Preventing Heavy Truck Rear-Impact Crashes: We Have the Technology. Why Don’t We Use It?

On a hot Friday afternoon in June, truck driver Perry McCleod, at the wheel of a 2004 Peterbilt tractor-trailer pulling a 2016 Hyundai box trailer, crashed into the back of a Toyota Tundra, stopped at a work-zone on Interstate 94 in Cass County, Missouri. A forensic examination of the crash showed that McCleod was doing nearly 70 miles an hour seven seconds before the crash. The impact created a four-vehicle chain collision. A witness at the scene told investigators from the Missouri State Police “the truck driver had to be distracted. He was not slowing down at all. I don’t believe he locked up his brakes. He just smashed that car. It was unbelievable.” Another said, “I was southbound behind the tractor trailer in the right lane. We were traveling at highway speeds. He slammed on his brakes and I slammed on mine. He hit something and I saw a vehicle go flying in the air.”

Karl Blaser, 44, the driver of the Tundra, died at the scene from his injuries. Yesterday, the Blaser family filed a civil lawsuit in Missouri’s Circuit Court of Cass County against McCleod and Landstar, which leased his truck and operates a long-haul transportation company, alleging negligence.

In 2016, there were 475,000 police-reported crashes involving large trucks, according to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration’s (FMCSA) annual Large Truck and Bus Crash Facts. Many human factors contributed to the total, among them: a lack of rigorous truck driver training, and trucker’s low pay, long hours and high turnover rate. Distraction is another major factor. According to the FMCSA, from 2013-2015, 702 or about 6 percent of the total 11,570 drivers of large trucks and buses involved in fatal crashes, were distracted or impaired at the wheel. In most cases, the cause of the distraction was unknown. But for at least two decades, how to prevent them has been well known. Engineering strategies – including low-tech audible warnings and more complex crash avoidance systems – prevent such crashes. Nonetheless, they remain a mere option for fleets and independent operators, even as the sources for distraction multiply and employment conditions in the trucking industry set the conditions for tired, inexperienced and ill-trained drivers to make fatal errors. Both the federal government and industry have favorably assessed these countermeasures, but the former has done nothing to require them and the latter has not pushed for their implementation fleet-wide.  

“It’s long past time for the trucking industry to consistently use safety technologies,” says attorney Chad Lucas of the Kansas City firm of Kuhlman & Lucas, who represents the Blaser family. “Trucking companies and commercial carriers have known for decades the enormous value collision avoidance technologies add to their fleets by reducing the incidence and severity of rear impact crashes.” 

Forward Collision Warning Systems are Not New

Collision avoidance systems (CAS), can include a host of features, ranging from ABS brakes (standard), to electronic stability control (required for some heavy truck classes), and lane departure warning systems. Another system used by the commercial trucking industry is the Forward Collision Warning (FCW) system, which provides drivers with alerts in advance of a potential crash and Automatic Emergency Braking (AEB), which electronically applies the vehicle’s brakes without driver input in response to a potential crash. These technologies – which are also retrofit-able – can be used by themselves, but most vehicles equipped with automatic braking include a warning system. FCW systems rely on radar, LIDAR, and cameras to detect an imminent crash and alert the driver; AEB systems brake when an imminent collision is detected. Some systems also incorporate Adaptive Cruise Control (ACC) to maintain a specified distance between it and the vehicle in front of it, so if the lead vehicle slows or comes to a stop, ACC systems will force the vehicle to follow suit, engaging the brakes, or otherwise decreasing engine RPMs by cutting off the fuel.

Government agencies have been taking note of the relationship between driver inattention and rear-impact crashes for more than two decades – around the same time that automotive technology companies began equipping their heavy trucks with them. In 1993, a NHTSA study on Intelligent Vehicle Highway System technology to prevent or reduce the severity of rear-end crashes found that driver inattention was the primary cause, estimated at 66.3 percent of events. In 1995, a National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) Special Investigation likewise noted that the data showed that rear-end collisions were common and most often the result of driver inattentiveness or following too closely, and that they most often occur when the leading vehicle is stopped. The NTSB further noted that combination unit truck tractor vehicles were three times as likely to be involved in a rear-end collision during their operational lifetime than a passenger vehicle, and that when such a truck is the striking vehicle, the crash is “12 times more likely to result in a fatal injury than a rear-end accident that involves only passenger vehicles.”

One of the first companies to commercialize collision avoidance technology was Radar Control Systems, which became VORAD (vehicle on-board radar) Safety Systems in 1991. In 1992, then-Secretary of Transportation Samuel Skinner was sufficiently intrigued to participate in a public demonstration of a Lincoln Town Car, equipped with VORAD’s radar-based detection and an automatic braking application, stopping the car from hitting the back of a target vehicle. The press was good enough to entice Greyhound Lines Inc. to sign up with VORAD to retrofit its 2,400-bus fleet with VORAD's collision-warning radar. According to an Inc. Magazine article about VORAD, Greyhound predicted that the system would reduce accidents by 25 to 40 percent and pay for itself within a year. In 1994, Eaton Truck Systems joined forces with VORAD, purchasing a stake in the company. In 1998, VORAD added Adaptive Cruise Control to its radar system. In 2004, the partnership, now Eaton VORAD, entered into an agreement with component giant TRW to manufacture radar sensors.

Other manufacturers of forward collision warning systems are Bendix, with its Wingman collision mitigation system; Mobileye; and Meritor Wabco, which began marketing and selling its OnGuard collision mitigation systems – radar-based adaptive cruise control system with active braking – as early as 2007, according to their website. Meritor Wabco describes OnGuard as “a new technology designed to further improve commercial vehicle safety.” These systems are offered factory-installed or as aftermarket units for retrofits.

Trucking companies such as Landstar Systems’ subsidiary Landstar Poole, were initially eager first-adopters. In 1995, it purchased 400 Eaton VORAD Collision Warning Systems, and made another 100 units available for purchase by small fleet operators who contracted with Landstar.  A 1996 Federal Highway Administration report on the benefits of Intelligent Transportation System highlighted Landstar successes:

Landstar Systems is installing the Eaton-Vorad system on 40% of its owned fleet and giving the contract fleet incentive to equip. Positive evaluation of the device by experienced drivers in a pilot test and the potential to decrease self insurance losses lead to the decision to equip. While Landstar does not have reliable statistics, no equipped power units have been involved in a rear-end collision since the installation began in January of 1995.

In August 1998, Landstar Systems sold Poole to Schneider National and became an owner-operator business – meaning the fleet was owned by individual truckers who leased their vehicles back to Landstar, which handled the hauling operation. That year, Landstar was subsidizing the purchase of collision warning technology for their owner-operators. If the newly arranged company continued to help equip the fleet with FCW systems, it stopped bragging about it. 

“Landstar was once a leader in ensuring that its fleet was equipped with life-saving collision avoidance technology. What happened?” Lucas asked. “It’s inexcusable that it’s done nothing over the last 20 years to require the operators in its fleet to implement this safety technology.”

Other companies, such as UPS, have made collision warning systems standard in their heavy truck fleet.

Where’s the Research?

There isn’t a plethora of published quantitative efficacy data, but we know this: suppliers offer them, so there is a market, and truck chassis manufacturers install them as an OEM feature, and trucking companies buy them as after-market modifications, so there is some indication of a need and an acknowledgement that they prevent crashes. The federal government – particularly NHTSA – has been issuing reports on heavy truck braking performance, forward collision warning systems, and electronic stability control (ESC) since 2004. In 2015-2016, the agency published test track research reports in support of objective test procedures to evaluate the safety applications of V2V-equipped commercial vehicles.

In 2015, the NTSB published “The Use of Forward Collision Avoidance Systems to Prevent and Mitigate Rear-End Crashes,” which examined the board’s investigations of nine rear-end heavy truck crashes within the previous three years that resulted in 28 fatalities and 90 injured people. The report also noted that in 2012, rear-end crashes resulted in 1,705 fatalities and represented almost half of all two-vehicle crashes. The NTSB’s special investigation reached 10 conclusions, among them: the slow development of performance standards and the lack of regulatory action have delayed deployment of collision avoidance technologies; and when paired with active braking and ESC, collision warning systems could significantly reduce the frequency and severity of rear-end crashes. The NTSB criticized NHTSA for failing to include high-speed crashes in existing testing scenarios and protocols in the assessment of forward collision avoidance systems in passenger vehicles.  The board recommended that the agency develop performance standards and protocols to assess forward collision avoidance systems in commercial vehicles, and expand the New Car Assessment Program 5-star rating system to include the performance of such systems.

In June 2016, NHTSA published “Field Study of Heavy-Vehicle Crash Avoidance Systems,” which sampled 6,000 Crash Avoidance System activations from over 3 million miles and 110,000 hours of naturalistic data in order to evaluate their reliability. The systems studied included automatic emergency braking, impact, stationary object and following distance alerts, and lane departure warnings. None of systems that were activated were associated with collisions, nor did companies report any rear-end collisions involving the vehicles in the study. The percentage of false AEB activation was generally low and of short duration. The study concluded that “though the systems as a whole appeared to have a safety benefit, false activations were also observed. False AEB activations were much shorter, on average, as compared to other AEB activations, but could still frustrate or annoy drivers. This balance between informing and annoying drivers must be considered when designing the sensitivity of CAS technology.” The study did not observe that these technologies led to any changes in the driving behavior. The agency recommended further study.  

Despite these reports and the promises of efficacy research, the federal government does not require truck manufacturers to install Forward Collision Warning systems, even as the European Union has moved to require AEB on heavy trucks.

In June 2015, the agency mandated ESC for new Class 7 and 8 tractors by 2017, estimating that it would save 49 lives, prevent 1,759 crashes, and create $300 million in economic benefits annually. However, it did not require that the ESC be paired with other collision avoidance systems for maximum benefit.

In October 2015, NHTSA granted a petition for rulemaking filed that February by the Truck Safety Coalition, the Center for Auto Safety, Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, and Road Safe America to establish a safety standard to require automatic forward collision avoidance and mitigation systems on certain heavy vehicles. In the Federal Register Notice, the agency noted its own research in this area and reported that industry was on the cusp making the next generation of automatic braking systems commercially available.  These new systems would “have improved performance that enables the vehicle to warn the driver and automatically brake in response to stationary lead vehicles. In addition to the increased performance from the next generation systems, industry is also expected to begin production of automatic emergency braking systems on air-braked single unit trucks with a GVWR of more than 26,000 pounds in the near future,” the notice said.

The public docket has but one letter of support from the Commercial Vehicle Safety Alliance and no other comments, and in the three years hence, the rulemaking does not appear to have advanced at all.

The FMCSA has published new rules that restrict texting and cell phones by truck and bus drivers while driving, but that has not deterred inattentive truck drivers who face serious prison time in cases where distraction results in a fatal crash. In the last six months, there have been at least three such sentencings. 

In December, semi-driver Nathan Frazier was sentenced to 11 years in prison for a 2015 crash that killed a teenager in Travis County, Texas. Frazier was looking at his GPS when he ran a red light and slammed into a Nissan Altima.

In July, a New York State Supreme Court judge sentenced 28-year-old truck driver Kristofer Gregorek to up to four and a half years for a crash that killed a University of Buffalo nursing professor. Gregorek was shopping online and filling out a customer satisfaction survey on his cell phone when he rear-ended Ellen Volpe at 70 mph.

In June, Jasvir Bariana Singh, a truck driver from  Indianapolis drew a four-year sentence for a multi-car crash on I-84 in Connecticut that killed a 19-year-old passenger in a vehicle that was impacted in the chain collision. Singh, on his way from Pennsylvania to Massachusetts with a load of candy, was also on his cell phone when he crashed into a traffic backup.

A year ago, the magazine Fleet Owner published a story on the desirability of mandating forward collision warning systems, and opened with this question: Should we or shouldn’t we? A better question is: why the hell not?