Panel to focus on deadly truck, bus accidents

Published 5:49 pm Wednesday, May 11, 2011

On a clear June afternoon, a tractor-trailer truck crested a small rise on a stretch of interstate highway in Oklahoma. Plainly visible in the distance were more than a dozen cars and trucks that had stopped while a fender-bender was being cleared.

Instead of slowing, the 40,000-pound truck barreled ahead at nearly 70 mph, plowing into the traffic. It rode over three cars, dragging them under its wheels, and smashed others before finally halting. Ten people were killed.

Investigators said later the 76-year-old truck driver had slept only about five hours the previous night. He’d been on the road almost 10 hours.

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The National Transportation Safety Board began a two-day forum Tuesday to hear from federal regulators, safety experts, and the truck and bus industries about what is being done to prevent deadly accidents like 2009 crash near Miami, Okla., and why past safety recommendations — some of them decades old — haven’t been enacted.

There has been a lot of progress — truck fatalities have come down — but there is still much work that needs to be done, NTSB member Robert Sumwalt said.

Fatalities in accidents involving big trucks have dropped significantly, from over 5,200 deaths in 2005 to about 3,200 deaths in 2009, according to the latest figures from the Transportation Department. But so have other types of highway fatalities, a trend many safety experts attribute to a decline in driving as a result of a weak economy. The concern is that fatalities may increase as the economy revives.

Big tour buses average about 20 deaths a year to passengers out of more than 700 million passenger trips a year in the U.S. — nearly the same as airline passenger trips. Between 2000 and 2009, tour buses were involved in 338 fatal crashes.

“We must remind ourselves that each data point in these statistics represents a family member that will never come home to loved ones,” Sumwalt said.

The Obama administration has proposed several steps to toughen bus and truck regulation. One proposal would require equipping trucks and buses with devices that record how many hours drivers are behind the wheel. As much as third of all commercial motor vehicle crashes are due to fatigue, according to NTSB.

The administration also wants to reduce the daily limit on hours drivers may spend behind the wheel from 11 hours to 10 hours. The proposal also would require mandatory rest breaks, limit the overall work day to 14 hours and require drivers be given more time off to rest when they’ve reached their weekly driving limit of 60 hours.

“From an economic standpoint, it would do a great deal of harm to this industry and wouldn’t improve safety,” said Dave Osiecki, senior vice president at the American Trucking Associations.

Safety advocates say the administration is taking too long to make changes. They worry that industry opposition will prevent final action.

The two sides also are sparring over whether Congress should give states authority to raise weight limits on trucks on interstate highways to nearly 100,000 pounds and extend truck lengths. The trucking industry, as well as shippers, see cost savings if they can ship more products using fewer trucks and drivers. But bigger trucks are harder to stop quickly.

“Even if you don’t necessarily have more crashes, when there is a crash, there is more damage,” said Henry Jasny, general counsel for Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety.

There has been more attention on bus safety following a March 12 accident in which a speeding bus returning to New York City’s Chinatown toppled off an elevated highway and hit a utility pole, peeling off the roof. Fifteen passengers were killed and 18 injured.

The NTSB has about 100 bus safety recommendations that haven’t been filled. The board first recommended in 1968 that buses be equipped with seat belts for all passengers. But it wasn’t until last year that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration proposed requiring seat belts on new buses. The rule, which is not yet final, doesn’t apply to buses already on the road.

The bus industry says the problem isn’t that buses are unsafe, but that the government allows companies with poor safety records to continue to operate. Over half the tour bus fatalities between 1999 and 2009 involved illegal carriers or carriers with a history of safety problems, according to the American Bus Association. Fewer than 10 states have effective bus inspection programs, the association said.

“We first need to get the bad guys off the road,” said Pete Pantuso, association president.

Safety advocates say it is just as important to ensure passengers can survive a crash when one occurs. The NTSB has been pushing for years for stronger bus roofs that won’t crush in rollover accidents, better emergency exits, better fire protection and windows that prevent passengers from being ejected.

They also want trucks and buses to have some of the safety technology that’s available on many cars and on buses in other countries. That includes electronic stability control to prevent rollovers, adaptive cruise control that automatically adjusts speed to traffic, warning systems that alert drivers when they’re drifting into another lane, and warning systems that alert drivers to an impeding collision.

Many manufacturers already offer the technology to customers that want it.

“It is happening slowly,” Jasny said. “But we don’t know what the quality of the technology is because there are no standards.”