The collision-avoidance system on the truck that plowed into a limo carrying comedian Tracy Morgan and others on the New Jersey Turnpike last year apparently failed to issue an alert to the fatigued Walmart driver before impact, according to federal safety investigators.
This finding, contained in the National Transportation Safety Board’s Aug. 11 causation report, has perplexed investigators, especially since it was the first-ever U.S. fatal crash involving a Class 8 truck with a collision-avoidance device installed, according to the agency. Comedian Jimmy Mack was killed and Morgan and eight others were injured in the June 7, 2014, crash.
“Based on the data recorded by the Wingman Active Cruise with Braking system,” the NTSB stated, “the system did not provide a pre-crash alert. … ” However, investigators say it’s possible an alert was sent, but not recorded due to limitations in the device’s storage capacity.
Jennifer Morrison, the NTSB’s lead vehicle-factors investigator for this crash, said agency members “are still huge advocates” of collision-avoidance systems. “In no way did the NTSB find that the collision-avoidance system failed,” she said. The agency supports making these devices mandatory for heavy trucks and says that more than 80% of rear-end crashes could be prevented or made less severe through the use of this equipment.
Currently, only about 3% of the more than 3 million Class 8 tractors operating in the nation have anti-collision devices installed, according to the Truck Safety Coalition.
The problem in this accident, as detailed in an interview with Morrison, and in the NTSB record, is that the Bendix Commercial Vehicle Systems’ Wingman only recorded data at half-second intervals. While the 10 data points that were recorded showed no evidence an alert was issued, “It’s possible the system actually helped mitigate the [severity of the] crash” by alerting the driver to begin braking, Morrison said.
A spokeswoman for Bendix Monday said, “All I can tell you is that we are aware of the NTSB report released last week and that we will be reviewing the agency’s findings and recommendations.”
The board found that the Walmart driver ignored warning signs to reduce speed due to upcoming construction, but did manage to slow the truck from 65 mph in the five seconds before impact to 47. Had he obeyed the 45-mph work-zone speed limit, the board said the crash would likely have been avoided. The NTSB said the driver has declined to talk to its investigators.
Another issue with the version of the Wingman device Walmart installed on the truck when it bought it in 2011 is that the active-braking component – designed to slow or stop a truck when a driver fails to act when a collision is imminent – only operates when cruise control is activated. The feature was not activated on this trip.
Among its recommendations, the NTSB urged Bendix, Detroit Diesel Corp. and Meritor WABCO to ensure that the anti-collision devices they sell store enough data to prevent a similar situation in any future crashes.
The problems surrounding the Bendix device illustrates why “the government should set a performance standard” for anti-collision systems, said Henry Jasny, senior vice president of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety. As it is, he said, each device manufacturer currently sets its own operating program.
A coalition of safety advocacy groups in February asked the Dept. of Transportation to require anti-collision devices on all heavy trucks.