In June 2009 on an Oklahoma Interstate, a 40,000-pound tractor-trailer, driven by a man who had been behind the wheel for nearly 10 hours after only five hours of sleep, plowed into traffic that had stopped for a previous accident. The sleepy driver never even slowed down from 70 miles per hour. The truck dragged three cars beneath its undercarriage and struck several others. Ten people were killed.
On March 12 in New York City, a speeding passenger bus plummeted off an elevated highway and struck a utility pole, which peeled off its roof. Eighteen people were injured and 15 more were killed.
Bus and commercial trucking accidents like these prompted the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) to hold a recent summit with federal regulators, safety experts and representatives of the commercial bus and trucking industries. The goal was to find out why more than 100 of its safety recommendations -- some of them decades old -- have never been implemented.
While fatal trucking accidents dropped nearly 40 percent between 2005 and 2009, many experts believe that reduction was part of an overall drop in traffic fatalities resulting from decreased driving during the recession. Truck-accident fatalities could well go back up once the recession ends.
Driver fatigue causes one-third of all trucking accidents
According to the NTSB, driver fatigue -- often caused by drivers being pressured to stay on the road too long -- is responsible for as much as a third of all trucking accidents. The Obama administration has proposed reducing the time commercial truckers are allowed to drive from 11 hours to 10 hours per day, along with requiring rest breaks and more downtime after a driver has reached the weekly driving limit of 60 hours.
A spokesperson for the American Trucking Associations claims the proposal would unduly increase shipping costs without improving safety. Safety experts fear that industry opposition will kill the proposal.
Other items on the NTSB's agenda included proposed increases to weight limits for commercial trucks currently under consideration by Congress. Safety experts fear that the increases would ramp up the potential severity of trucking accidents, because heavier trucks are harder to stop quickly and they cause more damage when they collide with other vehicles.
Busing industry representatives claim that most bus accidents are the fault of a few bad actors in the industry. They urged state and federal regulators to step up inspections and enforcement, but the NTSB points out that bus safety recommendations it made as long ago as 1968 have yet to be implemented.
Bus safety advocates and the NTSB have been urging lawmakers to require seat belts, stronger roofs, better emergency exits, non-ejection windows, more effective fire protection and safety technology on all commercial buses.
Although much of the technology required for those improvements is commercially available, the lack of legal standards creates a disincentive for commercial bus and trucking companies to pay for it.
"We must remind ourselves that each data point in these statistics represents a family member that will never come home to loved ones," said a spokesperson for the NTSB.