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June 20, 2016 4:00 AM, EDT

Editorial: Collision Technology Proves Its Worth

This editorial appears in the June 20 print edition of Transport Topics. Click here to subscribe today.

Let us pause for a moment and consider the number zero. As in, during a recent test, 150 heavy-duty tractors racked up 3 million U.S. highway miles and there were zero rear-end collisions.

Commissioned by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, Virginia Tech researchers monitored trucks equipped with collision-avoidance active safety systems. The devices use radar and cameras and watch the road to assist drivers. If the humans miss something, the software systems can bring the truck to a full stop fairly quickly.

To put that in perspective, 3 million miles is Seattle to Jacksonville, Florida, and back — 500 times.

There are many drivers on America’s Road Team or participants in the National Truck Driving Championships who have done this and more, and hats off to them. But not everyone is that skilled (and lucky), so maybe it’s good to have an edge, a little something extra.

All those miles, all those days and nights, all kinds of weather and all of those other vehicles on the road, so the zero is noteworthy.

The researchers told NHTSA the systems are not flawless. There were false automatic emergency breaking activations that were said to “frustrate or annoy drivers.” That’s a bit too mild and polite as a description.

There are vocational trucks that measure work by the hour rather than the mile that probably don’t need these systems.

For many on-highway fleets, though, system manufacturers Bendix Commercial Vehicle Systems and Meritor Wabco report rising sales. Those companies made the systems used in the NHTSA/Virginia Tech study.

As of August 2017, an earlier generation of safety, electronic stability control, becomes mandatory on highway tractors where the driver needs a commercial driver license. ESC reduces the likelihood of rollover and swerving accidents, but the collision avoidance systems just tested go even further.

Given the timing of the ESC mandate, it’s a bit early for NHTSA to say all trucks must now adopt collision avoidance, but we’re very glad the systems are out there on the market as options.

We also salute the nation’s safety directors, who carefully monitor, research and evaluate active safety — and often write checks to add the systems to their vehicles. They take seriously the responsibility for sending 80,000-pound vehicles hurtling down the nation’s highways at 55 mph or more, irrespective of regulatory mandate.

It can pay to have an edge.