s Most Wanted List. Subsequent posts will discuss the remaining 5 measures is greater detail.
NTSB Says Priorities Must Change Regarding Hours-Of Service Regulations
While regulators took the positive step of enacting science-based hours-of-service regulations, those regulations swiftly came under attack by the trucking industry. In brief, the hours-of-service regulations had limited the number of hours a commercial driver was permitted to operate his or her vehicle. The regulations included:
- A driver was authorized to operate his or her vehicle for no more than 11 hours once the driver began his or her day.
- A driver was mandated to take a 30-minute break if the driver has been on duty for 8 hours or more.
- Drivers were required to complete their 11 hours of daily driving within a 14 hour period of time.
- Drivers were also limited to 60 or 70 hours of a rolling 7 or 8 day period, respectively.
Unfortunately, these rules are no longer in effect. Senator Suzanne Collins of Maine attached an amendment to the omnibus spending bill that suspends many of these science-based regulations. The bill also added Wisconsin, Kentucky and Mississippi to states that have received an exemption regarding certain limits on truck size. Senator Collins’ amendment also requires the US DoT to restudy the impacts and measures of hours-of-service regulations. However, in the meantime, the commercial trucking industry is undoubtedly reaping the benefits of the rolled back regulations. Unfortunately this likely means that a greater number of fatigued commercial drivers may be present on the highways and roadways thus creating an increased risk of severe injury due to a commercial trucking accident.
Steps that regulators can take to improve the current situation include formulating and enacting revised hours-of-service regulations as rapidly as is practicable. Regulators are also in the process of devising regulations that would require the use of electronic logging devices in commercial trucks to better ensure regulatory compliance regarding the hourly limits. Regulators should also consider the links between fatigue and medical conditions like sleep apnea. Furthermore, the links between fatigue, alcohol, prescription drugs, and illegal drugs should also be explored.
Rely on Experienced Attorneys If You Have Been Injured In A Commercial Trucking Accident
The next segment in this series will explore several more of NTSB’s Most Wanted safety changes including how the use of proven life-saving technology and proper fleet maintenance can save lives. However, if you have already been injured in a serious commercial trucking accident, do not delay in contacting an experienced attorney. At The Reiff Law Firm we have fought for those catastrophically injured in serious trucking accidents for 34 years. To schedule a free and private initial legal consultation call (215) 246-9000 today.