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Remarks before the American Trucking Associations Foundation Conference on Highway Accident Litigation, Scottsdale, Arizona
Jim Hall
American Trucking Associations Foundation Conference on Highway Accident Litigation, Scottsdale, Arizona

Good afternoon. Thank you for inviting me to talk to you today. Before I begin my remarks, however, I want to tell you how fortunate you are to have Susan Coughlin, a former Vice Chairman of the Safety Board as the Director and Chief Operating Officer of the ATA Foundation.

The major topic of your meeting is operator fatigue, and I congratulate you for focusing attention on this important issue. I know that Susan, from her work at the Safety Board on the marine accident involving the World Prodigy, and major railroad accidents in Sugar Valley, Georgia and Corona, California, is very aware of the deadly consequences of operating any vehicle while fatigued. She was also actively involved in promoting the Board's 1989 intermodal recommendations to the Secretary of Transportation that called for a coordinated and aggressive federal program to address the fatigue problem. She shared our frustration that none of the regulations had been changed. And because of that I'm sure she will keep operator fatigue on the front burner at the ATA Foundation.

Also, before I begin my formal remarks, let me introduce to you Safety Board employees who are in attendance: Meg Sweeney from our Safety Studies Division who worked on our 1995 truck driver fatigue study and Jamie Pericola of my office.

Since 1994, I have had the privilege of heading an agency that strives to follow the philosophy of Thomas Jefferson, who said, "The care of human life and happiness is the first and only legitimate object of good government." That is what I want to talk to you about today, how we can all work to promote the care of human life by focusing our efforts onto the human performance problems that lead to truck crashes.

As you are well aware, the health of our nation's economy now depends on a healthy and expanding trucking industry that can move goods "just in time." And the key for a robust industry to remain healthy is safety.

Over the past 10 years, the fatal accident rate for all vehicles has been declining. However, the number of truck-related fatal and serious crashes is increasing, resulting in needless deaths and injuries.

It is in your industry's best interest to be actively out front on truck safety. The growing negative public impression - based on correspondence to my agency - that trucks are dangerous is worsened by the fact that the fatal injuries are almost always suffered by the occupants of the other, smaller vehicles.

Last week, the Safety Board launched an investigation into a multi-vehicle collision just outside of Knoxville, Tennessee. A tractor trailer travelling in the right lane of Interstate 75, came upon traffic stopped because of construction several miles ahead. The truck first ran into the back of an SUV, knocking it into a concrete barrier, sideswiped another tractor trailer while swerving into the right-hand lane, and smashed into the back of a van, pushing it into the trailer of a third truck in front. The van immediately exploded. The lone occupant of the SUV and the lone occupant of the van were killed immediately. None of the truck drivers were injured.

This is every family's nightmare. A 60,000-pound tractor trailer barreling down a highway, smashing into family vehicles weighing closer to 3,000 pounds. And when I said the truck was barreling down the highway, I wasn't just trying to be dramatic. Another truck driver gave a statement that he had tried to warn the accident driver on the CB to slow down because of the traffic congestion, and estimated that the accident truck was going about 70 miles an hour as it approached the stopped traffic.

The accident driver told police that he was distracted just before the accident because he was reaching for something in his cab. While it appears that speed is a factor, we are determining what role, if any, fatigue may have played. His logbooks were destroyed in the fire.

This crash is emblematic of the fears most Americans hold for heavy trucks every day they're on our nation's highways.

  • Consider that trucks are bigger and more powerful than ever. In the mid 1960s, the typical highway semi-trailer was 35 feet long. Today's standard trailer lengths are 45 to 53 feet. Triple combination unit trailers can extend over 90 feet. Trailers are a full foot wider now, 96 inches to 108 inches.
  • Consider that the volume of traffic keeps growing and that for many drivers the presence of such large vehicles in their proximity adds to the stress of travel.
  • Consider that crashes involving tractor-trailers are often spectacular media events on the local evening news.

The traveling public's growing concern is why the Safety Board is receiving an increasing number of letters and inquiries from the motoring public, safety advocacy groups and political representatives, all concerned about trucks and truck safety. Your group here today is certainly aware of the increasing focus of public attention in the media concerning trucking safety.

In addition, that concern is making its way to Capitol Hill. We were recently directed by Congress to look into the reasons for increases in truck accidents. Specifically, we are to look into the possible effects of excessive speed on large truck safety.

Highway crashes cost this country over $150 billion dollars a year. More tragic, over 40,000 people die and another 3.5 million people are injured annually. Trucks are over-represented in these numbers. Large trucks account for only 3 percent of all registered vehicles, but one out of eight traffic fatalities in 1996 resulted from a collision involving a large truck.

As part of the Safety Board's investigative process, we determine the probable causes of accidents. We know that the vast majority of truck accidents, like other highway accidents, involve some form of human error. We also know that although truck equipment and maintenance shortcomings are discovered in many of our investigations, those problems are not usually the primary accident cause.

In all highway crashes, we have found that driver-related factors such as speeding, fatigue, the use of alcohol and other drugs, inattention, aggressive driving, and inadequate training are often contributory causes. Our investigations and safety studies show that some of these factors, particularly driver fatigue, play a significant role in truck accidents. Today, I want to focus my remarks on the serious problem of fatigue.

Just two weeks ago, in Holyoke, Colorado a truck driver, who told police that he had fallen asleep at the wheel, slammed his truck into the back of a school bus. Two children, including one child who was ejected from the bus, sustained major injuries and were airlifted to the hospital. The bus driver and another 10 children sustained minor injuries. The truck driver also sustained serious injuries. Nobody wants to see this kind of accident.

While I recognize that the industry and government have initiated some efforts to improve driver awareness, such as the "No Zone" program, and that other truck driver training and fatigue awareness initiatives are underway. However, the majority of resources applied by both industry and government agencies in the name of truck safety are focused on vehicle, maintenance, and record keeping issues.

In the latest federal highway appropriation, called Tea-21, less than $1 billion of the $218 billion over the next six years are earmarked for motor carrier safety, and of that, 70 percent will be used for State truck enforcement activities. Less than one half of 1 percent is earmarked specifically for driver awareness programs.

Although we must continue to work on these important and tangible issues, I call on you and all others who have a vested interest in improving truck safety to concentrate your efforts on the one primary cause of truck-related accidents - the human element - both inside and outside of the truck. It is clearly in your economic, public and safety interests to do so, and there are several truck and automobile driver areas that you can focus on now.

Even though potentially 70% of all truck-related accidents are caused by the drivers of other vehicles, it is still your problem. You need to use your considerable influence at both the State and federal levels to help everyone share the road more safely. This includes the development of ITS, better highway design, and better education for both truck drivers and the drivers of passenger vehicles. It should also include active support by the trucking industry in State legislatures for NTSB recommended initiatives such as primary seat belt enforcement, graduated licensing, and administrative license revocation.

You can help prevent human factor causes of truck accidents by increasing the use of technological advances already available in today's fleets. It is time for the trucking industry to embrace the use of on-board recording devices to capture crash information and to monitor hours of service. My guess is that most company executives, if asked, would tell you that they do not want fatigued drivers operating their trucks. One way to prevent that practice is to pay closer attention to drivers' schedules through the use of tamper-proof on-board recording devices.

I realize that the use of on-board monitors is a controversial subject and that the ATA does not support their use. However, they can help you make the best and most efficient use of your resources by giving you accurate information about the number of hours your drivers are on the road. This information will help you develop schedules that allot adequate time for sleep.

Such technology has been used successfully in other modes of transportation to reduce operator error.

Automatic information recording devices can be used to identify safety trends, develop corrective actions and conduct more efficient accident investigations. Cockpit voice recorders, flight data recorders, and railroad event recorders have proven to be beneficial in reconstructing accidents and have provided information that has led to many safety improvements. The Safety Board believes the use of on-board recorders in all transportation modes is so important that we added it to our list of Most Wanted Safety Improvements more than a year ago.

Further, the Safety Board is planning to hold a public forum next year to promote a greater use of these devices in all transportation modes.

We have had a recommendation to the Federal Highway Administration open for nine years that would require trucks to have on-board recorders. Recently, we closed that recommendation following what we considered unacceptable action by that agency. Although the Safety Board will continue to emphasize the use and installation of on-board recorders, we are always open to new ideas and new technologies. I recently learned that Werner Enterprises will be using mobile tracking and communication technology instead of paper logbooks to record truck drivers' hours of service through an agreement with the FHWA. This system will soon be commercially available to other trucking fleets, as well.

The FHWA has acknowledged to us that on-board monitors will eventually be an important tool for monitoring the hours-of-service regulations but stated that they wanted more information on the benefits and practicalities of the devices. The Werner project appears to be a first step in that direction. However, if you continue to have concerns about the use of use on-board recorders, I challenge you to implement other available technologies that can help combat truck driver fatigue.

Indeed, the NTSB has advanced, through our recommendations, technological innovations in all modes of transportation that have made a difference. For example, ground proximity warning devices on airplanes have almost eliminated controlled flight into terrain crashes in the U.S. These devices warn pilots if they are approaching terrain, descending too quickly or on an improper landing approach. In other words, they help a pilot's decisionmaking ability. Truck drivers need similar help when it comes to fatigue, because, according to sleep researchers, tired people typically underestimate the extent of their fatigue, and therefore don't make rational decisions about their fitness for duty.

Therefore, the industry needs to place additional emphasis on installing collision warning systems to enhance driver accident avoidance capabilities, which could mitigate the effects of fatigue and inattention. I can give you a list of accidents we've investigated in recent years where the use of such technology would have saved lives that were needlessly snuffed out, like the 5 people killed in their car by a tractor trailer in Menefee, Arkansas 3 years ago, or the 6 people killed in their car by a truck in Port Clinton, Ohio last year, or even the two killed in their vehicles last week in Knoxville.

There are other technological systems that also have the potential for reducing fatigue-related accidents by evaluating fitness for duty during a trip - technology that will monitor truck actions like drifting out of the lane or steering wheel maneuvers and systems that monitor driver behaviors associated with fatigue such as eye gaze, closed eyelids, brain waves, heart rates and reaction time. I'm encouraged to see that there is some planning underway to test these systems in operational settings. I urge the FHWA and the ATA to make this a top priority.

At the same time, there are other measures that can be taken that aren't so high tech, improvements such as adding more rest area parking spaces for truckers all around the country. It is estimated that more than 28,000 additional spaces are needed now and in the near future. I know this has been a priority with the ATA, and I urge you to continue working with state authorities to accomplish this, and at the same time I urge you to find more creative ways to accomplish this objective through the private sector.

Improvements can also be made in operational practices. Motor carriers should not accept deliveries from shippers, receivers and brokers that would require drivers to violate the hours of service regulations. The Safety Board asked the Interstate Commerce Commission almost 9 years ago to prohibit such practices. We continue to work with the FHWA on this issue. But rather than wait for government intervention, the trucking industry should take the lead and stop the practice. Additionally, the Board is currently engaged in a study of the specific operating practices of intrastate carriers to determine what safety improvements can be initiated in that component of the trucking industry.

Most importantly, the current hours-of-service regulations need to be changed. I think that this is a subject that we all agree on. There is no substitute for adequate sleep. We believe that anyone in a safety-sensitive position needs 8 hours of continuous and uninterrupted sleep a night, not two 4-hour sleep segments.

As a result of the Safety Board's study on Factors that Affect Fatigue in Heavy Truck Accidents, we asked the FHWA to revise the hours-of-service regulations more than three years ago. It is an understatement to say that we are disappointed that the FHWA has not completed action on the driver fatigue rulemaking proposal issued almost two years ago. Two years - and we're only talking about an Advanced Notice of Proposed Rulemaking; a proposed rule has yet to be issued. I will be meeting next month with FHWA's Administrator Kenneth Wykle to discuss the agency's response to this and other major recommendations.

I'm pleased that ATA's President Bill McCormick also agrees that it is time to change the hours-of-service regulations. Under his leadership, the industry should push the FHWA to move quickly to complete the rulemaking that brings the 60-year-old regulations into line with current technology and scientific knowledge.

The trucking industry is not only an engine of our economy, it has tremendous influence at the State and federal levels. It is in your industry's best interest to be a leader in highway safety. In closing, let me restate the obvious - the majority of truck accidents are caused by human factors. Therefore, we all must make the driver - both in the truck and in passenger vehicles - the primary focus in our attempts to enhance safety. That is the best way to maximize the payoffs from our efforts and to accomplish the goals we all share.

Thank you for inviting me today. I thank you and all Americans who have given me the opportunity to promote Thomas Jefferson's stated goal of fostering the care of human life. The work of the NTSB has one purpose, to promote the safety of our nation's - and the world's - travelers. I hope you will continue to work with us toward that goal.

Jim Hall's Speeches