Improving safety in commercial trucking on NTSB priority list

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) recently included enhanced safety in commercial trucking as one of its 2015 Most Wanted List of transportation safety improvements.

NTSB also cited rail tank cars that carry hazardous materials; requiring that transportation operators be medically fit for duty and requiring pilots to strengthen procedural compliance as newcomers to the agency’s Top Ten list.

The NTSB is an independent federal agency charged by Congress with investigating civil aviation accidents and significant accidents in other modes of transportation in the U.S.

The safety improvements items each year are prompted largely by observations the agency makes as it investigates accidents, says acting NTSB chairman Christopher Hart. “It’s the indication of numbers going the wrong way and what we can do to make a difference,” said Hart.

Distraction and impairment are still key issues for the NTSB, and both are on the list again this year. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NTSA), in 2012, about one in 10 drivers in fatal crashes were distracted. In almost a third of fatal crashes, a driver was impaired by alcohol.

Also on the list this year is safety of helicopters operated by local, state, and federal governments. Pilots who fly search and rescue and law enforcement missions require safer operations. And this year the NTSB is focusing on all modes of mass transit for greater operational safety.

“This list is grounded in the accident investigations by which NTSB learns safety lessons, and in the recommendations that are NTSB’s primary safety product,’’ Hart said. “At the NTSB we want to make new strides in transportation safety in 2015, and we want to lay the groundwork for years that are even safer.”

The NTSB is seeking improvements in commercial trucking safety because of an “increase in the number of fatalities associated with crashes involving larger trucks,” Hart says. “The numbers have been going the wrong way since 2009. We are investigating 9 or 10 as we speak that occurred within the last couple of years.”

In 2013, 3,964 people were killed in crashes involving large trucks, a 0.5 percent increase over the previous year, according to NHTSA.

“Sleep apnea is an increasing problem in all the (transportation) modes,” he says. “Unfortunately, that’s one of the things we see with our increasing body mass index.”

The NTSB also wants drivers of passenger vehicles who have medical conditions deemed fit before they get behind the wheel.

U.S. DOT and the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) agree that safety in commercial trucking has to be a priority.

“We continue to use all the tools at our disposal, including the deployment of new technologies, to ensure that drivers are well rested and alert behind the wheel, and to shut down those high-risk companies with troubling safety records that fail to fix their problems,” said a FMCSA spokesman.

He said the agency and the Department of Transportation had a number of initiatives under way to reduce the number and severity of large truck crashes.

In the past year, FMCSA has significantly enhanced the way it investigates companies by training its agents in new tactics including interviewing maintenance people who inspect the company vehicles, interviewing drivers and other employees and reviewing documents like toll records and gas receipts to verify the number of hours drivers are spending behind the wheel.

FMCSA is also preparing to publish a final rule this year to require the adoption of electronic logging devices in commercial trucks to monitor how many hours a driver works by automatically recording a commercial driver’s logbook data, thus making it more difficult for drivers to cheat on their logbooks and avoid detection by FMCSA and law enforcement personnel.

NHTSA has also initiated a rulemaking process to evaluate options for enhancing the safety of rear impact guards on trailers and single-unit trucks, in response to a petition delivered to the agency.

NHTSA is also looking into potential improvements based on its field analysis, Insurance Institute for Highway Safety tests, international standards, input from stakeholders and other data that may inform potential changes to existing federal safety standards, including enhanced rear-impact guard requirements. Improving rear underride crash protection is one of many important examples of the work the DOT is doing to improve truck safety.

FMCSA said the agency is also looking to reduce rollovers and other fatal crashes in large trucks through electronic stability control systems and speed limiting devices and said the DOT sees V2V and advanced emergency braking as innovative new technologies that can help all drivers to avoid crashes before they happen.