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NTSB to emphasize rail, trucking safety in 2015

Jan. 14, 2015

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) is putting special emphasis on railroad and trucking safety for this year via its annual “Most Wanted List.”

“The Most Wanted List is our roadmap for 2015,” noted NTSB’s Acting Chairman Christopher Hart in a statement. “We want it to be a roadmap for policy makers and legislators as well. These are safety improvements for which the time is ripe for action.”

Topping this year’s list an effort to finally get Positive Train Control (PTC) implemented across the railroad industry – a safety technology mandated by Congress seven years ago via the Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2008 (RSIA) and one that NTSB originally recommended be installed back in 1969.

“After 45 years of recommendations and seven years since the law passed, the time to make railroads safer is now,” the agency noted.

The second major rail-focused safety initiative on NTSB’s list is to beef up rail tank car standards that carry crude oil, ethanol and other hazardous materials across the U.S. The agency noted that more crude oil and ethanol than ever is moving across America’s rails – with petroleum and petroleum products seeing or 12.7% or 90,185 more carloads worth of volume in 2014, according to data tracked by the Association of American Railroads (AAR) – yet accidents demonstrate that the tank cars moving these flammable liquids are not up to the task.

“It’s crucial to strengthen existing rail tank cars and new rail tank car regulatory requirements,” NTSB said.

In the trucking industry’s case, though, the agency wants to take broader approach to improving safety in 2015.

“To manage their safety risks, trucking companies must go beyond securing regulatory compliance from all their employees, and proactively identify operational hazards and potential solutions,” NTSB noted.

While the agency readily acknowledged that trucking “is integral to our economy,” it said that “crashes, injuries and deaths involving commercial trucks have been increasing over the past several years” and thus wants regulators to improve their oversight of operators, drivers, and vehicles.

According to data recently released by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) the number of people killed in crashes involving large trucks increased 0.5% in 2013 compared to 2012 – with a 13% jump in the number of non-occupants killed in large-truck crashes from 2012 to 2013, or 49 more people, offset by a 0.8% decline in other vehicle occupant deaths and the aforementioned 0.9% drop in truck occupant fatalities.

Altogether, 3,964 died in large-truck crashes in 2013, an uptick of 0.5% or 20 more people compared to 2012, NHTSA reported.

More broadly, highway fatalities overall decreased 3.1% between 2012 and 2013 – falling to 32,719 – with injuries due to vehicular crashes down 2.1% to 2.31 million, according to the agency’s data.

More importantly, NHTSA’s data indicates highway fatalities due to crashes are down 25% overall compared to 2004 – a general decline in fatalities that gained strength in 2006 and continued unabated except for 2012, when overall fatalities jumped by 3.3% or 1,082 more deaths.

In order to keep those numbers of a downward path, NTSB’s added distraction and impairment behind the wheel to its “Most Wanted” list of safety issues for 2015.

Again, according to NHTSA data, in 2012, about one in 10 drivers in fatal crashes were distracted, while in almost a third of fatal crashes, a driver was impaired by alcohol.

In particular, since 2003, NTSB said it has found distraction from portable electronic devices (PEDs) as a cause or contributing factor in 11 accident investigations – resulting in 259 people injured and 50 people killed.

“The first step toward removing deadly distractions will be to disconnect from non-mission-critical information,” the agency noted. “All modes of transportation need to rise to today’s distraction challenges.”

The National Safety Council is one group in particular applauding the NTSB’s addition of “disconnect from deadly distractions,” “end substance impairment in transportation” to the “most wanted” list this year.

According to NSC‘s Injury Facts 2014 book, motor vehicle crashes and poisonings – particularly from prescription painkiller overdoses – have been leading causes of unintentional injury deaths in the U.S. for several years.

"The NTSB's Most Wanted List appropriately highlights two critical safety issues: distracted driving and prescription painkiller use,” noted Deborah Hersman, president and CEO of NSC – and NTSB’s former chairman – in a statement. “Our desire to be constantly connected, even while behind the wheel, results in far too many deadly crashes, while the proliferation and misuse of prescription painkillers results in 46 overdose deaths per day.”

Two other entrants on NTSB’s “Most Wanted” list for 2015 also touch on trucking operations, if tangentially:

  • Although each mode within mass transit systems – comprised of light rail, commuter rail, subways, ferries, streetcars, buses and trolley buses – has unique equipment, operating environments, and challenges, all can benefit from strengthening their organizational safety cultures, the agency stressed, with the wider use of advanced technologies able to make mass transit safer.
  • Numerous accidents investigated by NTSB found that the medical condition of the vehicle operator contributed to the cause of a crash – meaning medical conditions and treatments directly affect safety when they impair transportation professionals’ performance. Those suffering from impairing medical disorders should not be at the controls unless they receive medical treatment that mitigates the risk to the public.

”This ‘Most Wanted’ list is grounded in the accident investigations by which NTSB learns safety lessons,” Hart said. “At the NTSB we want to make new strides in transportation safety in 2015, and we want to lay the groundwork for years that are even safer.”

About the Author

Sean Kilcarr | Editor in Chief

Sean previously reported and commented on trends affecting the many different strata of the trucking industry. Also be sure to visit Sean's blog Trucks at Work where he offers analysis on a variety of different topics inside the trucking industry.

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