WASHINGTON — Whenever she talks about her mother, Renee Langiotti keeps tissues close by.
Her mother, Susan Bartholomay, was killed on a Florida interstate highway in May 2015 after the car she was riding in swerved to avoid a large truck that was drifting over. Her car collided with another vehicle and wound up wedged underneath the truck trailer.
Bartholomay’s mother was one of 4,095 people who died in crashes involving large trucks in 2015 — a number that swelled by 22% over the next four years.
But as truck accident deaths continued to increase in the nation and New Jersey, your federal government has failed to respond, according to a review by NJ Advance Media based on federal statistics and interviews with victims’ families, federal officials, lawmakers and outside safety experts.
Recommendations to improve truck safety by the federal officials who investigate transportation crashes have languished for years as government agencies, lawmakers and the industry itself opposed proposals designed to reduce fatalities.
The trucking industry — a $792 billion behemoth that carries almost 12 billion tons of freight a year and employs 3.6 million drivers — has spent millions of dollars to fight proposed safety legislation on Capitol Hill.
And former President Donald Trump’s administration spent four years rolling back trucking regulations as part of its efforts to ease burdens on business. Families of those killed in truck crashes already are pushing President Joe Biden to reverse the policy.
“I was angry, very angry,” Langiotti said at her home in Voorhees, dabbing her eyes. “There’s so many what-ifs, could-ifs, should-haves. I wish they had stricter laws for truckers and the companies. That doesn’t bring back your mother.”
Across America, the 5,005 people killed in truck crashes in 2019 was the equivalent of every passenger dying in 30 Boeing 737 airplanes.
Over the last decade, deaths in crashes involving large trucks — those weighing more than 10,000 pounds — rose by 36%, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration statistics show. During the same period, the number of people killed in truck crashes in New Jersey grew 50%, to 78 in 2019 from 52 in 2010.
“Why do we tolerate the carnage on the highways that we would not tolerate in any other mode of transportation?” said Bruce Landsberg, vice chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board. “This is an area where we can do better. We know how to do better.”
A TOP CONCERN OF MOTORISTS
For motorists, truck safety is one of their top concerns, said Tracy Noble, a spokeswoman for AAA Mid-Atlantic.
“Larger trucks create unacceptable safety risks,” she said, noting that heavy trucks bring with them “increased stopping distances, increases in rollovers due to a higher center of gravity, increased steering difficulty and increased speed differentials between passenger and commercial vehicles.”
Even as deaths kept rising, though, federal agencies and federal lawmakers spent years reducing regulations on trucking, not tightening them.
The U.S. Department of Transportation scrapped a proposed rule requiring railroads and trucking companies to test employees for sleep apnea if symptoms were observed. It delayed action on requiring devices to limit a truck’s speed. And it unveiled a pilot program allowing truckers to stretch out their work shifts as long as they take breaks during them.
Safety advocates said they hoped things would change under the Biden administration, especially as truck traffic rebounds along with the economy from the current coronavirus-induced downturn.
The pandemic already has created greater demand for truck traffic as Americans shop online like never before.
“Everybody wants their one- and two-day delivery of things that they order on the internet,” Landsberg said. “This contributes to an increase of millions of miles traveled. That said, the number of crashes is going up faster than the number of miles.”
Just look at Insurance Institute for Highway Safety statistics.
Truckers drove 300 billion miles in 2019. That’s up 4.7% from 2010. At the same time, the fatality rate grew by 15%, to 1.373 per 100 million miles of truck travel.
And those trucks are going faster. The nationwide 55 mile per hour speed limit is a thing of the past (it tops out at 65 in New Jersey) and some states allow trucks to legally go as fast as 70 mph.
In Washington, the speed in which the federal government has moved to reduce truck fatalities is near zero, safety advocates said. That’s been true of both Republican and Democratic administrations.
“It’s one thing to say, ‘We don’t have a solution, what can we do?’” veteran safety advocate Jackie Gillan said. “It’s another thing to completely ignore solutions and then wring our hands and say, ‘We’re all sorry about this but there’s nothing we can do.’”
Plenty of solutions have been recommended by both the National Transportation Safety Board and truck safety advocates, as well as in legislation introduced in Congress.
Perhaps stronger underride guards on trucks or a lane-warning system might have prevented Bartholomay’s death along Interstate 95 in Florida in 2015.
Rear underride guards (but not sideguards) have been required on heavy trucks since 1998. That was a response to the death of actress Jayne Mansfield, who was killed in 1967 when the car she was riding in rear-ended a tractor trailer and slid underneath it.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, one of two federal agencies that regulate truck safety, said in 2015 that it would look at updating the standards for underguards. Nothing has happened.
Perhaps automated braking or speed limiting devices might have saved the life of 22-year-old college student Cullum Owings in 2002. Instead, while he was stopped due to heavy traffic along Interstate 81 in Virginia, a speeding truck slammed into his car. The safety board first recommended both technologies in 1995.
“To say we’re frustrated is the understatement of the century,” said Owings’ father, Steve Owings, who co-founded Road Safe America, another advocacy group. “These things should have been done decades ago. My son would still be alive.”
The safety administration agreed in 2015 to consider whether to require new trucks to have automatic braking systems. That was more than two years after the safety board put the improvement on its 2013 most wanted list. There have been no regulations on that issue either.
Gillan called such safety improvements “vaccines against deaths and injuries.”
In March 2011, the two regulators announced that they would consider requiring speed limiting devices in large trucks. They proposed a rule in August 2016. Nothing has happened since.
Even without federal action, speed limiters have become standard equipment in a majority of trucks. But the drivers don’t have to use them. There are no federal regulations requiring them to turn on the devices and no national standard telling them how fast they can drive. A bill named for Cullum Owings mandating such equipment was introduced in the last Congress but never got a vote.
AIMING FIRE AT SAFETY AGENCIES
Critics aimed their fire on the agencies responsible for truck safety: the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration and the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration.
“They both share blame for where we are in truck crash deaths,” said Gillan, a member of the Truck Safety Coalition, a partnership between the highway safety advocacy groups Citizens for Reliable and Safe Highways and Parents Against Tired Truckers.
The traffic safety administration said in a statement to NJ Advance Media in December, a month before Biden was sworn in as president, that the proposed safety improvements still were being studied.
The agency said it was “committed to reducing injuries and deaths through a number of technologies and improvements. This includes not only underride guards but also an examination of crash avoidance technologies, such as automatic emergency braking and forward collision warning, to mitigate the severity of these crashes and to prevent them from occurring.”
Because it was “a data-driven, science-based agency, before most regulation is crafted, we first collect data and conduct substantial research to measure the scope of the issue and to determine where the best safety benefit lies. Data and sound science are essential to ensuring that safety standards improve safety and avoid unintended consequences that could introduce risks or cause harm.”
In addition, the traffic safety administration said it was close to finishing a study on the safety benefits of what are known as advanced driver assistance safety technologies, including warning systems for collisions, blind spots and lane departure; and automatic emergency braking.
The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, which oversees the truck industry, declined to respond to months of requests for comment.
Federal lawmakers could order the agencies to regulate and give them a deadline to do so. But safety advocates said trucking takes a back seat to aviation, which draws far more scrutiny from Congress and the public.
After all, plane crashes invariably capture national attention and demands for action. Not so truck crashes, even though they kill far more people every year.
“All the legislators fly too,” said Christopher Hart, a former National Transportation Safety Board chairman.
TRACY MORGAN CRASH
The exception is when there’s a celebrity involved in a truck crash.
A case in point: Whenever the topic turns to driver fatigue, safety advocates pivot to the 2014 New Jersey Turnpike crash that seriously injured Tracy Morgan and killed fellow comedian James “Jimmy Mack” McNair.
Morgan and McNair were riding in a limo bus in a Turnpike work zone in Cranbury when a tractor trailer smashed into them, setting off a chain-reaction collision that eventually involved six vehicles and 21 people.
The safety board in 2015 blamed the crash on driver fatigue. The tractor-trailer driver, Kevin Roper, had driven 800 miles overnight from his home in Georgia to a Walmart distribution center in Delaware and got behind the wheel of the truck despite not having slept for more than 25 hours .
The following year, board members mentioned Tracy Morgan when they kept driver fatigue on their list of most-wanted safety improvements. But as memories of the crash faded, so did pressure to address the problem.
“Public attention seems to wane rather quickly,” said Peter Kurdock, general counsel for Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, an alliance of consumer, health, law enforcement and insurance industry groups. “Keeping them in the public debate is a fight we’ve waged for years.”
Even when the public is focused, agencies traditionally have been reticent to act unless prodded by Congress, Gillan said.
“No significant safety standards for cars and trucks have occurred without Congress mandating actions by the agencies in the last 30 years,” Gillan said, naming requirements for seat belts, air bags, head injury protection and rearview cameras as examples.
TRUCKING INDUSTRY SPENDS BIG IN D.C.
When it comes to trucking, however, Congress has gone in reverse in regulating an industry that spent $7.6 million just in the first nine months of 2020 trying to make its case to lawmakers and the federal agencies, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
Add to that figure the $14.5 million spent on lobbying by the package delivery companies FedEx Corp. and United Parcel Service, which have fleets of both trucks and airplanes and push issues concerning both, according to the Center for Responsive Politics and lobbying disclosure forms filed with the Senate.
Supporting their lobbying efforts, the trucking industry spent $14.8 million on campaign contributions for the 2020 elections, its highest total ever and 62% higher than in 2016, the last presidential election year, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. The American Trucking Associations has a Capitol Hill townhouse that during non-pandemic times is a regular venue for congressional fundraising.
They’ve racked up some successes. Federal lawmakers in 2014, for example, blocked proposed new rest requirements for truck drivers.
And some members of Congress tried to add a provision to transportation legislation allowing larger trucks on the nation’s highways by permitting two 33-foot trailers rather than the current 28 feet. Some states already allow the longer trucks, though not New Jersey.
“There’s no question that the trucking industry does what they can to advance their economic agenda in Congress,” Gillan said. “We probably spend most of our time fighting off the bad things. It’s been a constant battle of the trucking industry against even the weakest safety standards.”
American Trucking Associations spokesman Sean McNally said the trade group “objects to the insinuation we are standing in the way of progress on safety. We have, and continue to work with federal regulators, law enforcement and a myriad of partners who have good faith interest in improving safety and advancing smart, data-supported regulations.”
“We believe that safety technology, when it is proven to be effective, can be a powerful tool in reducing crashes, but saying you feel something is effective does not make it so,” he said.
McNally said the federal government first should study the causes of truck crashes and then decide how to address the problems before simply issuing new and costly rules. He said a 2006 study found that most truck crashes were not caused by truck drivers but by others.
“We’re proud to represent an industry that is committed to reducing highway fatalities by investing nearly $10 billion annually in technology and training that go above and beyond what federal regulations require, as well as promoting safe and responsible behavior on the roads by all motorists,” McNally said.
But an official of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, which represents 600,000 drivers, said the industry was just worried about the costs.
“Motor carriers are driven by money,” said Lamont Byrd, the union’s safety and health director. “That’s one of the big factors.”
Truck safety got some attention when both the House and Senate began drafting legislation to set transportation policy for the next five years. The new bill would replace the expiring law known as the FAST Act.
Those efforts led the Owner Operator Independent Drivers Association and other groups involved in trucking, including the American Farm Bureau Federation and National Federation of Independent Business, to warn in September 2019 that including safety improvements such as stronger underride guards, speed limiting devices and automatic braking systems “would impose tens of billions of dollars in unfunded mandates on American businesses engaged in trucking.”
“Collectively, these proposals neglect the diverse operations and working conditions of our members and would mandate extremely and excessively burdensome one-size-fits-all requirements,” the groups wrote to the leaders of the House and Senate committees that oversee the trucking industry. “Perhaps most concerning, these bills would do nothing to improve highway safety.”
Part of their concern was that truckers who own their own rigs would have to shoulder the costs of required improvements that may be anything but, said Lewie Pugh, executive vice president of the Owner Operator Independent Drivers Association.
“Unfortunately, some people lost family members and everybody’s always looking for a reason why and a reason to change things,” Pugh said. “There’s not a truck driver who wouldn’t spend money on stuff if it works. Drivers are the ones who have to eat that. If it doesn’t work, they’re out the money.”
When the Democratic-controlled House passed a five-year, $1.5 trillion transportation bill in July 2020, lawmakers included some of those long-sought safety improvements.
The legislation gave the motor carrier administration six months to study the risks associated with untreated sleep apnea and 12 months to begin drafting a rule to address the issue for drivers of commercial vehicles.
It also gave the federal agencies one year to set standards for automatic braking systems and require them to be turned on when the truck is being driven, and told the agencies to set new standards for rear underguards and study whether side underguards should be required.
Separate legislation on sideguards first was introduced in 2017 by Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Tenn. His constituents, Laurie and Randy Higginbotham of Memphis, lost their son Michael three years earlier when his car got stuck underneath the side of a tractor-trailer after crashing into the truck making a U-turn.
“It’s not anything radical,” said Rep. Tom Malinowski, D-7th Dist., a member of the House Transportation Committee. “It’s a bunch of money for studies to help us understand the problem better and a requirement for new rules based on what the data clearly shows, that automatic braking and underride guards and screening for apnea really do save lives.”
Yet only three Republicans voted yes. Two of them were from New Jersey: 2nd District Rep. Jeff Van Drew and 4th District Rep. Chris Smith. (The third was Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick of nearby Bucks County, Pennsylvania.)
But with a new Congress in place, lawmakers will have to start all over again.
The cost of installing automated braking, lane-warning devices and side underride guards could exceed $6,000 per truck, according to the American Trucking Associations.
Not everyone in the trucking industry shares those concerns, however.
“There are so many technologies that if we could just get them installed in the trucks, eventually we could really reduce some of the fatalities we are seeing,” said Lane Kidd, managing director of the Alliance for Driver Safety & Security, a group of the nation’s largest trucking companies that supports many of these safety proposals.
That trucking alliance represents just eight companies with 70,000 vehicles and acknowledged that its competitors weren’t eager to follow its lead.
“We spend almost as much time trying to persuade other sectors of the industry as we do members of Congress,” Kidd said. “Those guys are sometimes not as willing to spend the money for the technologies that the big companies are. They’re very sensitive to regulations that are going to be too expensive.”
Another issue uniting some truckers and safety groups is whether to set national standards for drivers. For example, there are no national requirements for commercial driver’s license applicants to spend a certain amount of time behind the wheel, just that they pass skills and knowledge tests.
“As of right now, barbers and cosmetologists have more requirements to get a license than truck drivers,” said Norita Taylor, a spokeswoman for the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association.
In fact, Pugh said training was much more important than technology.
“We don’t send airplanes up in the sky with a pilot that doesn’t know how to fly them when the automatic pilot doesn’t work,” he said. “Why don’t we do the same with trucks?”
The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration in 2016 issued a rule setting standards for driver training. Then the rule was delayed to 2022.
But the regulations didn’t go far enough, according to some who helped draft them. They said they were dismayed to see that the final rule left out a sought-after standard requiring a minimum number of hours behind the wheel of a truck with an instructor.
“That’s really what we believe to be the most valuable type of training,” said Shaun Kildare, senior director of research for Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety.
One regulation that took effect in December 2019 after many years requires truckers to record their hours of service electronically, rather than in paper log books. The new rule was designed to make it harder for truckers to drive longer than allowed under federal law.
That rule, required by Congress in its 2012 transportation bill, took seven years to take effect.
Yet some industries want exemptions from having to comply with the rule, and other truckers said they didn’t think it does any good.
“They cannot prevent drivers from driving fatigued nor in poor driving conditions,” Taylor said.
The fight over hours on the road is part of a larger concern over driver fatigue, which has been on the safety board’s list of most wanted improvements since 2011, 19 years after first seeking regulations addressing fatigue and how long truck drivers could be on the road.
Truckers are supposed to be behind the wheel for only 11 hours a day in a 14-hour window, up to a maximum of 60 hours in a seven-day period. In case of inclement weather, they can drive up to 13 hours a day within that 14-hour period, but the motor carrier administration in May extended that window to 16 hours.
Now the federal agency has proposed a pilot program it said would provide more flexibility, allowing truckers to take a three-hour break off the clock during their shift and thus giving them 17 hours to finish driving for the day.
Asked Landsberg, the safety board’s vice chairman: “How well would you function after 17 hours?”
Other rules approved by the motor carrier administration in May let truckers work longer hours before having to take a break, which the government said also would provide more flexibility and save $274 million a year.
Safety advocates saw it otherwise. The agency “should be taking action to advance proven solutions to reduce crashes, such as requiring automatic emergency braking, rather than eviscerating the minimal truck driver protections,” said Cathy Chase, president of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety.
The Teamsters Union and several safety groups went to court in September to try to overturn the new rule.
That followed the agency’s decision in August 2017 to withdraw a proposed rule requiring railroads and trucking companies to test employees for sleep apnea if symptoms were observed. The rule had been proposed in 2016, seven years after the safety board first focused on the issue.
And after Congress failed to pass legislation allowing drivers below age 21 to take big rigs across state lines, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration in September acted on its own and proposed a pilot program for those age 18 to 20.
McNally, the trucking associations’ spokesman, said the group supported other safety rules, such as using hair testing for mandatory drug screenings and requiring entry-level driver training.
“We believe focusing on these already-in-process rules, rather than adding new, unproven regulations to the agency’s plate, will only prevent smart rules from taking effect,” he said.
While Biden’s infrastructure plan during his 2020 presidential campaign was silent on truck safety, Rep. Donald Payne Jr., a House Transportation Committee member, said he expected the new president to address the issue.
“I have been extremely disappointed in the lack of attention paid to truck and traffic safety in the Trump administration,” said Payne, D-10th Dist. “But I am confident that it will get more attention and resources in the new Biden administration.”
Just before Christmas, the Truck Safety Coalition gathered 28 families who had lost loved ones in truck crashes and had them sign a letter to Biden asking for automated braking systems, stronger underguards, devices to limit a truck’s speed, and other safety improvements.
“We can say with certitude and conviction that every person whose life has been permanently altered because of a truck crash that kills or injures a loved one wants strong leadership in Washington DC,” they wrote. “It is truly a matter of life and death.”
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