Reducing Fatigue and Gathering Info Critical to Prevent Truck Crashes

A recent tanker-truck accident in Dallas, Texas, shut down both directions of a freeway and spilled over 8,000 gallons of fuel. Investigators were able to determine the likely cause of the accident, but in many other cases, there is simply not enough information to determine the reason for a crash.

By requiring vehicle event data recorders, or "black boxes," in commercial trucks, investigators could get critical information that could be used to help prevent future crashes. In addition, implementing the National Transportation Safety Board's (NTSB) recommendations to reduce truck driver fatigue also would increase road safety.

Semi-Truck Accident

Early on January 7, 2011, a car tried to change lanes on Interstate 30 west of downtown Dallas. The car hit a semi-truck, which caused the semi to veer into a fuel tanker truck. The tanker then hit the concrete wall dividing the main freeway from the high-occupancy vehicles lane and burst into flames.

According to The Dallas Morning News, 7,800 gallons of gasoline and 950 gallons of diesel fuel spilled across the highway and into a nearby creek. The fire burned the tanker to its frame, and I-30 was closed for hours.

Amazingly, no one died in the accident. However, others involved in truck accidents are not often so lucky.

National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB)

The National Transportation Safety Board determines the likely cause of transportation accidents and promotes transportation safety. The agency is responsible for investigating aviation, highway, railroad, marine, pipeline and hazardous materials transportation accidents.

Based on investigations and studies it conducts, the NTSB develops safety recommendations issued to federal, state and local government agencies as well as industry organizations. According to the NTSB, the safety recommendations are the focal point of the agency.

One recently-released NTSB report detailed a semi-truck and multi-vehicle crash that killed 10 people in Oklahoma. The investigation identified four key safety issues:

  • Truck driver fatigue
  • Heavy vehicle collision forces in crashes with smaller vehicles
  • Lack of federal requirements for forward collision warning systems
  • Lack of federal requirements for vehicle event data recorders

Along with the investigation report, the NTSB issued nine new and six reiterated safety recommendations. Deborah A.P. Hersman, NTSB Chairman, said it is time to act on these safety concerns to stop this kind of horrific tragedy from occurring again.

One recommendation asked the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) to improve its educational materials on fatigue and to require all trucking companies to adopt a fatigue-management program based on the North American Fatigue Management Program.

The NTSB also requested federal regulators to require all commercial trucking vehicles to have video cameras and to install vehicle event data recorders, something the NTSB has advocated for longer than a decade. Specifically, the agency urged the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) to require all trucks over a 10,000 gross vehicle weight rating to have the devices.

Vehicle event data recorders help investigators fill in information gaps. These black boxes provide data such as the speed of the vehicle, the steering action of the driver and whether the brakes functioned properly before impact. This information could help investigators find better ways to prevent future accidents, but the NHTSA still has not followed the NTSB's recommendation to require vehicle event data recorders in vehicles.

Black Boxes Urged for Years

In 1997, the NTSB recommended that the NHTSA create a plan to put vehicle event data recorders in all vehicles. The head of the NHTSA at the time, Ricardo Martinez, began work to standardize data already collected by some automakers' black boxes and determine how the information should be used.

In 1999, the NTSB urged the NHTSA to stop planning and to mandate vehicle event data recorders. The NTSB particularly wanted the devices installed in school buses and commercial coach buses.

Since then, several significant and tragic bus accidents have occurred. With each new accident, the NTSB sends a letter to the NHTSA saying it is a "missed opportunity" to learn how drivers react and how crashes happen, reported The Cutting Edge News.

In 2008, the NHTSA established standards for vehicle event data recorders, requiring 35 pieces of data that would be accessible to NTSB investigators. However, they are not mandatory, and the standards only apply to small cars. According to the NHTSA, almost 90 percent of new small cars have black box technology voluntarily installed by automakers.

In 2010, the NHTSA, major truck manufacturers and the Society of Automotive Engineers agreed on standards for vehicle event data recorders in trucks and buses. The process is lengthier because the technology for heavy vehicles is more complex and must account for large variations in the design of different truck models. In addition, manufacturers are concerned about costs and making information available that could be used against them in lawsuits, said William Messerschmidt, who owns a private accident-investigation business.

But, black boxes have demonstrated success in small vehicles and airplanes for years. Requiring vehicle event data recorders in all cars, trucks and buses is an appropriate and necessary measure that will help to improve safety for everyone on the road.