A patchwork system of safety keeps dangerous trucks on the road
December 21, 2014 12:00 AM
The driver of this truck was killed in 2008 when his rig overturned on Interstate 79.
A tractor trailer driver lost control in October 2012 in Pittsburgh's West End, and three people were hospitalized.
This particular challenge at the National Truck Driving Championship was designed to simulate a Department of Transportation scale at the National Truck Driving Championship at the David L. Lawerence Convention Center on Aug. 15.
Philip L. Byrd is the National Chairman of the American Trucking Association. He made a visit to Pittsburgh for the National Truck Driving Championship at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center on Aug. 15.
A judge follows along as a truck driver navigates through one of the challenges at the National Truck Driving Championship at the David L. Lawerence Convention Center on Aug. 15.
By Andrew McGill / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
More than 14,000 people have died in big-rig truck accidents nationwide since 2009. That number alone, safety advocates say, is bad enough.
But nearly a quarter of those deaths involved trucks that had been previously cited with safety violations, a sign that regulation and industry initiatives still allow large numbers of unsafe commercial trucks on the road.
Nationwide there were nearly 390,000 big-rig accidents between 2009 and 2013, a Post-Gazette analysis of Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration data shows. One out of six trucks pulled over for inspection was deemed so badly out-of-order that it was unsafe to drive.
This comes, paradoxically, as trucks become safer to drive than ever. The fatal accident rate for large trucks shrunk by half between 1994 and 2010, according to data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Indeed, large trucks are now nearly as safe as passenger cars, with only 1.42 fatal accidents per 100 million vehicle miles traveled.
“They’ve virtually converged,” said Daniel Blower, who studies truck safety at the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute. “Which, if you think about it, is extraordinary, because of the physical differences between trucks and cars.”
One out of six trucks pulled over for inspection was deemed so badly out-of-order that it was unsafe to drive.
But accident rates continue to vary widely between states. New Jersey tops the list, with 0.53 crashes per million miles traveled by heavy trucks in the state. Massachusetts follows close behind, with 0.49 crashes; Pennsylvania is closer to the bottom of the list, with 0.18 crashes.
Why the difference? Academics and experts say any number of confounding factors — terrain, population density and weather patterns — could make one state appear more dangerous than its neighbor.
But there’s another problem: irregularity of enforcement.
While the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration sets national standards, it’s left to the states to decide what’s important and what’s not. Texas, for example, puts a high priority on headlights and signals; neighboring Arizona is much more likely to cite a driver for logbook irregularities.
Pennsylvania inspectors handed out more than 17,000 out-of-service violations for defective parts between 2009 and 2013, making mechanical failure the biggest single category of concern by far. Truckers also saw more than 9,000 brake-related violations.
The federal government is very hands-on in policing other modes of transportation, particularly air travel. But it when it comes to big rigs, it mainly administers funds, giving state enforcement plans a once-over before allocating resources.
Pennsylvania matches and in some cases exceeds national averages of the rate of violations found serious enough to pull commercial trucks off the road. During random vehicle inspections of trucks between 2013 and 2014, inspectors in Pennsylvania cited 19 percent with out-of-service violations, just under the national rate of 20 percent. In instances where police conduct safety reviews after noticing violations on the road, Pennsylvania has a higher rate than the national average, hitting nearly 30 percent.
This patchwork system means a truck that would be cited by a trooper in one state could breeze by a patrolman in the next — and makes raising safety standards nationwide even harder.
“You’ve got kind of a lot of different things working against safety,” said John Lannen, executive director of the Truck Safety Coalition. “It’s a huge industry, with an agency that’s not very big trying to regulate it.”
Bad brakes = truck into house
The truck was from Florida. Circling the cab, Tennessee inspectors ticked off the violations: bald tires, ill-maintained equipment, brakes out of adjustment.
A month later, it was back on the road, carrying a load of steel wire.
But this time, no one caught the bad brakes. That was left to Linda Witherspoon — who watched the out-of-control Freightliner barrel through her West End home, narrowly missing her grandchildren.
“I remember all of it,” Ms. Witherspoon said two years after the October 2012 crash. “My grandkids still have nightmares about it.”
A state road, Greentree Road winds down a steep hill before reaching this gritty neighborhood of warehouses and rental houses. That’s where driver Luis Bienes Vega realized he couldn’t stop his truck.
With a loaded trailer and nothing to slow him down, the driver ran through a parked car, two school buses and across a gravel lot before crashing into Ms. Witherspoon’s house on McKnight Street, the Post-Gazette reported at the time. Four people were hurt.
Ms. Witherspoon acted quickly, pulling her grandchildren into the safety of her living room. The truck ripped through the side of her house, pushing into the hallway and kitchen.
At the time, officials called the crash “something that you’d see in the movies.”
Investigators recalled climbing through the wreckage to examine the truck’s back wheels, which should have been locked solid by the air brakes — and finding the brakes so badly out of alignment that one of the wheels spun freely.
“It could have been a lot worse than it was,” Pittsburgh police officer Larry Huber said.
Mr. Bienes Vega’s employer, ABC Freight, operated just 14 trucks. Even so, it posted a poor safety record, receiving nearly 300 inspection violations in the three years before the accident.
In some ways, this story shows the effectiveness of enforcement. Though the driver received only a traffic citation, ABC Freight was eventually shut down by federal authorities. The company has since settled lawsuits seeking more than $150,000.
In other ways, it’s a story of the system’s failure.
Even after the crash, the Florida company continued to rack up demerits, picking up 20 violations in six states. Inspectors cited its trucks for broken headlights, shoddy windshield wipers, log violations — and defective brakes.
The decal on the side of the wrecked truck? “Delivering Your Future.”
The United States of various standards
Is this really the future of American highways? Hard to say — because there isn’t just one America.
If you drove from Pittsburgh across the country, many things would stay the same. Most road signs must meet federal guidelines, down to fractions of an inch. The double yellow line means the same thing here that it means in Honolulu.
But truckers view geography differently. While every big rig inspection is technically the same, research shows states vary wildly in what they believe warrants a violation.
In a study published in July, the industry-funded American Transportation Research Institute found the U.S.’s strictest states — Connecticut, Maryland, Rhode Island — issued up to nine times as many violations per truck mile traveled than more relaxed states like North Dakota and Delaware.
PG graphic: The data on big rigs (Click image for larger version)
The Post-Gazette’s own analysis bears this out, showing states also have their own pet peeves. Pennsylvania is far more likely to ding a driver for not having a medical certificate, for instance, while Ohio posts high numbers for inoperable vehicle lights.
“The game’s different in certain states,” said Rob Abbott, vice president of safety policy at the American Trucking Associations. “On any truck, the potential for a single violation is high. There are dozens and dozens of items they review.”
While it hands down safety priorities and basic requirements, the FMCSA leaves it up to the states to enforce highway laws. Every year, each state must submit an enforcement plan to Washington for review, receiving federal dollars if it measures up.
In these plans, states can steer enforcement as they see fit. Come from a state with a large logging industry? You’ll probably care more about securing loads. Have a lot of hills? Better check brakes.
Often, this state-to-state approach makes sense, advocates say. In a country as large as the U.S., a single enforcement system could actually prove counterproductive.
But the launch of a new federal safety scoring system — “Compliance, Safety, Accountability,” or CSA — has brought the issue to fore, making consistency a top concern for the industry.
Launched nationwide in December 2010, the CSA program gives a numeric safety rating to truck carriers, posting safety stats online. Have violations? Bad score. Had a crash? Even worse.
Trucking companies say the revamped system is unfair, penalizing some shippers for working in strict states while letting offenders in lenient locales skate free. That costs them money, because companies are less likely to hire a shipper with a lower CSA score.
That worries U.S. Rep. Lou Barletta, R-Hazleton, who recently introduced legislation asking the FMCSA to take another look at the CSA program. He wants to make sure small carriers aren’t harmed and that the government only uses data that has been shown to help predict truck crashes, he said.
“When you try to do a one-size-fits-all solution, it doesn’t work,” he said. “It’s not indicative of a trucking company’s true safety record … some of the most minor infractions go against the score. We’re really misleading the public.”
Others disagree. Stephen Keppler heads the Commercial Vehicle Safety Alliance, an independent group that develops protocols used by truck inspectors. For him, shippers who cry foul at their scores are missing an important problem — their own.
“A violation is a violation. They're not making stuff up out there,” he said. “If the industry complies with the regulations, they have nothing to worry about.”
The main cause: ‘Unsafe driving acts’
This discussion came too late for David Wert.
On May 23, 2011, he was going the speed limit. He was well rested. He was, in short, a veteran trucker who was doing everything right.
It was shortly before dawn when he collided with a broken-down truck on Route I-80 near DuBois. He managed to wrestle his rig another 200 feet to get off the highway, clearing the lane, his family said.
The other driver, a novice, was driving a newly purchased truck, according to a lawsuit filed by Mr. Wert’s family. On the highway, his rig lost power; the lawsuit maintains the driver wasn’t experienced enough to see the battery cables were in bad shape, or to pull over onto the shoulder once stalling out.
That leaves Dorothy Wert, David Wert’s widow, with plenty of questions. Why didn’t the driver receive more training? How could a defect so large have gone uncorrected?
Amid a lawsuit still winding its way through the courts and a family shaken by the loss, she still can’t say.
“My husband’s company ... they have good insurance. They make sure every truck goes to the maintenance guy on the weekend,” she said. “Most of the accidents where people died, the majority are from these small companies that don’t measure up to the standards of my husband’s company.”
Ms. Wert’s loss comes as policymakers are rethinking truck safety. While many jurisdictions remain heavily focused on the mechanical soundness of the truck, others are focusing more on the driver.
Pennsylvania has made driver fitness a central point of its enforcement plan, training state troopers to conduct driver-only inspections during truck traffic stops. Such inspections include checking a driver’s logbook, making sure they have medical papers, and so on.
The hope is to get more troopers on the road who can pull a truck out of service, said Lt. Raymond J. Cook, commander of the Pennsylvania State Police’s commercial vehicle safety division.
“The reality is when you look at what causes most crashes, it’s not bad brakes, bad tires,” he said. “What’s causing crashes are the same things that cause most crashes on our highways — unsafe driving acts.”
Others have raised questions about driver training. Federal law mandates training the government estimates would take no longer than 10 hours; Congress has been unable to push the issue further.
That said, long-term trends give reason to be hopeful. While heavy truck crash rates have remained naggingly high over the past five years, academics note their average crash rate has converged with that of light vehicles, which are generally more safe.
And new technologies, including advances in collision avoidance and devices that detect driver fatigue, offer the hope of further gains.
“We’re headed in the right direction. But we can definitely do better,” said Mr. Blower, and associate research scientist for UMTRI's Vehicle Safety Analysis Group. “And I think there are lots of opportunities to drive down that fatal crash rate.”
Whether the U.S.’s state-by-state patchwork of enforcement will help or hinder that effort remains to be seen.
“Everybody has their own markers and their own system of rewards and punishment,” Mr. Blower said. “They all want to be above average. So woe betide those who fall behind.”
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