For Joseph Kanianthra, the search for ways to make Class 8 vehicles safer is never ending, but it's one that reflects his agency's motto: “People Saving People.”

“We have two goals when it comes to improving heavy truck safety,” says Kanianthra, director of the office of vehicle safety research for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). “Our main effort is to find ways to prevent highway crashes that involve trucks and the killing of people in those crashes. We're also focused on finding ways to better protect the truck's occupants, as anywhere between 700 and 800 truck drivers are highway fatalities every year.”

Truck safety has improved substantially over the last decade. NHTSA's annual review of highway fatalities in 2002 found that the number of truck-related crash fatalities dropped to 4,897, a 4.2% decline from 2001 numbers. This was the first time since 1995 that the number came in under 5,000. To put these numbers in a broader perspective, the drop in truck-related highway deaths comes at a time when traffic fatalities overall in the U.S. are increasing. In 2002, 42,815 people died in highway crashes, up from 42,196 in 2001.

Kanianthra, a mechanical engineer, says that although NHTSA is looking at a variety of technologies to make trucks safer — air disc brakes, collision avoidance systems, blind spot cameras, rollover detection devices, and driver airbags, for example — it's primary focus is to gather substantial field test data to prove the benefits such technologies can provide.

“We perform a lot of field tests with truck manufacturers and fleets, collecting continuous data on many different safety systems and analyzing their performance over time,” he explains. “Not only do we want to make sure these particular technologies are truly beneficial in terms of improving safety, we want to make sure they work effectively in the real world, so they don't produce a 'nuisance' effect on drivers. That's why we use real fleets and real drivers for our field tests.”

As an example, Kanianthra cites NHTSA's field trials of Electronically Controlled Braking Systems (ECBS) from 1999-2003 using 50 Volvo tractors owned by U.S. Xpress Enterprises. “We need the help of the fleet operators to not only demonstrate the benefit of the technology, but how to smooth out the human-machine interface and illustrate the economic benefit. It helps us demonstrate a 'payoff' for using the technology,” he says.

Kanianthra acknowledges that analyzing all of the data gathered from such field tests is one of his team's biggest challenges. “We're talking about a lot of data — many trucks running thousands of hours and thousands of miles,” he says. “But when it's all said and done, that data is what proves the value of such technology.”

NHTSA is also constructing a “timeline” of these safety technologies in order to highlight those that will have the fastest payoff in terms of improved highway safety and economic benefits for fleets.

“Right now, the quickest payoff is in air-disc brakes,” says Kanianthra. “We're talking about a minimum of 30% improvement in braking capability by using air-disc brakes. That's huge in terms of better highway safety.”

In fact, research by Meritor WABCO demonstrated that air-disc brakes can cut the stopping distance on a fully-loaded tractor-trailer going 60 mph from 330 ft. to 234 ft. And when ECBS is added, it will come to a stop in just 189 ft. — less than the 194 ft. it takes the average four-door sedan to come to a halt.

Kanianthra's team is also beginning to explore how to monitor drivers for and warn them about drowsiness on the road. They've determined that eyelid movement and full closing of the eye are the best indicators of drowsiness. The next step is a one- or two-year road test of drowsiness monitoring technology.

“One of our biggest goals is to make sure technology like this isn't intrusive,” he says. “If the technology isn't accepted by the drivers, if it interferes with their ability to perform their job, it won't do any good in terms of improving safety. They won't use it.”

While some might find the sheer volume of work daunting, Kanianthra looks at his job from another perspective. “It's real fun to take such technology and get out in the real world and test it thoroughly,” he explains. “It's what engineers like myself like to do.”