For more than 30 years, I have been advocating to make trucking safer, since my father, James Mooney, was killed in a large truck crash in 1983. He was driving on a dark rural road at a time when truck conspicuity was hardly a consideration, and his car rode under the truck trailer that was blocking the roadway. While my advocacy helped lead to a requirement for reflective tape on truck trailers, there are still too many preventable truck crashes.
When I read that a tanker truck hauling non-dairy creamer overturned on I-40 in Forsyth County earlier this month, I was thankful that no one was hurt. Then I found out that the truck driver admitted to falling asleep at the wheel before overturning. I was outraged.
The number of truck crashes is continuing to rise, increasing 45 percent since 2009. Yet for the past three years, Congress has passed legislation permitting truck drivers to work more than 80 hours per week, amongst other corporate handouts that will not reduce the amount of truck crashes.
Requiring automatic emergency braking on trucks and mandating side underride guards on trailers are commonsense solutions that will reduce the number of truck crashes, injuries and fatalities. None of these changes, however, were included in the FAST Act or in the accompanying appropriations bill.
Congress should pass legislation requiring all trucks to be equipped with automatic emergency braking (AEB). This technology will be standard on all new cars in the United States by 2022, and a requirement for it was passed in the European Union in 2012. AEB works by applying the brakes in the event that the truck driver fails to apply the brakes, like if a driver falls asleep behind the wheel.
Data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) shows that forward collision avoidance and mitigation and lane departure warning systems can address 1 out of 4 heavy vehicle involved crashes. Moreover, crash records from motor carriers were examined after some of their fleet was equipped with forward collision avoidance and mitigation systems, and the results were consistent. Trucks without this technology were more than twice as likely to be the striking vehicle in a rear-end crash than trucks with the system.
Unfortunately, Congress has done little to require this technology, while prioritizing efforts to increase the length of double tractor-trailers, which will take even longer to stop than existing double configurations. When Rep. Hank Johnson of Georgia offered a bill mandating automatic emergency braking, it died in subcommittee; he subsequently offered it as an amendment to a larger bill to no avail. Some opponents of this technology claimed it might not be effective in reducing crashes, despite ample evidence that it does, while others claimed that AEB would hurt small business because of the costs of technology.
Yet when certain large trucking companies wanted “Double 33” trailers, the language was inserted into a must-pass bill. The opponents who decried the cost of AEB said nothing of the fact that increasing the size of double tractor-trailers would force many smaller companies to upgrade their fleets to remain competitive with larger trucking companies. As with past size and weight increases, there are two things we can anticipate: 1) it will not result in fewer trucks, and 2) shippers will hire companies with the maximum shipping capabilities. This means that small companies will be forced to buy new 33-foot trailers to replace their existing single 53-foot trailers or double 28-foot trailers. New trailers cost thousands of dollars.
It is also frustrating that there are lawmakers who are ready to increase the length of double trailers by five feet per trailer, even though existing trailers have a long recognized safety issue — a lack of side underride guards. While the European Union has required these life-saving protections on trailers for decades, the United States does not and shows no signs of doing so anytime soon. So, increasing double tractor-trailers from 28-feet per trailer to 33-feet per trailer not only results in an additional 22 feet of braking distance and a 6-foot wider turning radius but also 10 more feet of exposed area underneath the trailer.
Improving underride protections would save lives and prevent injuries resulting from truck crashes. Without these protections, bicyclists and pedestrians are at risk of traveling under trailers. Motorists, like my father who was killed in an underride crash, are also at risk of death or injury as underride collisions bypass crumple zones, prevent airbag deployment, and cause passenger compartment intrusion.
I am hopeful that members of Congress will recognize that despite all of their differences, they all represent a state or a district that has constituents who have been adversely affected by truck crashes. They need to be more interested in public safety rather than private interests. Passing a bill requiring automatic emergency braking on trucks and side underride guards on trailers will do just that. Requiring longer trucks that will only benefit a handful of large motor carriers, and will be more difficult for truck drivers to operate, will not.