Our safety record has certainly improved during the last 10 years, with the recordable accident rate dropping to 0.7 per million-vehicle-miles traveled. In addition, driver out-of service rates now average 6.8%, down from 8.2% just a few years ago.
For the most part, these statistics are a result of improvements in the longhaul/interstate regional segment, resulting from a variety of private and government initiatives. We can thank improvements to driver-safety performance monitoring and training, as well as more effective government enforcement efforts and safety data benchmarking.
But we still have a long way to go, especially in the intrastate local/shorthaul sector, where unscrupulous operators manage to skirt interstate regulations and oversight.
One example is a truck crash that occurred last July at an intersection near the base of a steep downgrade on a highway outside of Hartford, CT. According to published reports, a tractor-dump trailer semi collided with 18 vehicles and a transit bus when it couldn't stop at the intersection. Four people died and 19 others had moderate-to-severe injuries.
A number of details have emerged indicating unacceptable safety oversight by the company involved:
Drivers. According to available press accounts, the driver had an extensive criminal record and numerous pending charges, including drug possession.
Vehicles. In addition to noted brake defects of the crash truck, a follow-up on-site inspection placed 5 of the firm's 11 vehicles out of service for such problems as defective brakes, worn steering and flat tires.
Management. Press accounts indicate the firm changed its name in 2001 following a state ordered shutdown for failure to correct safety violations. Records for the renamed firm show a vehicle out-of-service rate more than twice the national average.
Risk management. The firm had been operating without liability insurance since January 2005. Press accounts indicated that two hours after the crash, the firm tried to reactivate the coverage retroactive to a point four weeks prior to the crash.
Outraged by these facts? It gets worse. Recently, one of the firm's drivers was cited for reckless driving while operating a vehicle that was 20,000 lb. overweight. It seems the vehicle had a faulty valve, which precluded an auxiliary axle from carrying the additional weight. Media interviews following the latest incident quote the owner as saying: “If he don't know how to drive, that's his problem.”
Connecticut Gov. M. Jodi Rell shut down the operation and the state legislature proposed a law tightening insurance reporting requirements. Although it's illegal to operate without insurance, Connecticut laws require insurance companies to report cancellation of private-vehicle policies only. No such provision exists for commercial vehicles.
Despite our industry's truck safety advancements, one thing has not changed: Horrific truck crashes and “bad actor operators” result in extensive press coverage and public outrage.
In addition to the human tragedy of these events, we all pay for the cost of such behavior. I hope our industry will cooperate with state governments in tightening intrastate truck safety oversight. I'd also like to propose that we apply the successful strategies used in the interstate sector to make much-needed improvements in the intrastate local/shorthaul segment.
Jim York is the manager of Zurich Service Corp.'s Risk Engineering Transportation Team, based in Schaumburg, IL.