By Don Karol
In the early morning hours of Saturday, June 7, 2014, the NTSB learned of a multiple‑ vehicle accident on the New Jersey State Turnpike near Trenton, New Jersey. The crash reportedly involved a Walmart tractor-trailer combination vehicle that struck the rear of a limousine bus. The impact initiated a chain-reaction crash involving six vehicles. During the crash, the limousine bus overturned and one occupant was killed; four others were injured. The NTSB launched a team of investigators to New Jersey. The investigative team will conduct a safety investigation to determine what can be done to prevent similar tragedies in the future. Although we will be working in close coordination with the New Jersey State Police, our investigation will focus on safety issues and will be separate from the ongoing criminal investigation.
One area our investigators will look at closely is the safety of commercial truck operations. During the past year, the NTSB has responded to numerous crashes involving large trucks. Most recently, on April 10, 2014, NTSB investigators were launched to Orland, California, to investigate an accident in which a FedEx Corporation tractor-trailer combination vehicle left Interstate 5 southbound, crossed a center median, and entered the northbound travel lanes. The FedEx truck collided with a motorcoach carrying high school students on a trip to visit Humboldt State University. In the Orland crash, 10 people were killed and over 30 were injured.
In addition to the Orland, California, investigation, the NTSB has recently responded to accidents in Illinois, Maryland, Tennessee, and Kentucky that were initiated by commercial truck drivers’ failing to stop for slowing traffic ahead. This summer, we will be releasing the findings of two other major commercial truck crashes. One involved a truck transporting an oversize load that struck the Skagit River Bridge in Mount Vernon, Washington, resulting in a bridge span collapse. The other involved a truck that collided with a CSX freight train in Rosedale, Maryland, resulting in the derailment of the train, a postcrash fire, and an explosion.
The upward trend in crashes, fatalities, and injuries involving large trucks is a cause for concern. Since 2009, the number of fatal large truck crashes has steadily increased. In 2012, there were about 333,000 large truck crashes, which resulted in 3,921 deaths and more than 104,000 injuries. Of those killed, about 73 percent were occupants of vehicles other than the large truck.
The NTSB has a long history of making safety recommendations to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, and the trucking industry regarding the safety of trucking operations. These recommendations address important areas of concern, such as motor carrier oversight, vehicle maintenance, truck driver fatigue, medical qualification of drivers, and the need for collision avoidance technology.
Too often, responses to our recommendations have been slow or, in some cases, nonexistent. It should not take additional crashes and loss of life to inspire change. We hope to learn from our investigation of this recent crash on the New Jersey State Turnpike new ideas and approaches that will ultimately improve the safety of commercial trucking operations.
Don Karol is the director of the NTSB Office of Highway Safety.