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Testimony before the Subcommittee on Transportation and Related Agencies, Committee on Appropriations, U.S. House of Representatives
Jim Hall
U.S. House of Representatives, Subcommittee on Transportation and Related Agencies, Committee on Appropriations, Washington, DC

Good morning Chairman Wolf and Members of the Committee. It is a pleasure to represent the National Transportation Safety Board before you today on the subject of surface transportation safety.

Before beginning my testimony, I would like to update the Committee on Board activity in response to language in House Report 105-648, that directed the Board to monitor motorcoach and heavy truck safety operations.

On April 12 and 13, 1999, at the Georgetown University Conference Center in Washington, D. C., the Board plans to hold a public hearing in which members of the industry, government, academia, safety advocates and others will present scientific and statistical testimony regarding the characteristics of truck and bus-related accidents. The purpose of the hearing is to review the conditions and factors that relate to truck/bus-related crashes and evaluate the effectiveness of federal, state and industry oversight of truck and bus safety. During this hearing we will address four questions:

  • What are the characteristics and related factors of truck/bus crashes?
  • What is the character of the truck/bus industry today?
  • What is the current oversight of truck/bus operations, including descriptions of the oversight performed by the carriers, the states, and the federal government? How effective are these programs?
  • What should that oversight be?

In preparing for our April hearing, Board staff have reviewed Department of Transportation (DOT) statistics, and statistical charts have been provided to the Committee staff.

Mr. Chairman, in response to your interest in the role speed plays in highway crashes, particularly those crashes involving large trucks and motorcoaches, we have included two charts from the Fatality Analysis Reporting System data maintained by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration regarding that issue. As you will note from attachment 1 to my testimony, speed was cited as a driver-related factor in 13 percent of fatal crashes involving large trucks. Attachment 2 shows that most heavy trucks involved in fatal crashes were traveling 50 to 60 miles per hour. Since the national maximum speed limit was not eliminated until 1996, there is little data available, and we are unable to determine if speed-involved crashes have increased since that time. As I noted, however, this is an issue the Board will explore further in our April hearing.

As you are aware, surface transportation safety issues - including those involving heavy truck, motorcoach and child passenger safety - have been of concern to the Safety Board for many years. Since 1986, the Safety Board has published 9 safety studies and 34 major accident reports, held 14 public hearings/forums and issued scores of safety recommendations to pinpoint problems and spell out ways to improve heavy truck and motorcoach safety.

As a result of Safety Board recommendations in these three areas, we have seen numerous surface transportation safety improvements. Among those are requirements for:

  • a commercial driver's license for most truck and bus drivers;
  • tougher heavy vehicle brake regulations;
  • alcohol and drug testing that greatly reduced abuse;
  • the use of child safety seats in all states;
  • all automobile passengers to be buckled up in all but one State; and
  • warnings regarding air bags and child passenger safety.

Operator Fatigue

An issue that crosses transportation modes - operator fatigue - has been addressed by the Board for nearly a quarter of a century, and has been on the Board's "Most Wanted" list of safety issues since its inception in 1990. The Board's "Most Wanted" list highlights safety recommendations the Board believes should be acted on as soon as possible because they have the most potential to improve safety, save lives, and reduce accidents and injuries. Truck driver fatigue was also the focus of a 1990 and a 1995 safety study conducted by the Safety Board.

On May 12, 1989, the Safety Board issued recommendations to DOT regarding fatigue in all modes of transportation. One of those recommendations asked the DOT to review and upgrade regulations governing hours of service for all transportation modes to assure that they are consistent and that they incorporate the results of the latest research on fatigue and sleep issues.

In November 1995, the Safety Board, in conjunction with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's Ames Research Center, sponsored a fatigue symposium attended by nearly 600 people from 16 countries representing the private sector, academia, and government.

When addressing the symposium attendees, DOT Secretary Federico Pena stated that operator error is probably the most important single factor in truck and bus accidents. He went on to say "It's up to us ... to figure out how ... we can keep improving the safety record."

We agree with the former Secretary and believe the traveling public has the right to expect professional drivers traveling our highways to be unimpaired by fatigue. Mr. Chairman, the nature of the truck and bus industries has changed tremendously even over the past ten years; however, the hours-of-service regulations for truck and bus drivers, developed in the 1930s, have not kept up with a changing environment and are nearly 60 years old. It is the Safety Board's belief that upgrading 60-year-old regulations for commercial drivers would be the place to start in improving safety on our highways.

At that symposium, the DOT Secretary announced the Department's Fatigue Program Overview, which summarized the research and technology development, public education, outreach, and operational strategies being used by the Department. However, little has been done in the nearly 10 years since our safety recommendations were first issued and the three years since our fatigue symposium was held. Although the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) issued an advanced notice of proposed rulemaking (ANPRM) in November 1996, no subsequent regulatory action has taken place.

Heavy Truck Safety

According to the American Trucking Associations (ATA), the trucking industry employs 9.5 million individuals and includes more than 442,000 companies which operate more than 4 million medium and heavy trucks and haul about 6.5 billion tons of freight. Those same trucks travel more than 166 billion miles a year, and are driven by over 8 million commercial driver license holders.

Along with these statistics come others. In 1997, there were 5,355 fatal and many more severe injury crashes involving heavy trucks. From 1980 to 1997, the number of registered large trucks increased 22.3 percent, and the number of registered passenger cars increased 19 percent. Large trucks account for only 3 percent of all registered vehicles, but in 1997, one out of 11 traffic fatalities resulted from a collision involving a large truck.

DOT figures show that the fatal crash rate per vehicle mile traveled for large trucks fell by nearly 41 percent between 1982 and 1996. The number of highway fatalities in accidents involving trucks has increased slightly in the past few years. Even though the rate has fallen, as the miles traveled and the vehicles registered continue to increase, we can only assume that increase will mean additional crashes. The Safety Board believes, despite the decrease in the fatal crash rate, that there is technology available to prevent many of those accidents.

The Board has had a long-standing interest in technology to mitigate collisions in all modes of our transportation system. In recent years, the Safety Board has investigated several highway accidents in which collision warning technology would have avoided the accident, and examples follow.

  • Menifee, Arkansas - January 9, 1995 - At 1:50 a.m., 8 loaded tractor semi-trailers and a telephone company van were involved in a series of rear end collisions on I-40 northwest of Little Rock. The accident began when the lead truck slowed in heavy localized fog from the speed limit of 65 mph to between 35-40 mph. Following trucks also slowed, but to differing speeds varying from 15 mph to 60 mph. Multiple rear end collisions occurred over about the next 2 minutes that resulted in a fire and 5 fatalities.
  • Weatherford, Texas - July 3, 1994 - At 9:20 a.m., a private passenger van in a partially disabled condition was traveling about 15 mph in the slow lane of I-20 west of Fort Worth, Texas. A tractor semi-trailer with a fatigued driver approached from behind at about 55 mph, struck and overrode the van, pushing it into a guard rail, then on into the median where a fire ensued. The van had 18 passengers, 17 from the same extended family, on their way to a family reunion. Fourteen received fatal injuries, including 12 children. The roadway was straight, the sun was shining and after the truck driver crested a small hill, he could have seen the van for at least 1/2 mile before he hit it if his fatigued condition had not reduced his level of awareness.
  • Alexandria, Minnesota - February 8, 1994 - At 8:30 a.m., a 15 passenger van with 13 cosmetology students and 2 staff members was traveling at about 65 mph on I-94 in central Minnesota. It was windy and snowing, but the roadway had been cleared of snow and the surface was dry. The van driver approached and entered a snow cloud that was produced by a truck with an attached snow plow that was cleaning the left shoulder of the roadway. The truck was traveling at 20-25 mph and was not visible to the van driver. The truck was completely engulfed by the cloud created by his own plow and the wind. Once the van driver was inside the cloud, she observed the truck and tried to swerve into the slow lane. In the process, she struck the right rear of the truck, spun sideways into the slow lane, and was struck broadside by a passing motorcoach that also had not seen the snow plow. Seven passengers in the van received fatal injuries and the other 8 were seriously injured.

Collision warning technology has been used successfully in aviation, and to a lessor degree in the railroad and marine modes of transportation. These important devices assist in an operator's decisionmaking - whether it be an airline pilot, a railroad engineer or a marine operator. Collision warning systems currently available or under development for use in large trucks and buses will provide measurable accident reduction benefits.

Following a multiple-vehicle rear-end collision that occurred near Menifee, Arkansas, on January 9, 1995, the Safety Board issued a safety recommendation (H-95-44) to the DOT, with a similar recommendation issued to the Intelligent Transportation Society of America, that stated:

      In cooperation with the Intelligent Transportation Society of America, sponsor fleet testing of collision warning technology through partnership projects with the commercial carrier industry. Incorporate testing results into demonstration and training programs to educate the potential end-users of the systems.

I recently visited the manufacturer of a collision warning system and learned that several heavy truck fleets have made this equipment standard on newly purchased trucks, and the company estimates that they will sell more than 10,000 units this calendar year. In addition, they stated that a collision warning system is also standard equipment on newly purchased U.S. Army medium and heavy vehicles. The Army has at least 2,300 currently in its trucks, and has purchased 2,000 retrofit kits.

I also recently visited U.S. Xpress Enterprises, Inc. in Chattanooga, Tennessee. In 1996, this trucking company began installing a collision warning system in its vehicles. Eighty percent of their fleet, between 3,700 and 3,800 trucks, currently have this important safety device, and the company is placing it in all newly-purchased vehicles. I was pleased to learn that since installing this technology, the company's accident costs have decreased by two-thirds. Mr. Chairman, the rest of the industry should take notice. The wide-spread use of this safety device would prevent injuries, save countless lives and, as demonstrated by U.S. Xpress' experience, millions of dollars each year.

In light of the above, we were disappointed in DOT's April 10, 1997, response, which has been classified as unacceptable, that stated they had no plans for conducting an operational test of rear end collision avoidance systems for heavy trucks.

Another important tool that would improve truck safety is an automatic information recording device, an item on the Board's "Most Wanted" list of safety issues. We believe that adequate on-board recording devices are necessary in all modes of transportation because the information can be used to identify safety trends, develop corrective actions, and conduct more efficient accident investigations. Cockpit voice recorders and flight data recorders have been in commercial aircraft for many years, and we have found them to be indispensable investigative tools. The same is true of trains which have required event recorders since 1993.

We issued our first recommendation (H-90-28) regarding recorders for highway trucking transport to the FHWA in April 1990 as a result of the Board's safety study on fatigue, alcohol, and other drugs, and medical factors in fatal-to-the driver heavy truck crashes. That recommendation stated:

Require automated/tamper-proof on-board recording devices, such as tachographs or computerized logs, to identify commercial truckdrivers who exceed hours-of-service regulations.

This safety recommendation was reiterated in 1995 in a Board study on truckdriver fatigue. The Board concluded that these devices can provide a tamper-proof mechanism that could be used to enforce the hours-of-service regulations, rather than relying on drivers' handwritten logs.

In a February 1997 response to our 1995 recommendation, the FHWA acknowledged that on-board recording devices could eventually be an important tool for monitoring the hours of service of commercial motor vehicle drivers. However, they went on to say that "The FHWA position is that the benefits and practicality of on-board recorders must be firmly established before rulemaking ensues."

We are aware that the FHWA initiated a research project with the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute. The project will analyze the costs and benefits associated with the installation and use of on-board recorders for both newly manufactured and in-use commercial motor vehicles.

Not only are they important tools in accident investigation and reconstruction and for use in hours-of-service regulation compliance, but the Board believes that they can also be used in the trucking industry as management tools to identify information concerning both driver and vehicle operating characteristics. Because of FHWA's unacceptable response, in the report of an accident that occurred February 12, 1997, in Slinger, Wisconsin, the Board in August 1998 issued a recommendation (H-98-23) directly to the industry and asked the American Trucking Associations, the Motor Freight Carrier Association, and the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, to advise their members to equip their commercial vehicle fleets with automated and tamper-proof on-board recording devices.

This FHWA-initiated research comes nine years after our first recommendation was issued. The trucking industry in the United States has already installed tens of thousands of these recorders. We believe it is past time to act, and that their use should be mandatory throughout the industry, as it is in most of Europe. This technology is already required in the 15 countries of the European Economic Union.

As mentioned earlier, the need for automatic information recording devices has been an item on the Board's "Most Wanted" list since 1990. In an effort to further educate the transportation industry on the importance of recording devices in all modes of transportation and bring attention to this important issue, we will be holding an International Symposium on Transportation Recorders in Arlington, Virginia, in May 1999. The topic areas for this symposium will include:

  • Overview of transportation recording capabilities (including regulatory requirements and industry standards;
  • Proactive use of recorded data for accident prevention and to improve operational efficiency;
  • Access to data issues: privacy, proprietary, union contracts, etc.; and
  • Future recording requirements and capabilities.

Motorcoach Issues

In an average year, more than 360 million bus passengers travel 28 billion passenger miles in North America. Some 945 million miles were by motorcoach. The American Bus Association estimates that there are about 4,000 companies operating 26,000 - 28,000 commercial buses that are in use for charters, tours, regular route service, and special operations.

As you are aware, the Safety Board is investigating the tragic accident that occurred December 24, 1998, on the Garden State Parkway in New Jersey that resulted in the death of eight passengers. Although this investigation is on-going and conclusions have not been determined, issues being examined include: driver licensing, speed, passenger ejections, and bus crashworthiness.

The latter two issues are of continuous concern to the Board. We are currently conducting a special investigation to examine them more closely. Unlike automobiles, there are no crash protection or body joint strength standards applicable to motorcoaches. In addition, there are currently no bus rollover standards.

As part of this on-going study, staff reviewed 40 prior Safety Board motorcoach accidents that resulted in full or partial ejections. With the advent of the modern touring bus with its large windshield and passenger window areas, we are concerned that the glazing material on the window frequently fails during crashes and rollovers, permitting occupant ejection. Although, as I said, the investigation of the Garden State Parkway accident is ongoing, it appears that some windows did fail and a number of passengers were ejected. This raises questions concerning the effectiveness of several Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards as they are applicable to motorcoaches. We will keep the Committee advised as information is developed on this investigation and our study.

Along with the Board's concern regarding ejections and bus crashworthiness, Federal safety oversight and FHWA's safety fitness criteria for motorcoaches is another issue of concern. This matter has come up in Safety Board investigations and in a special investigation on selective motorcoach issues recently adopted by the Board.

As you know, the Surface Transportation Assistance Act of 1982 established the Motor Carrier Safety Assistance Program (MCSAP), which formed a partnership between the DOT and the States. According to DOT testimony presented February 11, 1999, before the Ground Transportation Subcommittee, the Federal government funds 33,000 individual bus inspections a year through the MCSAP program. Although the Office of Motor Carriers (OMC) is beginning to delegate to their State partners some safety fitness evaluations of bus companies, this function remains primarily their responsibility. To inspect the over 400,000 trucking companies and 4,000 bus companies, the OMC employs 225 safety inspectors who inspect truck and bus companies. In 1997, there were 4,087 Federally-conducted compliance reviews of interstate carriers.

Motorcoach safety oversight was further enhanced in the Motor Carrier Safety Act of 1984. That legislation directed the Secretary of Transportation to establish a procedure to determine the safety fitness of owners and operators of commercial motor vehicles operating in interstate and foreign commerce. Subsequently, the FHWA promulgated a set of safety fitness standards and established a methodology to determine whether a carrier has adequate safety management controls in place to ensure acceptable compliance with the safety requirements.

Current Federal regulations contain two tools for preventing unsafe motor carriers from operating on the roadway. The first tool is part of the current safety rating methodology. When any motor carrier receives an unsatisfactory rating in two of six rating factors, the carrier receives a proposed unsatisfactory rating which becomes effective after 45 days. Those rating factors are: general; driver; operations; vehicle; hazardous materials; and accident. If the passenger carrier corrects the noncompliance to the satisfaction of the OMC, it receives a satisfactory or conditional rating. If the passenger carrier does not correct the noncompliance within 45 days, it receives an out-of-service order and is prohibited from operation.

The second tool for removing an unsafe carrier from the road is the imminent hazard rule which allows any driver, vehicle, or carrier posing an imminent hazard to safety to be placed out of service. Imminent hazard means any condition of vehicle, employee, or commercial motor vehicle operation that is likely to result in serious injury or death if not discontinued immediately. Despite the availability of these tools for removing unsafe carriers from the road, OMC records indicate that they are used infrequently. In 1994, 8 carriers received out-of-service orders; in 1995, 29 carriers received out-of-service orders; and in 1996, 17 carriers received out-of-service orders.

The tools mentioned above, however, do not necessarily provide the oversight that would ensure unsafe motor carriers are not operating on the roadways. An accident that occurred October 13, 1995, in Indianapolis, Indiana, was discussed at length in the Board's special investigation. The bus overturned on its left side and slid about 590 feet when it failed to negotiate an exit curve. It was noted in the report that an inoperative speedometer on the bus contributed to the driver's lack of speed control, the condition of the vehicle brakes probably contributed to the bus driver's inability to slow down on an exit ramp, and a faulty air conditioner may have contributed to the driver's fatigue and resulted in the passengers opening the windows, which may have contributed to the partial ejection and fatal injury of two occupants.

Eleven of the company's buses were inspected by the Indiana State Police on September 14, 1994. While the State Police were conducting that inspection, the OMC conducted a follow-up compliance review using police inspection results in determining the rating for its compliance review. The company was rated satisfactory even though 63 percent of its vehicles were placed out-of-service. Had the OMC given the company an unsatisfactory rating based on the high percentage of vehicle defects, the brakes, speedometer, and air conditioner on the accident vehicle might have been repaired and the accident may have been avoided. It is our belief that if a passenger carrier does not meet the vehicle factor rating due to out-of-service vehicles, that determination should be serious enough to rate the carrier unsatisfactory overall. The Board has approved a recommendation that the safety rating methodology should also be changed so that driver performance-based data will independently result in an overall unsatisfactory rating for the carrier.

Mr. Chairman, we are all aware that motorcoaches are one of the safest modes of transportation, and that they account for only a small proportion of all vehicles involved in fatal accidents - an average of 0.6 percent. We applaud the Federal and State programs which have brought about this level of safety for commercial buses. However, we believe this record can improve. A change in the safety rating methodology would be a step in the right direction.

Child Safety

Mr. Chairman, along with large bus and truck safety, a major goal for me as Chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board is to do everything possible to ensure the safety of our children. As the father of two daughters, I have always believed there is nothing more important.

Properly used child restraints have proven to be effective in reducing the likelihood of death and injury to children. The NHTSA estimated that in 1997 the lives of 312 children under age 5 were saved as a result of child restraint use. The NHTSA also estimates that the potential effectiveness of child restraints when used correctly is 71 percent. However, when improperly secured children in the child restraints and improperly secured the child restraints in the vehicle are factored in, the effectiveness of child restraints drops to 59 percent.

As part of a study released by the Board in 1996 on the performance and use of child restraint systems, the Board analyzed data from 120 accidents. As part of that study, the Board examined whether the child restraint system was properly used. The Board determined that in 62 percent of the cases the restraint was improperly secured in the vehicle, the child was improperly secured in the child restraint, or both errors occurred. In addition, I recently participated in a car seat checkup that was held at an automobile dealership in Tennessee. Of 58 child restraints checked that day, only one restraint was properly installed.

I believe the above example shows the importance of properly installed child restraints, and Australia has taken the car seat checkup one step further. To help parents properly install child restraints and their tethers, Australia has established permanent fitting stations in parts of that country. For no charge, parents come in and have the installation of their child restraint checked and corrected. At one of these stations the misuse rate has been reported at about 75 percent. In addition, in 1985 the Traffic Authority of New South Wales established a Statewide network of 60 child restraint fitting stations. Since that time, a total of 132 fitting stations have been established in New South Wales, and other Australian States have also begun establishing child restraint fitting stations.

The Safety Board believes that deaths and injuries to children can be reduced if they are properly secured in child restraints and if the restraints are properly secured in the vehicle. Permanent fitting stations are feasible in the United States, and would provide a stable resource of information and informed, qualified people to assist with the installation of child restraints.

On January 13, 1999, the Safety Board recommended that the NHTSA develop incentive grant programs to assist in the funding of child restraint fitting stations. Recommendations to the States asking that they coordinate the establishment of fitting stations, and to the vehicle manufacturers, and child restraint manufacturers asking that they support the establishment of fitting stations, were also issued.

Along with bus and motorcoach safety, the safety of our youngest drivers is one of my major goals. Traffic crashes are the leading cause of death among teenagers nationwide. Since 1990, over 46,000 teenagers between the ages of 16 and 20 have died in traffic crashes in the United States, and hundreds of thousands more have been injured.

All too often we hear reports of car crashes involving young people who have only recently obtained their license to drive. There are some statistics I would like to share:

  • Young drivers age 15 - 20 years comprise about 6.7 percent of all drivers nationwide, but about 14 percent of highway fatalities.
  • Only about 20 percent of their driving is at night, but about 50 percent of their fatalities occur during the hours of darkness.
  • Beginning drivers have a very high crash risk. Male drivers in this age group have 6 times the fatality risk of older drivers. Nationally, the 1997 fatality rate for teenage drivers is four times as high as the rate for drivers 25 to 65 years old.

Our current system of licensing does not teach young people how to drive; it teaches them how to pass a test. Graduated licensing, including a nighttime driving restriction, saves lives and reduces highway crashes involving teenage drivers. Learning to drive should be a long-term process, rather than a traditional driver education program that includes only 6 hours behind the wheel.

Beginning drivers should be introduced gradually to the driving experience. Ideally, once the basics are learned, any additional training should be on the road without unnecessary distractions and with the assistance of a mature and experienced driver. This process allows the young driver to gradually develop the skills needed for full licensure and to practice driving under the safest possible real-world conditions. As new drivers' skills and maturity develop, they can then proceed to full licensure. This system needs to be combined with a nighttime driving restriction during the driver's first year so that adults can provide the experience necessary to drive safely at night. It allows the young driver to gain experience and expertise while also providing a safety net.

Graduated licensing was the subject of a safety recommendation issued to all States in 1993, and it is an issue on the Board's "Most Wanted" list. We believe it is one of the most effective actions that can be taken to save both young lives and the lives of others involved in crashes with young drivers. Twenty-four States, including the State of Virginia, have adopted some form of graduated licensing, and we at the Board will continue to urge the remaining States to adopt effective licensing laws.

That completes my testimony, Mr. Chairman. I would be happy to respond to any questions you may have.

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