August 18, 2019
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How to make heavy trucks safer

Troy R. Bennett | BDN
Troy R. Bennett | BDN
Photos of Jeff Izer, 17, and his girlfriend Angie Dubuc, 16, sit atop a cabinet in the Izer family home in Lisbon on Tuesday. Both were killed, along with two others, in 1993 when a trucker fell asleep and ran over their stranded car in the breakdown lane on the Maine Turnpike.

You may take a number of things on the road for granted: If you drift over the line on the side of the highway, for instance, you’ll hear the rumble strip, which has proven to significantly reduce crashes, injuries and deaths — and at a low cost.

Those installations are just one result of the advocacy of Daphne and Steve Izer, whose 17-year-old son, Jeff, was killed in October 1993 when a tractor-trailer truck driver apparently fell asleep on the Maine Turnpike.

The crash killed three other teenagers and seriously injured one more. They had been parked in the breakdown lane in Falmouth after experiencing car trouble. The truck driver avoided manslaughter charges but was sentenced to four months in jail for a logbook violation.

Seeing a need for greater road and trucking safety regulations, the Izers formed Parents Against Tired Truckers and successfully lobbied for a number of changes in Maine, including rumble strips. In 2002 it expanded by partnering with Citizens for Reliable and Safe Highways to form the Truck Safety Coalition, based in Arlington, Virginia.

The Izers have tackled trucking issues for nearly 25 years, but there is still more to do. One change in particular they have been championing could improve safety for both truck drivers and people in other vehicles: crash avoidance systems, such as those that alert drivers if they’re about to hit a vehicle in front of them and break automatically in emergency situations if the driver doesn’t take sufficient action.

They are not alone, and this is not a new recommendation.

The National Transportation Safety Board, an independent federal agency that investigates transportation accidents and studies safety issues, has been recommending the technology since the 1990s. But it can’t implement new rules. That would be up to Congress or the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the regulatory agency that is still studying the technology.

But there is already clear evidence that crash avoidance systems live up to their name.

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety and the Highway Loss Data Institute have compared rates of police-reported crashes and insurance claims for vehicles with and without the technologies. Vehicles with forward collision warning systems had 27 percent fewer front-to-rear crashes. Those with both forward collision warning capabilities plus an autobrake had 50 percent fewer front-to-rear crashes.

The University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute has estimated that, if all tractor-trailers were equipped with the technology, collision mitigation braking could reduce fatalities in rear-end crashes by 44 percent and injuries by 47 percent. The institute has also tracked drivers’ opinions on switching to trucks with crash-warning systems and found the vast majority prefer having them.

The safety equipment — often the result of radar, lasers or cameras — is not new and already exists in many vehicles. The European Union requires it on most new heavy vehicles. What’s more, by 2022, the auto industry has promised it will equip virtually all new passenger vehicles sold in the United States with a low-speed automatic emergency braking system that includes forward collision warning.

The makers of heavy trucks, however, have not provided those assurances. Cost is certainly a factor in installing the equipment. But a lost life has a cost, too.

It’s likely that, one day, crash avoidance systems will be as commonplace as rumble strips. Manufacturers of heavy trucks should agree to adopt them voluntarily, as the makers of smaller cars and trucks have done, or regulators need to step up as quickly as possible. If repeated pleas from people like the Izers, in addition to the National Transportation Safety Board, aren’t enough, the memory of those four teenagers on the side of the road in Maine should be.

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