Federal investigators and the media are going all out to blame a truck driver for his role in a truck vs. train collision that occurred in Maryland last year and caused a 15-car derailment and explosion.
The National Transportation Safety Board’s final report on the May 28, 2013, crash at Rosedale, Md., points out straight away that the driver of the truck hauling a roll-off trash container was talking on a hands-free headset at the time his truck entered a railroad crossing and was struck by the train.
Headlines proclaiming driver distraction have all but convicted the trucker for “causing” the crash.
That may be icing on the cake for an already sensational story, but it is far from the only factor that contributed to the crash and may actually rank low compared to some of the more glaring ones.
For starters, a commercial driver talking on a hands-free device is not illegal as a matter of federal or state law.
But that’s not the point I want to focus on here. I have a number of problems with the report and the ensuing coverage of the crash.
Let’s start with the crossing itself. Because it is on a private roadway (known as Dump Road) it does not have any lights, crossing gates or any other warning devices beyond a stationary crossing sign in the shape on an X.
Even if that doesn’t trouble you or is somehow mundane, it’s important to note that there is a complete lack of visibility at this crossing due to overgrown weeds and bushes.
The trucker pointed this out in his statement to investigators when he said he believed “it was not possible to see to the right without some portion of the truck being on the track.”
In fairness, the driver admitted to investigators he did not typically stop at this particular crossing because his truck terminal was nearby and he relied on the sound of train horns to alert him to oncoming trains. Is that the smartest thing? No, but had visibility been better, that likely wouldn’t be much of an issue.
The uphill grade of the roadway leading to the crossing is also an issue for trucks because they must stop and start on a slight hill. Oh, and the stop sign marking the crossing is faded, and upside down.
Next, the NTSB dedicated some real estate in its 84-page report to discuss the truck driver’s health history and traffic record – which is due diligence, I suppose. Both seemed to be in decent shape. It’s the NTSB’s choice of words in these sections that are concerning – that somehow the driver’s weight of 300 pounds, his body-mass index, or that he had once been tested for sleep apnea, were contributing factors to the scenario.
The fact is, a driver’s weight, BMI or status on sleep apnea are not consistent or reliable indicators of that driver’s ability to perform his work duties. He possessed a full two-year medical card issued by his medical examiner well before the crash. The NTSB noted that since the crash, a different examiner restricted the driver to a three-month card after determining he did not follow up on being re-tested for his sleep apnea condition.
The report notes that the trucker’s waste-hauling company, Alban Waste, became a new entrant in the FMCSA database in April 2011. The company failed its new entrant safety audit a few months later after the FMCSA found it lacked in implementing and enforcing a company drug and alcohol policy. Alban Waste was placed out of service in February 2012 but was reinstated in March of that year and passed its new entrant audit.
So what does the NTSB want to see happen? They want an all-out ban on hands-free cellphone use for truckers. They want an increased focus on new entrant audits and for companies to be revoked if they show a pattern of deficiencies. And they want a system that will notify the FMCSA of “violations” that arise in a driver’s medical qualification exam. Does this have anything to do with apnea? Because the current laws and regs are clear that apnea testing is not mandatory.
The NTSB has also provided model state legislation that says trucks should come to a complete stop before entering a “passive” railroad crossing – ones that aren’t marked with gates and signals. The model legislation would also require improvements to sight distance at passive crossings through the trimming of trees and weeds. Local, county and state property owners and the railroads have an obligation to make sure their grade crossings are safe.
In this instance, it doesn’t look like anyone cared enough to make this particular crossing safe, and as a result, a train got derailed, some chemicals onboard exploded, and a truck driver’s name, health history and safety record got sullied.