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Remarks before the Miller, Martin, & Trabue Transportation Practice Group, Nashville, Tennessee
Jim Hall
Miller, Martin, & Trabue Transportation Practice Group, Nashville, Tennessee

Good afternoon. It is a pleasure to be with you here in Nashville. I always appreciate the opportunity to return to my home state and to be among friends. I want to thank Ken Bryant and Presh Killebrew for inviting me to be here today to discuss heavy truck transportation safety issues.

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 over three decades. Congress believed, when it established the Board, that an independent investigative agency was needed to investigate accidents in all modes of transportation - aviation, highway, marine, rail, pipeline, and hazardous materials; to make recommendations to improve transportation safety and prevent future accidents; and to provide oversight to the Department of Transportation (DOT) modal administrations.

In its 33-year history, the Board has issued almost 11,000 recommendations to more than 1,250 recipients. To date, more than 80 percent of them have been adopted. Over the years, those recommendations have led to countless safety improvements in all transportation modes - collision warning systems on aircraft; next generation air bags in passenger vehicles; improved school bus construction standards; excess flow valves to prevent certain pipeline accidents; and better emergency exit marking on commuter trains - are just a few.

I believe that the American people get a good return on their investment of 20 cents per person that it takes to run our agency each year.

Our investigations are unique; they are fact-finding proceedings without the formality of legal proceedings. They are not conducted to determine the rights or liabilities of any person. Although the length and depth of investigations vary, depending upon the accident's complexity, each is conducted using our party process. Groups of specialists, led by a Board investigator, are formed to develop the investigative record in areas such as operations, maintenance, and survival factors. These specialists represent those organizations with a relevant interest in the investigation. Typically, these will include the operator, the manufacturers, the regulators, and the unions.

Often, the Board will hold a public hearing to gather addition information. A verbatim transcript of the testimony and a copy of all exhibits are included in the public docket created for that accident. At the conclusion of the investigation, a Board report, containing the facts, conclusions, probable cause and any safety recommendations, and approved by the five Presidentally-appointed, Senate-confirmed Board Members, is published. In essence, over the years, the Board has become the repository for information on how to prevent accidents.

As the Safety Board's Chairman, I meet with many transportation crash survivors and the families of victims. I spend a lot of time listening to their concerns and their desire to protect themselves and their families when they travel and to ensure that no other family has to endure a similar tragedy.

Unfortunately, many of those conversations are with parents who have lost children in traffic crashes. They all tell me the same thing - how frustrated they are by how difficult it is to ensure that their children are safe when they're in their vehicles. Since I know many of you in the audience are parents, I want to share some statistics with you - statistics that should alarm all Americans. In the last decade:

· Almost 64 million crashes have occurred on our highways - killing more than 400,000 people and injuring more than 32 million others. · Over 90,000 children under the age of 20 died in motor vehicle crashes. · Over 16,500 of those children were under the age of 10 - that's 33 children under the age of 10 dying every week on our highways. · Over 57,500 young people between 15 and 20 died in traffic crashes - more than 110 each week. · And, over 9 million children were injured.

In addition to the immense human and emotional toll of these crashes, they cost the American economy more than $150 billion each year, much of that borne by the states.

In 1999, an estimated 394,000 large trucks were involved in traffic crashes - 5,203 people were killed and another 127,000 were injured in those crashes. In the past decade, the number of vehicles on our roads has grown by about 16 percent and the mass of those vehicles has increased by about 20 percent. However, the road network hasn't appreciably changed. Many of our interstate roads - which also serve as major truck corridors - are over capacity and poorly suited for heavy vehicle traffic.

Just in time delivery is increasing 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 with 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.

Last year, based my conversations with parents, the Board's highway crash investigative findings, and the changes in the nature and use of our highway system, I focused many of the Safety Board's resources on two critical issues: child transportation safety and heavy vehicle safety. In that 16 months, I have spent much of my time extolling the transportation community and the state and federal governments to do more to protect our youngest citizens and to prevent truck and bus accidents.

Although the majority of my remarks today will focus on our 16-month examination of heavy truck and bus safety issues, I do want to briefly mention just a few of the issues we're working on to improve the safety of our children on our highways. I have asked the automobile industry to put the safety of children first when they're designing new vehicles and to support the establishment of child fitting stations to help parents ensure that their children are properly secured in their vehicles.

I've also asked states to strengthen and enforce laws requiring children to be buckled up and in the back seat. And, we have issued recommendations on ways to enhance the safety of school buses and to eliminate the use of nonconforming vehicles, such as vans, to transport children. As those efforts were underway, we also issued several reports on commercial vehicle issues, including studies of the government's oversight of the motorcoach industry and occupant protection on motorcoaches, and we held four public hearings on truck and bus safety issues.

Last April, we conducted a public hearing on federal and state oversight of the truck and bus industries. In August, here in Nashville, 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. And, in January, we held a hearing that examined the effectiveness of the Commercial Drivers License (CDL) program.

All of these efforts 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. Although the Board's staff is currently developing the information we've gathered, we already know that there are several things that can be done now to make our highways safer.

First, we need more effective use of available technologies.

The Board believes there more needs to be done to effectively use technology on our roadways and in our vehicles. Technologies such as on-board recorders, collision avoidance systems, and intelligent transportation systems are available today and can be used to prevent crashes and save lives. I find it unconscionable that we're not already using every available technology to prevent highway crashes - our nation's number one safety problem. Fifteen European Union countries already mandate the use of recorders - it's time for U.S. regulators to do the same. The Safety Board has advocated the use of adequate on-board recording devices because information they provide can be used to identify safety trends, develop corrective actions, and conduct more efficient accident investigations. For example, cockpit voice recorders and flight data recorders, the so-called "black boxes," have been in commercial aircraft for many years, and they have been indispensable investigative tools.

You just have to look at how dramatically the airline accident rate has dropped over the last four decades. In 1960, there were 1.2 fatal accidents per hundred million aircraft miles flown. In 1970, that number had dropped to 0.1, and it stayed in that range for many years. By 1998, the rate had dropped to 0.02. That's about one-sixtieth the fatal accident rate of 1960.

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.

However, so far, regulators and the industry have been unwilling to require data recorders even though there doesn't seem to be a compelling argument for not equipping commercial heavy vehicles with them. Despite that reluctance, some in the trucking industry have taken the initiative and installed recorders in their vehicles. Vehicle manufacturers, such as Freightliner, offer an on-board data logging system (DLS) that can provide insight into conditions at the time of an accident. Engine manufacturers, such as Detroit Diesel and Cummins, install engine control modules (ECM) that enable operators to track and analyze their vehicles' performance. We're just beginning to understand how this maintenance device can be used for safety management activities.

However, even as we call for expanding the use of recorders, we acknowledge the difficulties that arise from gaining access to more information. The legal, privacy, and proprietary implications of recording systems have to be addressed so that the safety of the travelling public and the privacy rights of vehicle operators are both protected. That's why the Safety Board is sponsoring a symposium next week in Crystal City, Virginia, to discuss these issues. This is the fifth symposium I've hosted since I've been Chairman. Since my arrival at the Board, we've held symposia to focus attention on corporate culture, fatigue, family assistance, and data recorders.

This particular symposium will address potential conflicts between the collection of sophisticated data to improve safety performance, and the subsequent use of that data for regulatory enforcement, private litigation, criminal prosecution, and accident investigation. It will also provide a unique opportunity for experts in various fields to discuss these issues from both a safety and a legal perspective, and to develop solutions that address the legitimate needs of all sectors.

The symposium will also examine the increasing criminalization of the accident investigation process. Although this issue hasn't yet significantly impacted our highway investigations, it has been an issue in several aviation investigations, such as Valujet, Fine Air, and Alaska Airlines, and our pipeline investigations, including recent accidents involving Colonial and Olympia pipelines.

Unfortunately, this seems to be a growing trend and a long-term problem that the Safety Board and the transportation community must come to terms with. Last December, I told members of the pipeline industry that they had a choice. They could regulate themselves or they could be regulated by criminal prosecution. The same may be true for other segments of the industry as well.

I've brought brochures for you on the symposium and there is additional information available on our website at In fact, our website has a great deal of information about the Board and our activities.

Let me discuss one more technology issue - collision avoidance devices that warn drivers as they approach other vehicles. This issue has also been addressed over the years in our safety recommendations - and the devices are already installed on commercial passenger aircraft. 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. It's time for U.S. vehicles to 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 begun to voluntarily install the device. U.S. Xpress Enterprises, in Chattanooga, began installing collision warning systems in its vehicles in 1996, and 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 a mandated 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.

Second, we need more effective countermeasures to minimize driver fatigue.

The Board has studied the issue of operator fatigue extensively over the years and it is on our Most Wanted list of safety improvements. To solve the problem, 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. And, we need to revise the 62-year-old hours-of-service regulations to reflect current scientific research on driver fatigue.

Our truck and bus hearings last year highlighted yet another problem that must be addressed. We found that there are not enough rest areas for fatigued drivers. Under TEA-21, DOT allocated about $24 billion for highway construction and maintenance. But, it didn't earmark any funds for new trucker rest areas. And, neither the federal government nor the states have effectively identified what parking areas are available across the nation.

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 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.

Third, we need more effective driver oversight.

The current CDL system doesn't reflect every driving conviction or serious traffic violation received when driving a private automobile. In addition, as drivers move from state to state, their convictions often don't transfer with them. One solution would 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".

Improving the oversight of and 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. Hopefully, we will soon see improvements in all of these areas with the new Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) in place. Congress created this organization last year in response to increasing criticism from the transportation community and to the Board's findings and recommendations issued as part of our oversight responsibility. They hoped that by creating a separate administration, motor carrier safety would receive the same kind of emphasis that is given to aviation safety.

Obviously, the new safety organization faces enormous challenges - only a few of which I've delineated here today. But, these three 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.

The Board will continue to monitor FMCSA's progress as we continue to recommend ways to improve roadway safety. This year, we will be issuing reports on the safety implications of the North American Free Trade Agreement, collision warning technology for commercial vehicles, advanced electronic braking and stability control technology for commercial vehicles, and the effectiveness of the CDL medical certification programs for commercial drivers.

Thank you, again, for your interest in highway safety and for inviting me to join you today.