Now that the National Transportation Safety Board has issued its report on last year’s fatal New Jersey Turnpike crash involving a Walmart tractor trailer and a limousine van carrying actor-comedian Tracy Morgan and others, the investigation may be closed, but the fallout could be just beginning.
The NTSB issued nine recommendations to various state and federal agencies, and reiterated another half-dozen previously issued recommendations on everything from guidance for traffic engineers on the use of supplemental traffic control strategies for work zones to minimum training standards for organizations providing emergency medical services on the New Jersey turnpike.
Mark Valentini, OOIDA director of legislative affairs, said the incident garnered more attention than usual because of the involvement of a celebrity like Morgan.
“There’s a chance that something actionable might come of it on the regulatory side,” he said. “I think the industry needs to be prepared for that.”
The crash, which occurred near Cranbury, N.J., in June of last year, ultimately resulted in the death of comedian James “Jimmy Mack” McNair and serious injuries for Morgan and other passengers. The NTSB investigators said the failure of Morgan and other passengers in the limo to wear seat belts contributed to the severity of their injuries when the vehicle was rear-ended by a tractor trailer, driven by Kevin Roper. None of the passengers in the back of the 10-seat limo, nor the driver, were wearing seatbelts.
Roper, who commuted from Georgia to a Walmart distribution center in Delaware, was found to have been awake for at least 28 hours straight prior to the crash.
Roper’s tractor,a 2011 Peterbilt, was equipped with a forward-collision mitigation system that, for reasons investigators weren’t able to determine, did not appear to issue an alert to the driver prior to the crash.
“As far as the failure of the forward-collision mitigation system, I don’t know if this is going to set off any alarm bells at FMCSA for any of the people that tried to push this stuff,” he said. “It should. (The Association) should certainly call attention to it and be like, ‘Look it didn’t work.’ The one real-world case we have so far and it failed. I think that’s a point we need to bring up, especially when FMCSA starts pushing its ‘Beyond Compliance’ program …”
Valentini said the NTSB board members’ concerns about whether the technology works the way it’s supposed to dovetails closely with OOIDA’s concerns about the overreliance of technology as a substitute for driver training.
“Oh absolutely, and the fact that carriers want to get CSA credit through Beyond Compliance (for using the technology),” he said. “Now we have a case where the technology was in use in a real-world situation, and it didn’t work. It didn’t work the way it was supposed to.”
Valentini said professional drivers should be concerned that despite the technology not being “100 percent” it’s still taking control of the vehicle out of the driver’s hands.
He said NTSB board member Earl Weener, a former aviation engineer, had a particularly incisive line of questioning at yesterday’s hearing regarding whether or not the Forward Collision Warning System on the tractor worked properly prior to the crash. NTSB investigators said they were unable to recover any data from the device that showed it had issued warnings prior to the impact. One of the board’s recommendations to equipment manufacturers is that the systems be designed to store and retrieve data that would help investigators conduct performance analyses of the systems in future crashes.
“You want the technology to work,” Valentini said. “Whether you want it mandated is another conversation.”
Valentini, who attended Tuesday’s NTSB meeting in person, said he was also disappointed that neither the board nor the investigators took Walmart to task for hiring a driver from Georgia to commute to Delaware and make deliveries along the eastern seaboard.
“Last I heard, they have Walmarts down in Atlanta,” he said. “Why couldn’t they hire him for that? Now, obviously, the driver has a responsibility too. I’m sure Walmart hired him thinking he’d be responsible and not drive from Atlanta to Delaware before switching to a CMV and working for another 14 hours. (But) NTSB never touched on that. They never asked, ‘Why did Walmart hire a guy who lives 800 miles away to drive a truck and how did they think he was going to get to work?’ NTSB didn’t touch on that at all, not once. Didn’t talk about Walmart’s responsibility in any of this, other than whatever technology was installed in the truck.”
The NTSB investigation did report that Walmart has since amended its hiring policy to require all drivers to live within 250 miles of the distribution center from which they would dispatch.
Among the other recommendations the NTSB is trotting back out is a previous recommendation to FMCSA for motor carriers to adopt a “fatigue management program” for drivers. Valentini said such programs have the potential to be intrusive to drivers during off-duty hours.
“This is not the first time they’ve made this recommendation to FMCSA,” he said. “I imagine (a hypothetical fatigue management program) would be something a compliance company like J.J. Keller would come in and say, ‘Oh we have a manual for that.’ So when you send in your application for authority, you throw in those manuals. At least from a carrier perspective, they’d have some kind of program that would probably be intrusive if it were adhered to. I think a carrier can have a fatigue program and not adhere to it because they don’t have to come up with (urine) samples.”