Photo via NTSB

Photo via NTSB

Strengthening commercial trucking safety is one of four new issues on the National Transportation Safety Board's Most Wanted List for 2015, including active safety systems and underride guard improvements, while distracted driving returns to the list.

The NTSB is an independent federal agency charged by Congress with investigating every civil aviation accident in the U.S. and significant accidents in other modes of transportation, such as railroad, highway, marine and pipeline. It can make safety recommendations to the U.S. Transportation Department and its agencies, but cannot mandate policy or require new regulations.

The Most Wanted List was created in 1990 to raise the public's awareness and support for transportation safety issues.

“The Most Wanted List is our roadmap for 2015,” said NTSB Acting Chairman Christopher A. Hart. “We want it to be a roadmap for policy makers and legislators as well. These are safety improvements for which the time is ripe for action.”

Commercial trucking safety

"New" this year is "strengthening commercial trucking safety," although the board has had "most-wanted" items related to trucking on its list many times over the years.

"Commercial trucking is integral to our economy, but crashes, injuries and deaths involving commercial trucks have been increasing over the past several years," the board said. "The NTSB has a long history of calling on the regulators to improve their oversight of operators, drivers, and vehicles. To manage their safety risks, trucking companies must go beyond securing regulatory compliance from all their employees, and proactively identify operational hazards and potential solutions."

The board noted that regulators "have taken initial steps by maintaining science-based hours of service rules and are in the process of rulemaking mandating electronic logging devices that can help assure that drivers are adequately rested. Other important rulemaking initiatives include requirements to screen drivers for obstructive sleep apnea, other potentially impairing medical conditions, and potentially impairing drugs."

To address vehicle factors, however, the board said regulators need to do more to promote proper fleet maintenance and proven life-saving technology.

Vehicle inspections should be required during compliance reviews, and vehicle safety equipment and technology, such as collision warning technology, tire pressure monitoring systems, rollover stability control systems, and lane departure warning systems, should be mandated across the entire industry, it said.

Regulators should also develop performance standards for front and side underride protection systems to improve highway vehicle crash compatibility with passenger vehicles.

Also of interest to trucking on the board's list of top 10 areas that need safety improvements are a new item requiring that transportation operators be medically fit for duty, as well as driving distraction, which was also on last year's list, and ending substance impairment in transportation.

Fit for duty

Although this item is much broader than trucking, the board notes that for commercial drivers, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration has recently required training and certification for health care providers who perform medical examinations. "However, there is no mechanism to ensure recommended guidelines are followed. Moreover, chiropractors with no experience with prescribing medications are considered acceptable medical examiners."

The NTSB has investigated numerous accidents in which it found that the medical condition of the vehicle operator contributed to the cause of a crash. "Medical conditions and treatments directly affect safety when they impair transportation professionals’ performance. Those suffering from impairing medical disorders should not be at the controls unless they receive medical treatment that mitigates the risk to the public."

Impairment

Trucking already has rules in place to address impairment by alcohol or drugs, and in fact the board does not call out trucking specifically in this item. However, it says, "While many recognize the impairment potential of illicit drugs, they may not appreciate the potentially impairing effects of prescribed or over-the-counter medications, especially in combinations … Drivers, transportation operators and enforcement authorities also need good information to make informed decisions about the use of illicit drugs and over-the-counter medications."

Last year, the FMCSA's medical advisory board said truck drivers who use prescribed narcotics should not be allowed to drive. Right now drivers are permitted to work while taking these drugs, provided the drugs are prescribed by a doctor who is familiar with the driver’s condition.

Driving distraction

Since 2003, the NTSB says, it has found distraction from portable electronic devices (PEDs) as a cause or contributing factor in 11 accident investigations. Those crashes resulted in 259 people injured and 50 people killed. Although texting and use of handheld devices while driving is already illegal for interstate commercial truck drivers and all hazmat drivers, NTSB wants the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration to take things a step further and ban all phone use, including hands-free devices.

“Current laws may mislead people to believe that hands-free is as safe as not using a phone at all,” said Hart last fall following an investigation of a truck-train crash. “Our investigations have found over and over that distraction in any form can be dangerous behind the wheel.”

‘’This list is grounded in the accident investigations by which NTSB learns safety lessons, and in the recommendations that are NTSB’s primary safety product,’’ Hart said. “At the NTSB we want to make new strides in transportation safety in 2015, and we want to lay the groundwork for years that are even safer.”

Visit www.ntsb.gov/mostwanted for more details.

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