As a result of its investigation of a truck crash that killed four college athletes last year, the National Transportation Safety Board issued recommendations on Nov. 17 aimed at helping motor carriers address “impairing substances” that are not tested for under federal regulations.
NTSB said it has determined that the truck driver charged with killing four members of the North Central Texas College softball team by crashing his tractor-trailer into the bus they were riding in caused the accident “due to incapacitation stemming from his likely use of a synthetic cannabinoid," commonly known as synthetic marijuana.
The board also stated that the driver at fault had a documented history of drug use.
According to NTSB, synthetic cannabinoids are chemical compounds “marketed as allegedly legal alternatives to marijuana; however, their effects can be considerably worse and they have been known to cause psychosis, seizures, and nonresponsiveness.”
The crash occurred on Sept. 26, 2014, along Interstate 35 North near Davis, Okla. The team was returning to Gainesville, Texas, from a scrimmage in Bethany, Okla., when the truck, after negotiating a slight rightward curve, departed the left lane, crossed the 100-foot-wide median and traveled more than 1,100 feet before colliding with the team’s medium-size bus in the southbound lane.
Four bus passengers died and five were seriously injured. Six additional bus passengers and both drivers sustained minor injuries.
After a nine-month investigation by the Oklahoma Highway Patrol, reports the Associated Press, Russell Wayne Staley, 53, of Saginaw, Texas, was charged on June 25 with four counts of first-degree manslaughter in the deaths of 19-year-old Meagan Richardson; 18-year-old Katelynn Woodlee; 20-year-old Jaiden Pelton; and 20-year-old Brooke Deckard.
NTSB pointed out that while federal law prohibits CDL drivers from operating a vehicle while impaired, federal regulations require testing for only a few impairing substances.
The board said this crash investigation highlights the challenges that disconnect presents to both employers and law enforcement. “Motor carriers need to know about this emerging class of drugs, and they need better tools to detect driver impairment,” said NTSB Chairman Christopher Hart.
As a result of the investigation, the NTSB issued two new recommendations to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration:
- Determine the prevalence of commercial motor vehicle driver use of impairing substances, particularly synthetic cannabinoids, and develop a plan to reduce the use of such substances.
- Work with motor carrier industry stakeholders to develop a plan to aid motor carriers in addressing commercial motor vehicle driver use of impairing substances, particularly those not covered under current drug-testing regulations – such as promoting best practices by carriers, expanding impairment detection training and authority, and developing performance-based methods of evaluation.
In addition, NTSB issued this recommendation to the American Trucking Associations, American Bus Association, United Motorcoach Association, Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association, and Commercial Vehicle Safety Alliance:
- Inform your members about the dangers of driver use of synthetic drugs and encourage them to take steps to prevent drivers from using these substances.
NTSB also issued or reiterated recommendations regarding side impact protection standards for medium-size buses, updated criteria for median barrier installation, and on-board recorder system standards for large commercial vehicles.
Regarding on-board recorders, NTSB recommended that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration:
- Develop and implement minimum performance standards for event data recorders for trucks with gross vehicle weight ratings over 10,000 pounds that address, at a minimum, the following elements: data parameters to be recorded; data sampling rates; duration of recorded event; standardized or universal data imaging interface; data storage format; and device and data survivability for crush, impact, fluid exposure and immersion, and thermal exposure. The standards should also require that the event data recorder be capable of capturing and preserving data in the case of a power interruption or loss, and of accommodating future requirements and technological advances, such as flashable and/or reprogrammable operating system software and/or firmware updates.
- After establishing performance standards for event data recorders for trucks with gross vehicle weight ratings over 10,000 pounds, require that all such vehicles be equipped with event data recorders meeting the standards.
NTSB also recommended that states require seat belt use for all vehicle seating positions that are equipped with belts.
The board found that none of the bus passenger were buckled in and it said that contributed to the severity of the crash. In addition, the bus driver failed to implement the college’s policy requiring passengers to wear seat belts.
“Had the seat belts been properly worn, they would probably have prevented ejections and reduced overall injuries,” the board stated.