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March 20, 2017 2:30 AM, EDT
Panelists Push for Better Crash Data, Technology at Truck Safety Hearing
Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg News

This story appears in the March 20 print edition of Transport Topics.

Improving truck crash data and monitoring of high­-risk carriers are among the key factors that will lead to improved heavy truck safety, a panel of trucking experts told a Senate Commerce subcommittee last week.

Other top recommendations included more funding for state law enforcement, reducing distracted driving, slowing down trucks on highways and deploying safety technologies.

Sen. Deb Fischer (R-Neb.) opened the hearing with a harsh criticism of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, calling a 34-hour, two-night hours-of-service restart rule from 2013 an example that “demonstrates the need to have safeguards in place to avoid ideologically driven rulemakings moving forward.”

A study of the restart rule made public earlier this month showed that it did not demonstrate safety, health and fatigue improvements over an earlier restart provision.

In his opening statement, Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) noted that there were 4,067 fatalities from truck-involved crashes, the highest number since 2008.

“This is a trend that we need to do something about, and I believe we need to take action,” Booker said. “The trend lines are moving in a frightening direction.”

Christopher Hart, chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, told the committee that many of the crashes his agency investigated could have been prevented by carrier fatigue management programs, the use of safety technologies and better oversight of driver performance by federal regulators.

“Many of our investigations identified shortcomings in Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration oversight of commercial truck operations,” Hart told the Senate Subcommittee on Surface Transportation and Merchant Marine Infrastructure, Safety and Security on March 14. “It is critical that FMCSA employ a data-driven, risk-based approach to oversight responsibilities and address the highest-risk carriers.”

Capt. Chris Turner, who heads the Kansas Highway Patrol’s commercial vehicle enforcement and is vice president of the Commercial Vehicle Safety Alliance, told the subcommittee that states need stable, long-term, reliable funding from the Motor Carrier Safety Assistance Program for education and enforcement.

“Unfortunately, we are dealing with an issue directly related to the current continuing resolution,” Turner said. “Because of a technical error in the CR, states stand to lose a total of $112 million in MCSAP funding this fiscal year, which is a third of the program’s funding.”

Turner added, “If the funding issue is left unsolved, many states will be forced to scale back critical CMV education, enforcement and inspection activity.”

Panelist Paul Jovanis, a professor emeritus at Pennsylvania State University and chairman of the Transportation Research Board’s policy studies committee, said researchers have a critical need for federal regulators to provide more detailed crash data such as the location and time of a crash.

“FMCSA does not currently have an annual inventory of data available on large truck and bus crashes in detail that can be used by outside agencies, researchers from universities and other kinds of organizations,” Jovanis said. “Our committee feels pretty strongly that it would [be a] benefit.”

Jerry Moyes, founder and chairman emeritus of truckload carrier Swift Transportation, said his company has consistently invested heavily in technologies that have improved the company’s safety record.

Moyes said Swift originally used 28-­foot double trailers but switched to 53-foot trailers, which he said have proved safer.

Phoenix-based Swift ranks No. 6 on the Transport Topics Top 100 list of the largest U.S. and Canadian for-hire carriers.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) said that 33-foot trailers pose a “clear danger” not only to safety but to the nation’s infrastructure.

Blumenthal pressed Moyes on the subject.

“Given that your priority is safety, that’s why your company no longer drives doubles, even 28s,” Blumenthal said. “Are you concerned about the toll that double-33s would take if they are instituted?”

“We’re very concerned about the safety,” Moyes responded.

Plus, if the 33s were allowed on a federal scale, half of Swift’s fleet would need to be twin 33s to stay competitive, Moyes said.

Adrian Lund, president of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, expressed concern over increasing speed limits for trucks, in some states now as high as 80 miles per hour.

“Physics dictates that faster speeds result in more crashes and more severe ones, no matter what the size of the vehicle,” Lund told the subcommittee. “But for trucks, their greater weight compounds this issue. Even a lightly loaded 40,000-pound truck has 13 times the kinetic energy of a 3,000-pound car traveling at the same speed.”

Lund added: “The proposal for speed limiters for large truck speeds is a welcome attempt to mitigate this problem.”