This past June, the U.S. Senate Commerce Committee introduced a bipartisan bill to invest $78 billion in transportation infrastructure over the next five years. Among many other provisions, the bill includes sweeping changes to commercial truck safety standards – and none too soon. One of the main provisions would make automatic emergency braking systems mandatory for heavy-duty commercial vehicles, a technology that has been widely adopted by automakers in passenger vehicles.
While this certainly represents progress, it does not provide for immediate change. Reuters reported that the legislation would “eventually require automatic emergency braking systems for heavy-duty commercial motor vehicles,” but even this soft language has been nearly a quarter century in the making. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) suggested that the federal Department of Transportation (DOT) investigate the effectiveness of automatic braking systems in reducing large truck crashes all the way back in 1995.
In 2015, a full 20 years after this initial suggestion, the House Rules Committee refused to make these braking systems mandatory, even though the technology had essentially proven itself in spite of the DOT’s lack of research.
Commercial truck fatal crashes are on the rise
According to the National Safety Council’s (NSC) Injury Facts, “5,005 people died in large-truck crashes in 2019…. The majority of deaths in large-truck crashes are occupants of other vehicles (71%), followed by truck occupants (18%), and non-occupants, primarily pedestrians and bicyclists (11%),”
This means that, despite the increasing prevalence of safety technology, the number of fatal accidents has actually increased over the last ten years. As if this suggestion needed more evidence, a study conducted by the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia’s Center for Injury Research & Prevention found that automatic emergency braking prevented some 83% of rear-end striking crashes.
Rear-end strikes account for nearly three in four commercial truck accidents, according to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA). The agency reports that, “The critical precrash event for 74 percent of the large trucks in fatal crashes was another vehicle, person, animal, or object in the large truck’s lane or encroaching into it.” The evidence in favor of adopting this technology has never been clearer.
While this is excellent news for motorists, a disturbing trend has recently emerged that may change the tide of progress and poses a potential threat to highway safety. Last month, FreightWaves published an article which suggests that a wave of high-profile departures from government regulatory bodies to the private sector may give truck manufacturers a way to shortcut safety in the development of new technologies. In the worst case, the private sector can gain inside information about the industry and influence the direction of national policy.
The article explains that:
At least seven top-level federal officials in position to influence truck safety policy have moved into the autonomous vehicle (AV) sector — trucking in particular — over the past 12 months. The first, Jim Mullin, former acting administrator of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, was hired by TuSimple [NASDAQ: TSP] in September 2020 to serve as the San Diego-based company’s chief legal and risk officer.
Why public to private career moves can be dangerous
According to former NTSB Chairman Robert Sumwalt, “NHTSA’s general and voluntary guidance of emerging and evolutionary technological advancements shows a willingness to let manufacturers and operational entities define safety.”
This is not a quality we want in a committee tasked with keeping motorists out of harm’s way, and sets the stage for former government administrators to game the system on behalf of the private sector. FreightWaves summarizes the main risks these moves pose to regulatory bodies:
- Public officials may be influenced in official actions by the implicit or explicit promise of a lucrative job in the private sector with an entity seeking a government contract or to shape public policy.
- Public officials-turned-lobbyists will have access to lawmakers not available to others — access that can be sold to the highest bidder among industries seeking to lobby.
- Special access and inside connections to sitting government officials by former officials-turned-lobbyists comes at a hefty price, providing wealthy special interests that can afford to hire such individuals with a powerful means to influence government — means unavailable to the rest of the public.
While the ethical concerns are significant, the proposed legislation is a step in the right direction. However, every day spent debating, proposing, and amending safety mandates is another day that leaves motorists at the mercy of dangerous commercial trucks logging hundreds of thousands of hours on America’s highways. By the numbers, big trucks are a growing threat on the road. Until regulations are brought up to date, individual companies are responsible for making the right decision to place safety over profit.
At Harris Lowry Manton LLP, we are all too familiar with how big truck companies and their insurance policies work. From small operations to international names, our accomplished Atlanta truck accident attorneys have the knowledge and experience to effectively and successfully walk you through the accident claim process. We speak with the insurance company for you and diligently work to investigate and gather all necessary documentation and witness accounts. If you or your loved one has been involved in a commercial truck accident, contact our Atlanta and Savannah, Georgia lawyers today to schedule a free, confidential consultation or call our Atlanta office at 404-998-8847, or our Savannah office at 912-417-3774.
One of the nation’s top trial attorneys, Jeff Harris is an award-winning litigator who handles high-profile, complex cases across a wide variety of practice areas. He excels at securing justice for clients who have been seriously injured or killed, holding responsible parties accountable for their actions as well as their negligence.
Read more about Jeffrey R. Harris here.