Remarks by Jim Hall
Chairman, National Transportation Safety Board
Commercial Vehicle Safety Alliance Spring Conference
Tampa, Florida
April 27, 2000

 


Good morning. It is a pleasure to be here today at the Commercial Vehicle Safety Alliance's (CVSA) Spring Conference. I want to thank Lisa Erwin, Steve Campbell and the CVSA for inviting me here to discuss commercial vehicle safety issues of importance to us all. Before I begin, let me introduce members of my staff who are with me today: Claude Harris, Deputy Director of our Office of Highway Safety, Gary Van Etten and Pete Kotowski, two of the Board's motor carrier specialists, and Jamie Pericola from my office.

As many of you may know, the National Transportation Safety Board has been the eyes and ears of the American people at accident sites for the last 33 years. When Congress established the Board in 1967, it believed that an independent investigative agency was needed to investigate accidents, to make recommendations to improve the transportation system, and to provide oversight to the Department of Transportation (DOT) modal administrations.

Over the years, NTSB has issued almost 11,000 recommendations to more than 1,250 recipients. Those recommendations have led to countless safety improvements such as collision warning systems on aircraft; air bags that won't injure passengers following an accident; improved school bus construction standards; excess flow valves to prevent certain pipeline accidents; and better emergency exit marking on commuter trains. I believe the American people get a good return on their investment on the 20 cents per person that it takes to run our agency each year.

By far the most distressing part of the Board's job is launching go-teams to investigate fatal accidents - something we do all too often. About a year ago, one such team launched to a multi-vehicle collision outside Knoxville, Tennessee. On the afternoon of May 27, Connie Beddingfield of Birmingham, Alabama was driving her minivan down Interstate 75 outside of Sweetwater, Tennessee. Her friend Jeannie Crawford, her 16-year-old nephew Joshua Beddingfield, and his best friend, 17-year-old Justin Nash were with her. While they were stopped in a construction zone, a tractor semi-trailer collided with their minivan and propelled it into the back of another tractor semi-trailer. Connie, Jeannie, Joshua and Justin were all killed - and four promising lives were lost.

The accident was every family's nightmare - an 80,000-pound tractor-trailer barreling down a highway, smashing into a family vehicle weighing only about 4,000 pounds. I wasn't being dramatic by saying that the truck was barreling down the road. After the accident, another truck driver reported that he tried to warn the accident driver to slow down because of the congested traffic. He estimated that the accident truck was going about 70 miles an hour as it approached the line of traffic.

In 1999, about 394,000 large trucks were involved in traffic crashes - 5,203 people were killed and another 127,000 were injured in those crashes. Some would be quick to point out that fatalities are down by 3 percent from 1998. I want to be equally quick to point out that it's not enough - and it won't be until we have no fatalities on our roadways. And, the potential for this situation to worsen will increase as more volume, more mass, and more pressure continue to challenge the safety of our highways.

In the last decade, the number of vehicles on the roads has grown about 16 percent and the mass of those vehicles has increased by about 20 percent. Yet, the road system hasn't appreciably changed. As a result, many of our interstate roads - which also serve as major truck corridors - are over capacity and ill suited for heavy vehicle traffic.

In addition, "just in time" delivery has increased pressure on operators, shippers, brokers, and drivers to meet demanding production and delivery schedules. The result has been a doubling in the production of heavy trucks in the past 10 years and many trucks being used as mobile warehouses. In the 1980s, about 130,000 heavy trucks were manufactured annually - last year, that number exceeded 220,000 - most of them out on the roadways hauling cargo. Production is expected to double again in the next 10 years too.

These changes in the nature and use of our highway system convinced me to focus Safety Board resources on an examination of heavy truck and bus safety issues. In the past 16 months, we have issued several reports on commercial vehicle issues, including government oversight of the motorcoach industry and occupant protection on motorcoaches and school buses, and we held four public hearings around the country.

Last April, we conducted a public hearing on federal and state oversight of the truck and bus industries. In August, we held a hearing to explore technological applications for heavy vehicle safety. Last October, we conducted a hearing on safety issues related to the implementation of the North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA. And, in January, we held a hearing that examined the effectiveness of the Commercial Drivers License (CDL) program. The CVSA actively participated in all of these endeavors.

These efforts all have the same goal - to closely examine problems that exist on our roads today and then to find ways to improve the safety of both our highways and our fellow citizens. What we've learned so far is that four specific areas need to be improved: data collection, oversight and enforcement, use of technology, and countermeasures. I want to spend the remainder of my time talking about what needs to be done in these areas if we are to have safer highways.

First, better data collection. As you're aware, the lack of adequate, accurate data on crashes involving heavy trucks, and specifically data on the causes of those crashes, is hampering efforts to improve commercial vehicle safety. Currently, there is little uniformity in the accident investigation data collected by the 50 states - except that it's all paid for by taxpayers.

When the states' data is transmitted to the federal agencies, comparative analysis on accident causes is difficult because there are few common data points upon which to base that analysis - making it impossible to determine where resources can be best used. With all of the resources at our disposal, we should be able to obtain consistent, accurate data so that we can make better safety-related decisions.

Second, we need better oversight of all highway safety stakeholders - drivers, companies, shippers, brokers, consignors, freight forwarders, and tour operators. Currently, DOT focuses its oversight and enforcement activities solely on motor carriers and drivers. To be effective, these programs must ensure that the entire industry is held equally accountable for the safety of our roadways.

Even the programs in place need to be improved. DOT's program attempts to target the worst of our almost 500,000 motor carriers for enforcement action. But, because of poor data, they can't identify those carriers or ensure that corrective actions have been taken. In fact, DOT can't even be sure they know how many or which motor carriers are operating on our highways.

Similar problems affect their ability to identify deficient drivers. Two of the most accurate predictors of future accidents are drivers' involvement in prior accidents and their record of traffic violations. But, the current CDL system doesn't always reflect all of a driver's convictions or serious traffic violations obtained while driving a private automobile. In addition, as drivers move from state to state, their convictions often don't transfer with them. One solution may be a National Driver Registry for CDL holders that would permit motor carriers and government agencies to verify drivers' records and provide a way to identify and target the truly "bad apples".

Testimony during our January hearing suggested that it's also time for a national registry of medical providers so that the American public can be assured that CDL holders, who are operating large commercial vehicles on the nation's highways, are medically qualified. The Safety Board is investigating five truck and motorcoach crashes in which this issue and CDL oversight are under review.

I want to highlight two of them. In March 1999, in Bourbonnais, Illinois, an AMTRAK train and a tractor semi-trailer collided at an active crossing protected with lights and gates. Eleven train passengers were killed and 122 passengers and crewmembers were injured.

Although the investigation is on-going, the Board found that the truck driver had received numerous traffic citations before the accident, and was issued a probationary license to operate commercial vehicles by the State of Illinois and was allowed to retain the license after the accident. As you may be aware, Illinois has been conducting its own investigation into the issuance of fraudulent CDLs in that state.

In May 1999, in New Orleans, Louisiana, a motorcoach driver lost control of the vehicle, turning it over into an embankment on an interstate roadway. Twenty-two passengers died in that crash. Following the accident, our review of the driver's employment history showed that he had been dismissed from two bus driving jobs and had been denied a third job because of positive drug test results.

Post-accident blood tests were positive for marijuana and a sedating antihistamine. His medical records indicated that he had been diagnosed with congestive heart failure, irregular heart rhythm, and kidney failure. In fact, on the night before the accident, the driver had received dialysis treatment. And, he returned to the hospital later that evening, complaining of low blood pressure, nausea and weakness. Yet, even though the bus driver had multiple life-threatening medical problems, and was on multiple complex medical treatments, the physician who examined him for his last CDL physical exam, had no knowledge of this history beyond what the driver told him.

Improving the oversight of and the rules governing the CDL program will become increasingly important as the pool of qualified drivers continues to dwindle. Many carriers are reporting a 100% turnover in drivers each year. The driver shortage is so severe that the Truckload Carriers Association recently announced a plan to recruit and train 18-year-olds to drive heavy trucks. Other carriers, including MS Carriers of Memphis, are recruiting drivers from outside the continental United States to fill their shortages.

Most of DOT's oversight focuses on interstate trucking and leaves intrastate trucking to the states. However, only about half of the states attempt to effectively oversee these carriers even though they represent about 40% of the total trucking fleet. This segment of the industry is expected to grow over the next 10 years; yet, there aren't any plans to expand federal oversight responsibilities.

I've never understood why there's a distinction between interstate and intrastate operations - a heavy truck is a heavy truck and it shouldn't matter which one is involved in an accident.

The Board is conducting a safety study on the safety of intrastate truck operations that will document operational differences between interstate and intrastate truck operations, examine how regulatory exemptions influence safety, and explore the impact of intrastate operations on commercial vehicle safety. We'll also look at the safety implications of exemptions for driver age and hours of service. Many states allow 18-year-olds to drive intrastate commerce trucks. We hope to complete this study this summer.

We're also concerned about the safety aspects surrounding the implementation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Although I want to commend the CVSA for your efforts to provide training for the federal Mexican inspectors, the Board believes that the infrastructure in place is insufficient to conduct adequate safety inspections of the commercial vehicles crossing our borders. We're also conducting a special investigation to look more closely at this issue. It will address the accident experience of foreign carriers and the harmonization of vehicle and driver safety issues. That report should also be completed this year.

Third, we need to make better use of technology on the roads and in vehicles, such as data recorders, collision avoidance systems, electronic braking, disc brakes and stability control systems, rollover reduction technology, and intelligent transportation systems. Such systems, many of which are currently available, would provide immeasurable benefits to our safety programs through the information that they would provide and the accidents they would prevent.

Last May, the NTSB held an international symposium focusing on recorder devices in all modes of transportation; we also explored the recorder issue for heavy commercial vehicles in our hearing last August. The Safety Board believes that while recorders are an important tool for reconstructing accidents and monitoring drivers' hours-of-service compliance, they're also an important management tool that can provide information concerning the drivers' and vehicles' operating characteristics.

As you know, the need for modern information recording devices has been on our Most Wanted list of safety improvements since that list's inception in 1990. The Safety Board issued its first recommendations regarding recorders for highway trucking transport in 1990 as a result of our safety study on fatigue, alcohol, drugs, and medical factors in fatal-to-the driver heavy truck crashes. In that report, we concluded that these devices could provide a tamper-proof mechanism to enforce the hours-of-service regulations, rather than relying on drivers' handwritten logs.

I was pleased to see DOT's announcement on Tuesday regarding its Notice of Proposed Rulemaking to revise trucking's hours-of-service (HOS) regulations and to require data recorders in the trucks of those drivers who do the most driving and have the highest crash rates.

The HOS proposal appears to be a move in the right direction - it's not a "one-size-fits-all" approach and it requires drivers to get at least eight hours of sleep which is what research shows most people need. But, we all must remember - it is only a proposal - DOT now needs to move expeditiously to finalize and implement the rule. Only then will we save lives.

In that regard, it's also time for DOT to take long overdue action to evaluate collision avoidance technology. This issue has also been addressed over the years in our safety recommendations. It's very possible that the Sweetwater accident could have been avoided - had the accident truck been equipped with one. However, since our 1995 safety recommendation to the DOT to sponsor fleet testing and incorporate testing results into demonstration and training programs to educate the potential end-users of the systems - not much has been done.

Many European large trucks and buses and some high-end passenger cars are already equipped with these devices. U.S. vehicles should have them as well. The technology was developed by the Department of Defense, at taxpayer expense. And, the Army is installing it as standard equipment on all of its heavy trucks. In my opinion, it should have already been mandated for all new trucks. Despite DOT's inaction, some forward-thinking companies have voluntarily installed the device. U.S. Xpress Enterprises, in Chattanooga, began installing collision warning systems in its vehicles in 1996, and it has seen a 67 percent decrease in its company's accident costs.

DOT will finally begin a multi-year operational test program for collision avoidance systems on heavy trucks sometime this year. We believe that there may be other uses for this technology and we're conducting a special investigation to determine whether wider use of this technology could significantly impact highway safety if it were installed on every vehicle.

DOT has established a goal of reducing truck-related fatalities by 50 percent by 2009, or reducing truck-related fatalities from about 5,300 to 2,650 per year. Better use of technology is one way to accomplish that goal. But, DOT also needs to be more responsive to new safety improvements. They need a mechanism that allows new safety features to be introduced expeditiously - rather than forcing manufacturers and operators to endure years of bureaucratic rule making. And, they need to provide incentives for those carriers that adopt unmandated technologies and to change existing rules that hamper their use of new safety systems.

Finally, we need better countermeasures such as educational opportunities for all drivers on better ways to share the roads and driver pay systems that pay them by the hour rather than by the mile.

Currently, 42 percent of the public rest areas limit the amount of time drivers can park and rest. The enforcement of those limits can lead to putting fatigued drivers back out on the road or keeping them on the road - possibly in violation of the hours-of-service regulations - and creating the potential for more accidents. A recent study indicated that the shortage of available rest areas on interstate highways is leading drivers to park on roadway shoulders and creating more dangers for those drivers and others.

The Safety Board is also conducting a special investigation to examine the time limits in public rest areas, the adequacy and development of those areas, and the availability of information for drivers about them. We hope to have a report and recommendations out later this year.

Obviously, the new safety organization faces enormous challenges - only a few of which I've delineated here today. But, these issues certainly give them a good place to start. The measures I've discussed today, if implemented, could have an immediate and long-term impact on the safety of our highways.

I have appreciated the excellent working relationship between the Board and the CVSA. I look forward to continuing that relationship and working together to make our roadways safer. Thank you, again, for inviting me to join you today.