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Remarks before the Second International Large Truck Safety Symposium, Knoxville, Tennessee
Jim Hall
Second International Large Truck Safety Symposium, Knoxville, Tennessee

Good morning. Thank you for inviting me to be here today to talk about the important issue of truck and bus safety. I want to thank Dr. Steve Richards, Director of the UT Transportation Center, and Zack Zacharia, the Associate Director, as well. I always appreciate the opportunity to come home to Tennessee - especially when it's linked to an opportunity to cheer the Vols on to another victory! Before I begin, let me introduce members of my staff who are with me today: Dr. Meg Sweeney from our office of Research and Engineering, Vern Roberts from the Office of Highway Safety, and Jamie Pericola from my office.

As you may know, the National Transportation Safety Board has been the eyes and ears of the American people at accident sites for the last 32 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 DOT modal administrations.

Over the years, NTSB 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 hope you'll agree that the American people get a good return on their investment of the 20 cents per person that it takes to run our agency each year.

I've proudly led the Safety Board for the last five years. But, by far, the most distressing part of my job is to have to launch a team to investigate a fatal accident. Four months ago, I sent one such team to a multi-vehicle collision outside Knoxville. 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, in an instant, 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. Hardly a fair fight. 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.

This scenario is all too common everywhere in the U.S. In 1998, 5,374 people were killed on our nation's roadways in accidents involving a large truck. Here in Tennessee, 127 people were killed that year in large truck accidents. This situation is only going to continue to worsen as more volume, more mass, and more pressure increasingly 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.

Although "just in time" delivery has helped our economic growth, it has also 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 - this year, that number will exceed 220,000 - most of them out on the roadways hauling cargo. The 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 this important issue this year. And, they're why I'm here today. I read your agenda with a great deal of interest - during this past week, you have discussed many of the critical highway safety issues of concern to the Safety Board: driver fatigue; the need for better accident data and analysis; the adequacy of rest areas, roadside inspections and out-of-service rates; and new safety technologies such as lane departure warning systems, collision avoidance radar, and electronic brakes.

We've spent much of this year focusing attention on these issues by providing congressional testimony; conducting public hearings on truck and bus safety; and publishing a series of reports on specific highway safety issues.

Last April, we conducted a public hearing on federal and state oversight of the truck and bus industries. Last month, we held another hearing to explore technological applications for heavy vehicle safety. Later this month, we will conduct a hearing on safety issues related to the implementation of the North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA. In January, we'll hold another hearing which will examine the effectiveness of the Commercial Drivers License (CDL) program.

In addition, we completed reports on government oversight of the motorcoach industry and occupant protection on motorcoaches and school buses this year. And, we've almost completed a safety study on intrastate trucks that aren't subject to federal regulations.

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.

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. The lack of adequate, accurate data on crashes involving heavy trucks, and specifically data on the causes of those crashes, hampers 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 paid for by the same taxpayers. As a result, 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. The federal government helps fund academic centers such as UT, University of Michigan, and Oak Ridge - all of which need accurate data for research purposes.

Second, we need better oversight of all highway safety stakeholders - drivers, companies, shippers, brokers, consignors, freight forwarders, and tour operators. The Department of Transportation (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.

However, even those programs currently in place need to be improved. The Office of Motor Carrier and Highway Safety (OMCHS) 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, OMCHS can't even be sure that they know how many or which motor carriers are operating on our highways.

Similar problems affect OMCHS's 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 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 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".

The federal government primarily focuses its oversight 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. Although this segment of the industry is expected to grow over the next 10 years, there aren't any plans to expand federal oversight responsibilities. It's unclear why there's a distinction between interstate and intrastate operations - seems to be that a heavy truck is a heavy truck and it shouldn't matter which one is involved in an accident.

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 technology hearing last month. The Safety Board believes that while recorders are an important tool for reconstructing accidents and monitoring drivers' hours of service compliance, they can also be used as a management tool to provide information concerning both drivers' and vehicles' operating characteristics. The U.S. trucking industry has already installed thousands of these recorders - in fact, Freightliner just announced that "black boxes" will be standard equipment on their vehicles. The Board believes that it's past time for DOT to act and that recorders should be mandatory on every vehicle - just as it is in most of Europe.

We also believe that DOT needs to take long overdue action to evaluate collision avoidance technology. The Department of Defense developed this technology, at taxpayer expense, and, in my opinion, it should have already been mandated for all new trucks. The U.S. Army is installing it as standard equipment on all of its heavy trucks. Despite DOT's inaction, some segments of the industry have also voluntarily installed it.

DOT needs to find ways to be more responsive to new safety improvements as well. There must be a mechanism that allows new safety features to be introduced expeditiously - rather than forcing manufacturers and operators to endure years of bureaucratic rule making. Currently, there are few incentives for carriers to adopt unmandated technologies and existing rules frequently hamper the use of new technologies. For example, the industry is interested in the use of electronic braking, which could give drivers additional time to respond. However, unless DOT revises its pneumatic brake requirements, there are economic disadvantages to the installation of electronic braking systems.

Finally, we must provide better countermeasures including educational opportunities for all drivers on better ways to share the roads, more rest areas for drivers, and different pay systems for drivers so that they are paid by the hour rather than by the mile. The hours-of-service regulations also need to be revised. These rules are 62 years old; it's time to develop new rules that reflect the current scientific research on driver fatigue.

These are all issues that have been repeatedly addressed in Safety Board accident investigation reports and in our recommendations to the DOT. You can imagine how frustrated we have been by the lack of progress we've seen over the years to implement these improvements.

Before I close, I want to mention one other issue - drivers' fitness for duty. The Safety Board is investigating three motorcoach crashes in which a total of 33 people died. In each, the driver's medical history is at issue. In one accident, the driver may not have been medically qualified to operate the bus; in the other two, the drivers may have been impaired by over-the-counter medications or illegal drugs. Although this issue will be discussed in more detail at our January hearing, it's becoming apparent that we need a national driver registry of medical providers so that the American public knows that CDL holders, who are operating large commercial vehicles on the nation's highways, are medically qualified.

It should be obvious that unless we take immediate action, the situation on our highways will only worsen. As I said earlier, the nature of trucking is changing and the demands on our highway system are increasing. If we are to ensure the travelling public's safety, we must change as well. However, it should be equally clear that there are no easy solutions to these problems. What worked in the past, isn't working now, and certainly won't work in the future. We need a wholesale change in the way we do business.

We need new approaches to solve not only the problems at hand, but those we know loom in the future. We must be prepared to find innovative solutions to new, more complex problems. And, those solutions must be targeted and integrated to ensure that every stakeholder has a role to play and is held accountable. To that end, last month, I visited Governor Michael Leavitt of Utah, Chairman of the National Governors' Association, and I wrote to the other governors, to request that highway safety be their first priority.

We all assume that the states are doing everything they can to protect the safety of their citizens. Yet, when we look at state laws and enforcement activities, it's clear that some aren't. We all can and must do more. There is no more fundamental responsibility of government than to preserve the lives and the safety of our citizens. Here in Tennessee, it's time for state leaders and the University of Tennessee to take up this challenge and to make our state safer through a coordinated, integrated safety program that involves the government, academia, industry, and the public. That's my hope for our Transportation Center - make a difference - this symposium is an important contribution - but much more needs to be done. God Speed!

Thank you again for inviting me to be here today.