Promising Outlook for Speed-Limiting Devices on Tractor-Trailers, Heavy Trucks

The prospect of a federal requirement for speed-limiting devices on 18-wheelers and other heavy trucks recently got a big boost when the administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) announced his support for quick passage of a related rule that has been mired in bureaucracy for nearly two years.

The NHTSA Administrator Mark Rosekind announced his push for enacting the rule requiring devices that would limit big rigs from traveling no faster than 65 mph in response to The Associated Press’ recent exclusive report detailing the increasing incidents of tire failures caused by big rigs traveling at more than 75 mph, both legally and illegally.

Although many states have speed limits of 75 mph or higher, including 85 mph in some parts of Texas, the report revealed that those higher limits were passed by state legislators without consulting the tire industry. The tires on most of today’s 18-wheelers are built to withstand highway speeds of no more than 75 mph.

The high speeds cause the tire rubber to disintegrate, causing blowouts and other failures. Rosekind told reporters he wants the speed-limiting device rule put in place before someone gets killed as a result of a blowout or other tire problems.

Two years ago, the NHTSA and the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) jointly proposed a new rule that would require speed-limiting devices. However, the rule has since been bogged down after taking a year to reach the Department of Transportation, where it has remained with no action since last August.

Some truckers and the trucking industry say they don’t want the 65 mph speed-limiting devices based on a variety of alleged concerns, but the real reason for their opposition can be found in the possibility of longer delivery times for trucking companies and fewer billable roadway miles for truckers. However, many truckers actually want the speed-limiting devices, as evidenced by the president of the Texas Trucking Association recently announcing his group’s support for such devices.

The NHTSA and FMCSA say the speed-limiting devices would significantly decrease the estimated 1,115 fatal large truck crashes that happen in the U.S. every year. Many of the country’s larger trucking companies already have 65 mph speed-limiting devices on their big rigs, but many more, especially the smaller companies that traditionally have spottier safety records, choose to not use them in their trucks.

For all our safety, let’s hope that the Department of Transportation acts quickly to help eliminate this very real danger. NHTSA’s Rosekind framed the issue better than anyone thus far when he told reporters, “You don’t wait for somebody to die when you know there’s a safety problem there.” Truer words have never been spoken.

Drivers Beware Roadcheck 2015

While a lot of people don’t know about it, the Commercial Vehicle Safety Alliance (CVSA) once again is set to conduct its International Roadcheck, the world’s largest targeted enforcement program for commercial vehicles such as tractor-trailers, 18-wheelers and other big rigs. The annual International Roadcheck results in numerous citations for equipment violations, improper licensing and unsafe driving, but it also creates the year’s most dangerous three-day driving period for motorists.

The 2015 International Roadcheck includes a series of inspections conducted by CVSA-certified inspectors in the U.S., Mexico and Canada during a 72-hour period beginning June 2. Relying on participation from state and local law enforcement, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA), and other groups, the CVSA inspects an average of 17 commercial trucks every minute during this three-day span.

So, you may be asking yourself, how can all these inspections create a roadway danger?

Unfortunately, the timing of the International Roadcheck is announced well beforehand, giving trucking companies and truck drivers early warning of the impending inspection period. This early notice results in some companies making sure their equipment is safe and ensuring that their drivers are properly licensed, but it also provides a clear window for many to stay off the road altogether in order to avoid the potential negative consequences of an inspection.

During the 2014 Roadcheck, a total of 72,415 drivers were inspected and 3,475 of them were placed out-of-service by inspectors for various violations. Roughly half of the ticketed drivers had worked more hours than allowed by law, and 20 percent were improperly licensed or had suspended licenses. Approximately 14 percent were found to have falsified their driving logs. Of the 73,475 trucks that were inspected, nearly 20 percent were placed out of service for brake-related violations, tire and wheel violations, improper lighting and improperly secured loads.

Can anyone imagine what these numbers would have looked like if the industry hadn’t been warned that inspectors were on their way?

Soon after the inspection period expires, expect to see massive numbers of truck drivers returning to our highways along with their licensing problems and unsafe trucks. In addition to the sheer number of additional tractor-trailers and semis that will be on our roads in the days following June 4, many drivers will be attempting to make up for the miles they missed while on their so-called “Roadcheck vacations.”

Here’s hoping that International Roadcheck someday will be conducted without prior warning to truckers and their employers. Perhaps then we will be able to see a true picture our nation’s highway safety. Until that happens, it is wise to make sure your family, friends and neighbors know that the Roadcheck period expires on June 4, and that they need to be especially careful if they’re planning any highway travels in the three days immediately afterward.

Trucking Industry’s Dangerous Call for Bigger Rigs

A current fight in Congress will determine how or whether the federal government will continue to provide funding to the Highway Trust Fund (HTF), which relies on gasoline and diesel fuel taxes and other related taxes to finance our country’s interstate highway system and other roads.

As it stands, the HTF will become insolvent on May 31 after having been propped up for the past seven years by the government’s general fund. The Congressional Budget Office reports that HTF expenditures have exceeded revenues by $52 billion in the past decade alone. That number could climb to more than $165 billion by 2024 unless the revenue shortfalls are addressed.

In response, lawmakers on Capitol Hill are gathering information from a variety of companies and individuals involved in the transportation industry, from trucking operations to major railroads. As you might expect, the trucking industry is loudly opposing potential increases in fuel taxes as a means to help increase HTF funding.

As part of the solution, trucking industry representatives are touting a plan to dramatically increase the size and load capacity for tractor-trailers and other heavy trucks. On the flip side, highway safety advocates and the railroad industry are pointing to the inherent dangers that come with larger trucks sharing the same roads that you and I drive every day.

Although the railroads’ complaints obviously are tied to the financial shortfalls they would face if larger trucks are allowed to operate in the U.S., the accompanying safety dangers are very real. Advocacy groups such as the Coalition Against Bigger Trucks have produced studies revealing the dangers of larger trucks, as well as polls that show three of four Americans oppose longer and heavier semis.

Significantly, one of the largest groups opposing bigger trucks is made up of the very men and women who have to deal with the resulting roadway catastrophes: state troopers. The more than 45,000 members of the National Troopers Coalition have pledged their support to defeat the call for larger semitrailers and other big rigs.

One of the main problems with the 33-foot trailers recommended by the trucking industry is the sheer size of these mammoth vehicles. If allowed, the “new” trucks would extend a full 10 feet longer in double-trailer configurations compared to the existing 28-foot standard, and 17 feet longer than the standard 28-foot trailers in operation today. Ask anyone who has had to navigate a stretch of highway with a double-trailer riding alongside, and see whether they think 10 more feet of trailer would have made the drive safer. We all know the answer to that one.

The same argument holds true based on the amount of weight the bigger rigs would be able to transport. The current proposal from the trucking industry would bump up the allowable weight limit to as much as 97,000 pounds per vehicle, which is 8 tons heavier than the current 80,000-pound mandate. Simple physics will tell you that a crash involving a vehicle that is 8 tons heavier than another will produce more catastrophic results. Can anyone truthfully argue that heavier, longer trucks will make the roads safer for you or me?

Here’s hoping that Congress does the right thing to improve our existing highways while keeping the safety of all us at the forefront.


Changes Needed to Stop Truckers from Going Faster than Tires Can Handle

A recent investigative report by The Associated Press has revealed another point of danger for interstate drivers: a growing number of serious wrecks caused by tire failures on tractor-trailers and other big rigs.

According to the report, many semi drivers regularly drive faster – both legally and illegally – than the 75 mph that their tires are equipped to sustain. The higher speeds cause heavy truck tires to reach such high temperatures that the rubber becomes damaged, increasing the chances for blowouts. As a result, more and more heavy trucks are experiencing tire failures that can lead to catastrophic accidents resulting in serious injuries and even deaths.

Overall, 14 states currently have speed limits of 75 or 80 mph, including Texas, where motorists are allowed to travel at 85 mph in certain parts of the state. While many trucking companies install technology that prevents their trucks from going beyond 75 mph, there are plenty of tractor-trailers in operation today that can and do travel faster.

So how did Texas and other states approve speed limits that are beyond what semi tires can handle? Unfortunately, no one really knows. The AP says it discovered the discrepancy while reviewing an investigation conducted by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) on a series of blowouts involving certain types of Michelin tires. The investigation was concluded with the NHTSA ruling that tire damage cause by prolonged excessive speeding was to blame for 16 separate accidents involving blowouts.

According to NHTSA records, heavy trucks and buses were involved in 14,000 fatal crashes in the U.S. between 2009 and 2013 alone. A total of 16,000 people died in those wrecks, which resulted in 223 deaths stemming from 198 crashes caused by tire failures.

The solution to this previously unknown problem is far from being resolved, with government officials, the trucking industry and tire manufacturers passing the blame among themselves. States that have enacted higher speed limits than semi tires can handle largely are pointing to the trucking industry, saying trucking companies shouldn’t allow drivers to travel faster than their tires are capable of handling.

The NHTSA wants all heavy trucks to be equipped with devices that would prevent their fleets from traveling faster than 75 mph. A proposed regulation to mandate lower-speed trucks took five years to complete and is still being considered by government regulators.

Tire manufacturers have a different solution, saying truck drivers shouldn’t driver faster than their tires are rated. Manufacturers are being pressured to build heavy truck tires that are capable of withstanding speeds beyond 75 mph like the majority of tires used on lighter vehicles. However, those same manufacturers have yet to be convinced that producing higher-speed tires will be worth the expense since there are no laws in place requiring trucking companies to use them.

All this finger-pointing is accomplishing nothing in terms of protecting drivers on the nation’s highways today. Until the status quo is remedied, either by laws requiring better tires, slower speeds for tractor-trailers or high-speed tires, everyone should be especially careful when they see a big rig moving along at 75 mph or faster.

McDonald’s Hot Coffee and Other Myths

Rarely does a week pass without someone forwarding me an email complaining of “frivolous” lawsuits. You’ve probably seen them, too. They usually reference the so-called “Stella Awards,” in dubious honor of 79-year old Stella Liebeck. Stella was severely burned when scalding hot coffee spilled in her lap and she sued McDonald’s for $2.7 million. Most people hear only this and automatically assume it was a frivolous suit filed by a greedy plaintiff. Unfortunately, few seem to know the true facts about Stella’s case, such as:

  • Stella was severely injured, suffering third degree burns to her legs and genitals which required hospitalization and multiple skin grafts;
  • Her doctor testified that her injury was one of the worst scald burns he had ever seen;
  • She asked McDonald’s to simply pay for her medical treatment, but they refused;
  • McDonald’s kept its coffee at 180 to 190 degrees, a temperature which by its own admission made it unfit for consumption (hot beverages are typically served from 130 to 150 degrees);
  • Spilled coffee at that temperature causes third degree burns in 2 to 7 seconds;
  • McDonald’s had been aware of the risks of serving super-hot coffee for over 10 years;
  • Over 700 people had been burned previously by its coffee; and
  • The jury’s assessment of $2.7 million in punitive damages representing merely two days’ worth of McDonald’s coffee sales, and the trial judge reduced this amount to $480,000.

Sound frivolous? So the next time one of these emails pops up in your inbox, consider replying to the sender and giving them the real facts. After all, just like Stella Liebeck, that person may someday need a personal injury lawyer, too.

Speed, Inattention Likely in Deadly Fort Worth 18-Wheeler Crash

Speed and driver inattention likely played significant roles in the deadly 18-wheeler crash that claimed the lives of five people in Fort Worth over the past weekend.

The fatal collision involved a big rig that burst into flames in the early-morning hours of Sunday near I-30 and Oakland Boulevard. The Ryder tractor-trailer was carrying copies of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram newspaper under a contract maintained by The Dallas Morning News.

According to witness reports, several Good Samaritans stopped to assist victims of an earlier minor accident when the 18-wheeler plowed through the group. The highway was shut down for several hours as rescue workers attempted to assist the survivors and road crews cleared the fatal crash site.

The victims who have been identified thus far by the Tarrant County medical examiner are Fort Worth residents Veronica Gonzalez, 43, and Mary Hernandez, 43. Relatives of Steve Franklin have confirmed that he also was killed. Ms. Gonzales reportedly was on her way home from her engagement party at the time of the crash.

In all, four victims died at the scene according to an ambulance company spokesperson, with the other victim later passing away at a local hospital. A total of 10 people suffered minor injuries, while one remains in critical condition and another in serious condition.

A Fort Worth Fire Department lieutenant was quoted as saying the tractor-trailer was already ablaze when firefighters arrived at the scene, explaining that such fires can result from crashes at highway speeds. Earlier this week, the administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) pledged that the agency would push for mandatory speed-limit devices to be installed on all big rigs in order to prevent them from traveling faster than 65 mph.

This horrible wreck is a solemn reminder of the enormous devastation that can result from a highway crash involving 18-wheelers and other heavy trucks. Our prayers go out to the Gonzalez, Hernandez and Franklin families and the others involved in this tragedy.

Concerns Over Trucking Industry’s Preferred Solution for Driver Shortages

Even as the most recent data shows a rate of 5.5 percent unemployment in the U.S., a report prepared by The American Transportation Research Institute (ATRI) for the American Trucking Associations (ATA) shows the industry has some 35,000 unfilled truck driver jobs.

It’s likely that the shortage was not as noticeable during the economic recession as trucking volume plummeted. But as the overall economy has improved, the U.S. now has many more open trucking jobs than available commercial drivers, a situation made worse as older drivers are retiring in greater numbers.

The only way to duplicate the driving experience that vanishes from the highway when older drivers retire is for younger drivers to spend years on the road and master the many details involved in their job, from knowing how to handle dangerous driving conditions to making sure their big rigs are safe to taking the proper rest breaks and maintaining accurate driver logs.

Unfortunately, the shrinking number of experienced drivers means trucking companies are hiring younger, inexperienced drivers who often do not have adequate training and certainly do not have the experience of their older counterparts. While obtaining and maintaining a valid CDL (commercial driver’s license) is a requirement for semi drivers, holding such a license does not equate to having experience or even being a good or careful driver.

According to the ATRI report, the turnover at large truckload carriers rose to an annualized rate of 97 percent in the third quarter of 2014. With those grim statistics, it’s not surprising that the driver shortage emerged as a key concern among survey respondents in ATRI’s annual “Critical Issues in the Trucking Industry” report. The survey asked trucking companies to rank their key issues in order of perceived importance, as well as related solutions that the companies would recommend. Almost a quarter of industry leaders cited the lack of drivers as their No. 1 issue of concern, with the survey results placing that issue behind only the perennial complaints about the federal hours-of-service rule.

In response, the ATRI report notes that the preferred strategy to deal with the shortage of drivers is to “work with state and federal authorities to consider a graduated CDL program to safely attract new and younger drivers.” But even the ATRI acknowledges that this shorthand approach can create its own problems if drivers with “a lack of experience, insurability and other age-related factors” are placed on the road too soon. Still, this solution is preferred by almost half of the trucking industry representatives who responded.

If these efforts are formalized across the industry, everyone on the road can be legitimately worried about young truck drivers with minimal or fast-track training traveling America’s highways. In fact, the ongoing driver shortage may be best addressed by other strategies that are listed in the report but unfortunately didn’t rank as highly among the survey respondents:

  • Improve work/life balance and quality of life for drivers
  • Financially incentivize drivers for safe driving performance
  • Improve driver safety through investment in new truck parking facilities
  • Attract military veterans who have experience driving large vehicles so they can join the commercial workforce
  • Increase driver compensation. The average truck driver makes $40,940 annually, making the career less attractive and competitive while making it difficult to retain experienced, quality employees

The driver shortage is undeniably real, and the ATRI report projects that the industry could face a gap of almost 240,000 workers between driver supply and demand during the next decade if the trend does not reverse. But in the face of those numbers, the industry must take a multi-faceted approach to attract and retain the best possible candidates for those jobs. Doing so will make the industry better, and our roads and highways safer.

NTSB’s Most Wanted List: Trucking Safety

Each year, the National Transportation Safety Board issues its 10 Most Wanted List of Transportation Safety Improvements aimed at reducing transportation accidents and saving lives. It’s nice to see that four of the 10 items would impact the safety of commercial trucks.

Because of their size and the sheer number of commercial trucks on our roads, 18-wheelers pose a potentially serious threat when a driver is impaired, distracted or physically unfit for duty, or when the rig has been improperly maintained. According to the NTSB, nearly 4,000 people were killed and more than 100,000 were injured in truck crashes in 2012.

So it’s not surprising that the NTSB devoted one of its 10 Most Wanted to strengthening commercial trucking safety. The agency suggested stronger oversight by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) “to ensure that new carriers address any safety deficiencies in a timely fashion.” The NTSB also recommended that regulators “promote proper fleet maintenance and proven life-saving technology.”

The agency also called for ways to reduce distracted driving. Clearly, all drivers would do well to focus on the road rather than their phone, but a distracted truck driver has the potential to do far more damage than the driver of a VW Bug.

Another recommendation by the NTSB that could help reduce deadly truck crashes is a crackdown on substance impairment. According to the NHTSA, the number of fatally injured drivers who had drugs in their system rose from 13 percent to 18 percent from 2005-2009. Although most drivers know the risk of driving under the influence of alcohol, marijuana or prescription drugs, the fact remains that over-the-counter medications (such as Benadryl) have also been linked to a large number of crashes, according to the NTSB.

To combat impaired driving, the agency urged stronger impaired driving laws, increased use of high-visibility enforcement, expanded use of technology, such as ignition interlocks and passive alcohol sensors, and development of emerging in-vehicle technology, such as the Driver Alcohol Detection System for Safety.

The fourth item on the NTSB’s Most Wanted list that would dramatically improve truck safety is to require medical fitness for duty for safety-critical personnel, such as commercial truckers. Undiagnosed or untreated sleep apnea, inadequate color vision, certain medications and other physical conditions can significantly impair driver fitness. The NTSB urged a medical certification system for safety-critical transportation personnel that ensures they are medically fit for duty.

Enacting these four trucking-related items on the NTSB’s Most Wanted List could save lives and improve the public’s confidence in one of our nation’s most vital industries. Here’s hoping that trucking companies take heed and make our highways safer for everyone.

Regulator Eyes Increase in Motor Carrier Insurance Minimums

It may be hard to believe, but it’s been 30 years since our government has required an increase in the minimum amount of insurance for motor carriers, which includes both large and small trucking companies alike.

The federally mandated $750,000 minimum established in 1985 is the same today despite significant price jumps for everything from medical care to postage stamps. That is why a lot of people are surprised to hear that many U.S. trucking companies have maintained the same level of insurance since “Family Ties” was the nation’s top television program.

However, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration currently is considering raising the minimum insurance requirements, and the agency is accepting online public comment on the proposed increases by February 26 here. By clicking on the “Comment Now!” link in the top right-hand corner, you can join many others who are telling the federal government that they want the minimum raised.

One of the main reasons why the minimum coverage amount should be higher can be found in the high costs associated with accidents involving tractor-trailers and other heavy trucks. While $750,000 might have been suitable to help 18-wheeler crash victims cover medical costs and other financial losses in 1985, that amount would evaporate quickly today based on the ever-increasing costs for hospital visits, surgery, medication, rehabilitation and other needs.

Those high costs are why U.S. Congressman Matt Cartwright of Pennsylvania is pushing for the minimum insurance limit to be increased from $750,000 to approximately $4.5 million, which has been adjusted to match the current costs for medical care.

Most large motor carriers already maintain insurance policies well above the $750,000 minimum, including plenty of companies with coverage topping $50 million. Many of these larger trucking companies support the proposed increase since their trucks often are involved in accidents with those owned by smaller operators, whose coverage limits account for only a fraction of the potential damages. Those smaller operators, most of which have four or fewer trucks, are leading the opposition to the minimum coverage increase based on their claim that higher insurance prices will harm their businesses.

But the truth is that requiring higher minimums will only help the trucking industry by encouraging trucking companies to provide better safety training for drivers and make safety a higher priority. Doing so will only decrease the number of heavy truck accidents and make our highways safer for everyone.

Better safety rules in oil and gas industry needed to help reduce traffic fatalities

The rising rate of Texas traffic fatalities involving three or more deaths is alarming: 72 such accidents in 2010; 101 in 2012 and 148 last year, according to an in-depth report by the Houston Chronicle.

Through mid-July of this year, the newspaper said 81 people had died in triple tragedies on Texas highways, and it points out that Texas now leads the nation in motor vehicle deaths. The trend across the country is a decrease in such accidents.

Perhaps as disturbing is one of the key factors in this recent spike in fatal crashes. The Chronicle’s analysis suggests that the oil and gas industry boom is a major contributor.

The large trucks on highways and narrow roads, along with fatigued workers who often work 12-hour days for 14 days straight or 24-hour shifts, add to the danger.

State Highway 72, a 111-mile narrow stretch in southeast Texas that serves oil boom towns in the Eagle Ford Shale, is now known has “Death Row” because it has seen so many accidents. There have been 21 fatal accidents on that roadway since 2011, four involving three or more deaths, the newspaper said.

Interstate 20, which serves the oil-rich Midland-Odessa area as well as Fort Worth and the Barnett Shale, has had 13 triple-fatality accidents since 2010. That’s double the number in the same period on Interstate 10, which is much longer and crosses the state from east to west.

Although there is no data showing the exact number of fatal traffic accidents involving oil and gas workers or industry vehicles, the state’s largest workers’ compensation carrier shows an increase in transportation deaths of those industry workers.

Texas Mutual Insurance indicated that “those employers have reported 24 fatal motor vehicle accidents so far in 2014 — three times as many as in 2009,” the Chronicle said.

This is a serious problem that ought to be addressed immediately.

It doesn’t have to require the attention of industry regulators, as employers ought to be able to institute more appropriate safety rules. They are the ones who should take action to cut down on worker fatigue, a major factor in many of these accidents.

Addressing the two-week shifts of 12-hour days and the 24-hour shifts would be two places to start.

Read more here: