Driver of this trash truck said he didn’t hear the train’s horn, but investigators said he had just gotten a phone call and failed to stop, look and listen. Photo from the NTSB report.

Driver of this trash truck said he didn’t hear the train’s horn, but investigators said he had just gotten a phone call and failed to stop, look and listen. Photo from the NTSB report.

Truck drivers should not use hands-free phones while driving, says the National Transportation Safety Board.

The board’s recommendation was one of several changes it wants the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration to make in the wake of a 2013 truck-train crash that caused a derailment, hazmat fire and explosion.

The crash occurred May 28, 2013, in Rosedale, Maryland, when a truck driver failed to make sure there was no train on the tracks he was crossing.

The driver was severely injured and several of the 15 cars that were knocked off the tracks contained hazardous material that burst into flames and exploded, damaging property as far as a half-mile away.

The Board found in its investigation that the driver, who made that crossing regularly, was in the habit of relying on the sound of a train’s horn to determine if it was coming.

The train engineer blew his horn three times as he approached the crossing but the driver said he did not hear it. Vegetation and the curve of the road made it hard for the driver to see if a train was approaching, but the board found that if he had stopped at the tracks he could have seen it coming.

One key contributing factor was that the driver was distracted by a call that came in on his hands-free phone just as he was approaching the tracks, the board said.

NTSB said the current FMCSA ban on drivers using hand-held phones does not go far enough.

“Current laws may mislead people to believe that hands-free is as safe as not using a phone at all,” said Acting Board Chairman Christopher Hart. “Our investigations have found over and over that distraction in any form can be dangerous behind the wheel.”

Several other factors contributed to the crash, the board said.

The trucking company, a new entrant called Alban Waste, had a long record of noncompliance with safety regulations – a record that should have triggered agency action.

Among other shortcomings, Alban did not maintain driver qualification files, did not have a complete drug and alcohol testing program and did not keep thorough track of driver hours.

The company and the agency went through several cycles of enforcement and corrective action, but the board found that the agency did not do enough.

“We continue to be concerned with FMCSA’s new-entrant program,” said Hart. “Problem operators keep falling through the cracks.”

The board recommended that the agency conduct a full compliance review on new entrants that fail a safety audit or a corrective action plan, or are issued an expedited action letter.

Another problem was that the driver had severe, untreated sleep apnea that likely affected his alertness, the board said. The driver did not disclose this on his medical exam forms, and his physician reportedly certified him to drive even though he knew about the sleep disorder.

The board recommended that the agency develop a way to tell medical examiners about violations FMCSA investigators have found that could result in medical disqualification.

The board also said that private rail crossings need more oversight.

“Efforts to improve safety at private grade crossings have been inadequate,” Hart said. “We need states, railroads, and land-owners to address problems before serious collisions occur.”

The full report is available here.

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