NY Case Shows Flaws in Truck Driver Licensing

Last year, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) instituted a new program that requires anyone seeking a commercial driver’s license (CDL) to first undergo a physical examination conducted only by doctors and other health professionals who are listed in the National Registry of Certified Medical Examiners.

The new requirement initially was met with resistance by the trucking industry based on claims that there weren’t enough medical examiners to cover all the country’s truckers, but those concerns largely have been avoided after tens of thousands of health care professionals signed up and completed the related baseline training and testing standards established by the FMCSA.

While the new policy undoubtedly has kept many unsafe drivers from getting behind the wheel of a semi or other big rig, it seems there’s always someone looking to game the system. The arrest of a New York doctor earlier this month is a prime example.

18-wheeler-on-the-road

According to federal prosecutors, Dr. Gerald Surya falsely certified an undetermined number of patients for CDLs even though they were examined by unqualified personnel in his office or they were not examined at all. That means there are people currently driving tractor-trailers, school buses and other heavy trucks in New York and elsewhere based on invalid licensing.

In announcing Dr. Surya’s arrest earlier this week, the acting U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of New York said in a statement, “Dr. Surya’s conduct put at risk pedestrians as well as other drivers.”

While that comment is obviously correct, it’s a huge understatement. Proper licensing is the first step in any truck driver’s career. The CDL certification procedures established by the U.S. Department of Transportation are purposely complex and stringent in order to make sure drivers are ready for the job, including the requirement that drivers must be physically sound before they can be licensed.

One can only hope and pray that Dr. Surya didn’t issue a free pass to one or more of his so-called “patients” who now literally could be rolling time bombs traveling our nation’s highways. Did the fraudulent CDLs go to people who suffer from sleep disorders or vision problems, or maybe even those with drug addictions? The prosecutors handling this case owe a duty to all of us to find out and make sure that all the unqualified drivers who got a free pass from Dr. Surya are accounted for and their bogus CDLs are revoked.

Big Rig Technology Bringing Better Road Safety

In addition to the pending mandate for Electronic Logging Devices in tractor-trailers and other big rigs by 2017, which we have covered here previously, the trucking industry is getting another safety boost from new 18-wheelers that are factory-equipped with technology to help drivers do their jobs better while saving fuel and curbing accidents.

The Wall Street Journal recently reported on the new systems included in certain trucks manufactured by Daimler AG, Volvo AB, Navistar International Corp. and Paccar Inc., which are among the world’s top suppliers of big rigs and other heavy trucks.

The report highlights a new prototype from Daimler in the company’s Freightliner division with an auto-pilot system that allows drivers to turn over steering and other functions during long trips. The company says the technology will help reduce driver fatigue, which is responsible for more than 40 percent of the approximately 4,000 annual crashes on U.S. highways involving tractor-trailers.

Perhaps an even more useful technology available in some new trucks are collision-mitigation systems that rely on cameras and radar to detect nearby vehicles. Responding to those sensors, this device will automatically adjust a truck’s gas and brake pedals to keep a safe distance from other motorists.

Watch this video of Volvo’s automated braking system for tractor trailers in action:

As proof that the trucking industry is embracing the new advances, the men and women in brown at United Parcel Service Inc. (UPS) plan to put 2,600 new trucks on the road in the coming year with anti-collision braking systems that include blind-spot detectors and warnings for when a truck drifts out of its lane.

Another new technology is called “platooning,” which is a system that allows a single tractor-trailer to control the braking and speed of two additional big rigs that follow closely behind, saving fuel and decreasing the likelihood of rear-end collisions.

Some industry observers say the new advances represent the early stages of a migration toward driverless trucks, although such a shift likely would be many years down the road given the current associated costs.

Regardless of how long it takes to have improved safety technology in tractor-trailers and other big rigs, the effort is more than worth it based on many factors, from lower fuel costs to improved working conditions for drivers to the most important benefit of all: lowering the number of roadway accidents and saving countless people from serious injuries or even death.

Big Rigs Closer to Getting Electronic Logging Devices

Although you may not have read about it in your local newspaper, we should soon find out whether the federal government will approve a new rule that will make our highways safer for everyone.

On or around Sept. 30, the White House’s Office of Management and Budget is expected to adopt a new rule proposed by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) to mandate the use of Electronic Logging Devices (ELD) in tractor-trailers, semis and other big rigs. Most trucking companies will have two years from the date when the new rule is enacted to bring their trucks into compliance, so we can expect to see widespread use of ELDs beginning in the fall of 2017.

ELDs will replace Electronic Onboard Recorders (EOBR) as the method by which truck drivers and trucking companies must record the amount of time that drivers spend behind the wheel, in addition to other information. The new ELD model essentially will replace EOBRs and eliminate the paper-and-pen method of recording a driver’s hours of service.

electronic-logging-device

In addition to requiring ELDs to record engine hours, road speed, miles driven and the time and date, the proposed rule also would mandate that such devices keep tabs on whether a driver is on duty or off duty; the location of the tractor-trailer when a driver’s duty status changes; total miles driven on a given day; and other important information that previously was never recorded or had to be input manually.

In addition to the ELD requirement, the FMCSA also has proposed a new rule for Prohibition of Driver Coercion for the White House’s approval. In short the coercion rule prohibits trucking companies and others from pressuring drivers to exceed the amount of time they spend behind the wheel than allowed by law; to violate drug or alcohol testing protocols; or to ignore hazmat regulations.

The new ELD requirement will make it more difficult for trucking companies to coerce drivers to violate their hours of service requirements since that information will be available in real time. Said differently, trucking companies no longer will be able to claim that they didn’t know a driver was getting close to exceeding their hours of service when the number of hours they’ve worked is readily available through their ELD system.

While two years is certainly too long to wait in my view, the new ELD and coercion rules will go a long way toward improving safety on our roadways. And while the proposed $11,000-per-offense penalty for those who violate the coercion rule seems a little low, it at least represents a start.

 

Wal-Mart Driver’s Fatigue Cited in Tragic Tracy Morgan Crash

It has been very disturbing, but not surprising, to see this week’s news that a Wal-Mart tractor-trailer driver was desperately lacking sleep when he caused last year’s horrific wreck that killed one man and severely injured comedian and popular television star Tracy Morgan.

According to the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) report, Wal-Mart big rig driver Kevin Roper had not slept in 28 hours and had been on the road for 14 hours when he struck a limousine van occupied by Morgan and several others on the New Jersey Turnpike last June. The catastrophic impact killed comedian James McNair and caused Morgan to suffer significant brain trauma and various additional physical injuries that he’s still trying to overcome today.

tracy-morgan

Photo courtesy of Peter Kramer/NBC

The limo reportedly was sitting in near-standstill traffic when Roper hit it from behind because he was so tired he didn’t notice that other vehicles had slowed in a work zone. Wal-Mart and the trucking companies that deliver its goods regularly spend countless dollars defending lawsuits where other drivers have suffered serious personal injuries or died. However, the world’s largest retailer quickly settled with McNair’s family for $10 million in March before reaching confidential settlements with Morgan and other crash victims, which prevented any of the victims’ claims from ever reaching a jury.

As we have discussed here previously, driver fatigue is the root cause for nearly 40 percent of the approximately 4,000 highway crashes involving semis, tractor-trailers and other heavy trucks that take place in the U.S. every year. Many times, that fatigue can be attributed to drivers or their employers wanting to log more hours and miles in order to make more money. Before the fatal crash, Roper had driven more than 800 miles overnight from his Georgia home to Delaware, clocking in for work with zero sleep.

From NBCNews.com: NTSB Animation Shows Truck Hitting Morgan Limo

Perhaps even more distressing, the NTSB report found that Roper traveled nearly a half mile while driving at 65 mph in the 45-mph work zone before the crash. Had Roper been driving at the posted speed and applied his brakes at the same time, he would have stopped before hitting the limo, the report concluded.

The NTSB report includes new safety recommendations for various groups, including the Federal Highway Administration and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Ironically, those recommendations come at a time when federal legislators are considering a funding bill that actually would allow big rig drivers to spend more time on the road rather than requiring them to get more rest.

Since we now know what caused the terrible crash involving Tracy Morgan and his friends, the next question is whether our government or the trucking industry itself will do anything meaningful to stop it from happening again.

When “Protecting” Drivers is Actually Harmful

The Senate currently is considering the Comprehensive Transportation and Consumer Protection Act of 2015, which is perhaps the most disingenuously named bill in our nation’s history. In addition to not being comprehensive, the bill actually may put policies in place that will endanger citizens rather than actually protecting them.

As a result of intense lobbying from the trucking industry and a cadre of politicians who seem more willing to cater to business interests than safeguarding the people who voted them into office, the current version of the controversial bill would strip away many protections for drivers while shielding irresponsible truckers and trucking companies.

In addition to lowering the minimum age from 21 to 18 in order to secure a commercial driver’s license, which we previously highlighted here, the proposed bill would prevent accident victims or other members of the public from accessing information on safety violations committed by trucking companies. This is an important dynamic since accident victims would not be able to present a trucking company’s safety history if a lawsuit results from an injury crash.

Other troubling aspects of the proposed bill include:

  • Allowing trucking companies to remove accident reports from their records when another motorist is partially at fault. This, too, would prevent accident victims from presenting such reports in civil trials.
  • Lowering the hiring standards for trucking companies, which will put countless inexperienced truck drivers on the road.
  • Maintaining the $750,000 minimum insurance required for trucking companies, which has been the same since the 1980s and has been discussed here before.
  • Expanding the amount of time that truck drivers are allowed to operate their tractor-trailers, semis and other big rigs, creating dangerous situations where truckers are operating their vehicles when they should be getting some rest.

Despite these disheartening elements of the proposed bill, there is still hope since the Senate could strip away these harmful provisions before sending the legislation to the President for his signature. Rather than shielding corporate interests at the expense of protecting the public, let’s hope that the Senate does the right thing. Fortunately, we can all reach out to the senators from our states who are considering this bill and let them know that the current version needs some serious work. Click here for contact information.

Teenage Big Rig Drivers: Worst Idea Ever?

We’ve previously discussed the looming shortage of drivers in the trucking industry and the unwise proposal to allow younger drivers to operate heavy trucks on the nation’s highways. Unfortunately, that ugly bird has come to roost in the form of a recently introduced bill that currently is being considered by Congress.

Sen. Deb Fischer, R-Neb., introduced new language in a larger transportation bill that would allow states to issue commercial driver’s licenses to 18-year-olds. You heard that right. You soon could be sharing the highway with 80,000-lb. semis, tractor-trailers and other big rigs driven by men and women who weren’t even born when Leonardo DiCaprio set sail in the Titanic movie.

Currently, drivers must be 21 years old in order to secure a commercial driver’s license that allows them to cross interstate lines. Under the proposal from Sen. Fischer, states would be able to overlook that requirement by signing pacts with contiguous states to lower the age requirement. As written, there are no limits on how many states could sign such a pact, which could allow 18-year-olds to pilot tractor-trailers from coast to coast.

Congress reportedly is awaiting a report from the Department of Transportation (DOT) regarding whether teenagers exhibit an “equivalent level of safety” when compared to older, more-experienced drivers. Here’s betting the rent that they’re not safer. In fact, statistics assembled by the DOT itself in 2013 show that drivers between the ages of 18-20 were 66 percent more likely to be involved in fatal traffic accidents compared to those who are 21 year old or older.

The recent push to put teenagers behind the wheel of the most dangerous vehicles on our roadways has been generated by the trucking industry and the industry’s favored political candidates. While the current and pending driver shortage must be addressed in order to prevent our nation’s commerce from falling behind, there are many better ways to handle this situation.

When a driver decides to leave the trucking industry, it’s rarely because they’re too old to do the job. Instead, it’s often because they’re not paid well enough and end up working long hours in order to make ends meet. The trucking industry also has dragged its feet in terms of keeping drivers happy at their jobs and identifying new, experienced drivers.

Lots of Promise in New “Safety Truck”

If you’re like me, the name “Samsung” makes you think of televisions, smart phones and other personal electronic devices. However, a new product currently in the development stage at the South Korean company potentially could save lives by preventing serious tractor-trailer accidents in the U.S. and elsewhere.

Samsung’s new “Safety Truck” is designed to address the growing number of rear-end collisions and dangerous accidents involving 18-wheelers, semis and other heavy trucks. The technology behind such vehicles is a device that transforms a big rig’s rear door into what is essentially a giant television display showing the road ahead by using a front-mounted camera system. The thinking is that drivers who can see in front of a tractor-trailer from the trailing lane will be better able to determine when it is safe to pass or if there is something ahead that might cause the need to stop suddenly.

samsung-safety-truck

Safety Trucks are predicted to be particularly useful on two-lane roads where drivers typically can’t see around the semi-trailers in front of them. This dynamic often results in the dangerous situation where a driver attempts a “blind pass” around a semi. Attempting to pass big rigs on two-lane roads represents one of the most common scenarios for head-on collisions involving passing drivers and other vehicles in the oncoming lanes. Blind passes also cause numerous rear-end collisions when semis are cut off by passing drivers and aren’t able to stop in time to prevent a rear-end collision.

According to the most recent statistics available from the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA), there were more than 3,800 fatal crashes involving large trucks in 2012, a 5-percent increase over the previous year. The number of injury crashes in 2012 jumped 22 percent compared to 2011, with more than 77,000 individual injury incidents involving large trucks.

With the increasing number of total miles that tractor-trailers travel on U.S. highways each year, it is good to know that Samsung is developing this technology. While this particular device likely won’t eliminate all rear-end collisions or “blind pass” crashes, it does show that that least one company is willing to make a technological investment in an effort to protect drivers. Let’s hope other truck manufacturers follow Samsung’s lead.

 

 

My Summer Vacation, 800 Years in the Making

I recently traveled to Europe with my family for the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to celebrate the 800th Anniversary of the Magna Carta at the same place where “The Great Charter” was signed in 1215.

The Texas Lawbook recently published an account of our trip, including photos from the celebration that was attended by such noteworthy dignitaries as U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch, British Prime Minister David Cameron, Queen Elizabeth, and many others.

Please click here to read the article.

Drivers Endangered by New DOT Funding Bill

The U.S. House of Representatives recently approved a bill to provide funding for the U.S.Department of Transportation (DOT) through 2016. Sadly, the approved bill includes several provisions that will only make our highways more dangerous in the coming year. The House version was approved June 9, and the U.S. Senate is expected to pass its own version in the coming months.

Unfortunately for drivers, the approved bill will prevent the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) from enacting a proposed rule limiting the amount of time that truck drivers can spend on the road. The “hours of service” restrictions recommended by the FMCSA would require drivers to observe a 34-hour rest period between every 60 hours of work over seven consecutive days or every 70 hours of work over eight consecutive days. However, the new funding bill ignores the FMCSA recommendation for the second year in a row, and will allow drivers to work as many as 82 hours over an 8-day period.

Driver fatigue represents one of the leading causes of roadway accidents involving 18-wheelers, tractor-trailers and other heavy trucks. Overall, the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration estimates that more than 100,000 police-reported highway crashes are the direct result of driver fatigue every year, causing approximately 1,550 deaths, 71,000 injuries, and more than $12 billion in financial losses annually.

In addition to allowing truck drivers to stay on the road for longer periods without a rest break, the new DOT funding bill also will allow trucking companies across the U.S. to begin using double trailers up to 33 feet long each. As previously noted on this blog, state troopers from across the U.S. oppose these bigger rigs based on the inherent dangers. Numerous independent studies have shown that double trailers, also called longer combination vehicles (LCVs), are less stable than single trailers, making them harder to control on the highway. With the added weight of an extra trailer, accidents involving LCVs are almost always more destructive than those involving single trailers.

Finally, the new DOT funding bill also will require the FMCSA to stop working on its 2-year-old study to increase the minimum amount of liability insurance required for truckers and trucking companies. This is a topic we have covered here before, and it’s one of the more troubling aspects of the new funding bill.

The federally mandated minimum amount of liability insurance required for truck drivers and trucking companies is $750,000, which is the same amount that’s been in place for the past 30 years. Despite calls for the minimum to be raised to approximately $4.25 million to account for increases in medical costs and inflation generally, the new bill will retain the existing standard. What that means is that those who are seriously injured in a crash with a big rig almost surely will not be able to rely on a trucking company’s insurance policy to cover their medical care. Instead, they will be forced to pay out of their own pockets or they will have to win a lawsuit if they ever hope to be able to get back on their feet again.

While trucking companies and truck drivers got what they wanted, and it’s very likely the Senate will approve a similar version of the DOT funding bill, there’s always hope that our legislators will do the right thing next year by deciding to protect the safety of our country’s citizens rather than bowing to the interests of the trucking industry and its high-paid lobbyists.

Politician, Trucking Companies Trying to Scrap Safety Scores

A U.S. Congressman from Pennsylvania once again has introduced troubling legislation that would exempt trucking and bus companies from the current federal system that calculates “safety scores” based on driving records.

Rep. Lou Barletta (R-Pa.) filed the bill, HR 1371, after an identical measure failed to gain traction with other legislators last year. The curiously named bill, the “Safer Trucks and Buses Act,” would not only stop the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration from continuing its current Compliance Safety Accountability (CSA) scoring system, it also would prevent injured victims from using safety scores as evidence in lawsuits tied to 18-wheeler and bus crashes.

Barletta and his industry supporters claim the current scoring system is unfair based on the assertion that trucking companies are unfairly being harmed when they’re penalized for “minor infractions.” Accepting this premise is difficult when you consider that the safety score criteria is the same for every trucking company.

The real reason that trucking companies want to spike the current safety score system is because they don’t want to be judged by their actions. From their perspective, the public shouldn’t even have the opportunity to know these scores, which currently help trucking and bus customers independently decide which carrier is safer, in addition to allowing juries to determine appropriate damages in lawsuits where big rigs have caused serious injuries or deaths.

As expected, the trucking industry is reviving its support for Barletta’s bill much like it did during last year’s failed legislative attempt. Fortunately, the proposed law is facing opposition from many respected groups concerned with public safety, including the Truck Safety Coalition (TSC) and the related entities Parents Against Tired Truckers (PATT), Citizens for Reliable and Safe Highways (CRASH), among others.

When politicians and industry giants start making waves about removing safety information from public view, it is hard to believe they’re doing so in order make sure our roads are home to “safer trucks and buses.”