Cutting Truck Fatalities in Half

SOME JOBS are too big for just one person - or one company. Some are too big for just one industry.

Truck safety is one of the biggest jobs of all.

As Jim Hall, head of the National Transportation Safety Board, pointed out in an address to the Society of Automotive Engineers Truck & Bus Meeting, the U S Department of Transportation is seeking to cut America's highway fatality rate in half by the end of 2009.

That's a lofty goal, one that may require some interesting changes for trucks and trailers. It's also an objective that promises to have a major impact on those who build, buy, drive, and share the road with commercial trucks.

In one sense, the time has never been better for advancements in truck safety. Truck and trailer manufacturers in recent years have been developing and applying breakthroughs in electronics. These advancements, among other things, are making engines burn cleaner and brakes operate more effectively. Such innovations are the building blocks that are necessary for even more advanced technologies in the future.

Perhaps most prominent among a new generation of truck safety equipment is the truck rollover advisory and control system being developed jointly by Freightliner and MeritorWABCO. This technology, demonstrated last summer and highlighted again at the recent SAE Truck & Bus Meeting in Portland, Oregon, is being developed as part of the Department of Transportation's Intelligent Vehicle Initiative. The system tracks lateral acceleration and wheel speed, alerting the driver when conditions are right for a possible rollover. Another facet of the system actually takes partial control of the vehicle, sending a signal to the engine's electronic control module to cut back on power and apply the engine brake. Details of the system, including some of the engineering formulas relating to vehicle rollover, can be found in a new SAE technical paper (2000-01-3507) authored jointly by Freightliner, DaimlerChrysler, and MeritorWABCO personnel.

Technology is now in place or under development that will make it much easier to monitor the condition of trailer brakes, tire pressure, and wheel-end temperature. Sophisticated equipment will provide real-time monitoring of driver alertness and apply brakes when a truck travels too close to the vehicle in front of it. But the current softness in the commercial truck and trailer market makes selling safety a true challenge. Will the customer buy it? Offering advanced safety systems in today's commercial truck market is not like "Field of Dreams." Manufacturers have no guarantees that if they build it, the customers will come.

New truck and trailer safety systems can help save lives. But if we really are to cut truck fatalities in half, we need to look at the source of more than half of the accidents. That source is the driver who crashes into the truck.

America will not cut highway fatalities in half as long as we continue to reinforce poor judgment. Drunken driving cases are a good example. Few people are involved in traffic fatalities the first time they drive drunk. Most of the time, the driver can pull it off without a hitch. And when the driver eventually is pulled over and charged with DUI, particularly for the first time, far too many jurors hesitate to render guilty verdicts because they have done the same thing themselves. But later when tragedy occurs and the driver has slammed into a truck or trailer, juries seem quick to find manufacturers guilty of designing unsafe products.

Perhaps more aggressive detection and prosecution of DUI cases, along with more courageous juries, will help problem drinkers quit this behavior early - before it becomes a lifestyle that ends in death.

Far too often, though, juries turn to manufacturers to compensate the survivors of these tragic losses. When a truck is forced onto the shoulder to avoid an oncoming motorist, why is the trailer at fault? When a drunken driver crashes into the rear of a legally parked trailer, why does a jury reward his behavior? And why does the degree of liability seem to increase with the depths of the pockets?

Frankly, we don't anticipate much change in this area between now and 2010. That means truck body manufacturers, trailer manufacturers, and truck equipment distributors will need to consistently do their jobs with the highest standards.

Trade associations are a good source for those standards. The SAE tackled the subject at its recent International Truck & Bus Meeting. NTEA will offer several sessions at its upcoming convention that will help members produce safer, better-engineered commercial trucks. Ten sessions by chassis manufacturers will include tips on completing these vehicles with commercial truck bodies and equipment. Consider other sessions, too, such as ones on truck frame modifications, truck certification, and calculating weight distribution. For a complete picture of what will be offered, check out our NTEA convention preview section.

Someday our nation may realize that when we share the road, we also share the responsibility. Until then, those who produce commercial trucks and trailers will have to carry a disproportionate load in improving highway safety.

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