NTSB Sheds Light on the Factors That Led to Deadly Truck Accident

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The September 26, 2014, crash between a large truck and a college softball team’s bus was a major tragedy. However, until recently, explanations as to why the CDL driver of the truck lost control of his vehicle have been incomplete or awaiting confirmation. On November 17, 2015, National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) announced that its investigation had reached a final conclusion as to the likely cause of the crash. Furthermore, the agency presents several safety recommendations intended to prevent an accident of this type from reoccurring.

The commercial vehicle accident occurred on Interstate 35 North which is located not far from Davis, Oklahoma. The softball team had traveled from Gainesville, Texas to Bethany, Oklahoma to participate in a softball scrimmage. On their return from the tournament, a tractor-trailer driven by Russell Wayne Staley went out of control and crossed onto the wrong side of the highway. Staley’s truck apparently successfully traveled through a slight right-hand curve, but the vehicle’s driver did not correct as the road straightened. The truck departed the left lane in the northbound lanes and crossed the roughly 100-foot-wide median before entering onto the southbound side of the highway while traveling in the wrong direction. The commercial truck would progress forward for at least another 1,000 feet before striking the softball team’s bus.

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The truck’s collision with the bus cost four young softball players their lives. Five individuals in the crash were seriously injured. Six other people suffered minor crashes in the crash.

NTSB Blames Synthetic Cannabinoid Use by the Truck Driver for the Crash

For a while, interested parties wondered how the truck driver could have allowed his vehicle to travel so far off of its intended path. Some speculated that the truck driver was perhaps impacted by a medical condition or a medical event such as heart attack. Others speculated that perhaps a mechanical malfunction in the truck prevented the driver from stopping or steering the vehicle. The driver claimed that he was distracted when the collision occurred. However, it turned out that none of these explanations captured what actually happened in the collision between the truck and the bus.

NTSB announced that the driver was, indeed, incapacitated. However, the reason for the driver’s incapacitation was not due to any underlying medical condition, but rather, it was due to drug use. NTSB believes that the driver was incapacitated due to his use of synthetic cannabinoids, also commonly described as synthetic marijuana.

Synthetic Marijuana Use Results in an Inability to Operate a Motor Vehicle 

NTSB states that synthetic cannabinoids are often sold as an arguably and allegedly legal alternative to actual marijuana. A simple google search for “synthetic cannabinoids” returns an array of different brand names including Spice, Spike, and K2 interspersed among articles describing the dangers of the substances. One article published by Forbes explains, Why Synthetic Marijuana Is More Toxic To The Brain Than Pot. A Rolling Stone article promises The Truth About Synthetic Marijuana Known as Spice. An article in U.S. News & World Report refers to synthetic cannabinoids as “a serious threat to public health.” According to NTSB and in accord with these sources, synthetic cannabinoids can have effects which are much more intense and severe compared to the actual substance. Instances of psychosis, seizures, non-responsiveness, and death have been attributed to use of synthetic cannabinoids. While the science is not fully developed, U.S. News & World Report states that the more severe effects of synthetic marijuana can be attributed to the fact that synthetic cannabinoids “can bind as much as 1,000 times more powerfully to brain receptors” and because the synthetics lack cannabidiol (CBD), which can mitigate the amount of anxiety caused by marijuana use, and possibly other chemicals that come along as part of the entourage effect that occurs with use of natural marijuana. However, before anyone gets the wrong idea, let us be clear: It is illegal and unethical to drive or operate any vehicle or machinery when one is impaired by any substance.

Truck & CDL Drivers May Be Using Novel & Infrequently Tested for Drugs to Avoid Federal Safety Regulations

Steps by federal regulators and law enforcement agencies have been insufficient to stem the risks presented by synthetic cannabinoids. At the law enforcement level, cracking down on these products has been difficult because the substance is merely ordinary plant material sprayed with a particular research chemical. While a number of the substances commonly found in the synthetic marijuana blends have been added to the list of controlled Schedule I substances, the chemical makeup of synthetic cannabinoids is continually being tweaked in an effort to stay one step ahead of law enforcement. Thus, law enforcement efforts have largely boiled down to something akin to whack-a-mole. That is, as efforts to make one variation of the substance illegal finally pays off, a new slightly tweaked version is released to market and the process begins again.

Compounding the problem is that, despite federal law prohibiting commercial drivers from driving or otherwise operating a vehicle while under the influence of drugs, alcohol, or other substances it requires testing for only certain substances. Use of synthetic cannabinoids will not be revealed in a test for use of natural marijuana. Furthermore, synthetic cannabinoids are not one of the substances for which the NTSB tests to detect. It is highly likely that at least some commercial truck drivers have come to the realization that they can skirt federal rules by only using drugs for which federal agencies do not test.

NTSB States Need to Test for Substances Not Covered Under Current Drug Detection Measures 

NTSB issued a number of recommendations to Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) to address the problems posed by the use of novel intoxicating substances. NTSB has recommended for FMCSA to engage in a study to determine the prevalence of commercial drivers who use of impairing substances. The agency should particularly focus on the use of synthetic cannabinoids by commercial drivers. The agency should then work to develop a plan to reduce the incidence of use and to mitigate the current problem. Furthermore, FMCSA should engage with commercial trucking industry stakeholders to develop a plan to reduce the use of impairing substances by commercial drivers. This plan should focus on substances that are not presently tested for. Potential measures could include performance-based evaluations and expanded impairment screening methods.

NTSB Offers Crash Safety Recommendations

Aside from these recommendations, NTSB also derived a number of additional lessons and safety findings from this serious collision. NTBS issued additional recommendations that include requiring all trucks with gross vehicle weight ratings greater than 10,000 lbs. to have event data recorders. The agency must also develop consistent performance standards for these data recorders. Items within the standards that must be developed include:

  • Data sampling rates
  • Recorded data parameters
  • Duration of recorded events
  • Device sustainability in a crash
  • Data storage format
  • Data preservation methods
  • Device upgrade paths

NTSB also reports that none of the bus passengers was wearing a seatbelt at the time of the auto wreck and the driver failed to enforce university policy that mandated all passengers should wear a safety belt. NTSB concluded “had the seat belts been properly worn, they would probably have prevented ejections and reduced overall injuries.” In light of these conclusions, NTSB also recommended that states require seat belt use in all vehicles and in all seating positions where a seat belt is available.

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Injured in a Commercial Truck or Bus Accident?

If you or a loved one have suffered a life-altering injury or a wrongful death due to a negligent or impaired commercial driver, the personal injury and Philadelphia truck accident lawyers of The Reiff Law Firm can fight for you. We have experienced attorneys who routinely handle the aftermath of a truck wreck, bus crash, or other commercial vehicle accidents for Philadelphians and Pennsylvanians. To schedule a free and confidential legal consultation, call our firm at (215) 246-9000 today. You can also schedule an appointment by utilizing the “Free Consultation” form located at the type of the left sidebar on this page.

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