NTSB recommends testing commercial drivers for synthetic marijuana

By Greg Grisolano, Land Line associate editor | 11/17/2015

Synthetic drug use is being blamed for contributing to a 2014 fatal crash involving a tractor-trailer and a small bus hauling a community college softball team. Officials with the National Transportation Safety Board are pushing for recommendations that address impairing substances that are not tested under existing federal regulations.

On Tuesday, the NTSB announced the findings of their investigation into a fatal crash in Oklahoma that claimed the lives of four softball players. The crash occurred at 9:05 p.m. on Friday, Sept. 26, 2014 on Interstate 35 near Davis, Okla.

According to the report, a 2013 Peterbilt tractor pulling a 2014 Great Dane trailer was traveling in the northbound lane when the driver, 53-year-old Russell Staley, left the roadway and traveled more than 1,100 feet along a grassy median before colliding with a 2008 Champion Defender 32-passenger bus transporting 15 members of the North Central Texas College  softball team. As a result of the crash, four passengers on the bus were killed – each of whom was either partially or fully ejected from the vehicle, according to the NTSB report. Staley’s truck traveled down an embankment and stopped roughly 300 feet from the point of impact.

The NTSB investigation found that the probable cause for the crash was the truck driver’s use of synthetic cannabinoids, which was identified as a safety issue based on his toxicology results, his lack of corrective action as he departed the roadway, and his history of drug use.

The NTSB investigation focused on five areas of safety: the truck driver’s drug use; the passenger restraint system in the softball team bus; the crashworthiness of medium size buses during side impact events; vehicle data recording; and median barriers. Based on the investigation results, the board issued seven new recommendations, primarily focused on assessing the prevalence of impairing substances like synthetic cannabinoids and to develop a plan to reduce the use of such substances.

Among the specific recommendations, the board suggested the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration do the following:

1. Determine the prevalence of commercial motor vehicle driver use of impairing substances, particularly synthetic cannabinoids, and develop a plan to reduce the use of such substances.

2. Work with motor carrier industry stakeholders to develop a plan to aid motor carriers in addressing commercial motor vehicle driver use of impairing substances, particularly those not covered under current drug-testing regulations. This would involve promoting best practices by carriers, expanding impairment detection training and authority, and developing performance-based methods of evaluation.

The board also made a recommendation to OOIDA, ATA, CVSA and other industry groups that they inform members about the dangers of driver use of synthetic drugs and encourage them to take steps to prevent drivers from using or abusing those substances.

According to the NTSB investigation, a GPS unit in Staley’s tractor reported that the rig maintained speeds of 72-73 mph until impact. He told police at the time that he had been reaching into his cooler for a soft drink when he felt the rig drift into the median, where he ultimately lost control of the vehicle.

Staley had a history of abuse of synthetic marijuana – also known as “K2” – going back to at least 2013, according to interviews with a co-worker and medical records obtained by NTSB following the crash.    

The agency also found that a contributing factor to the severity of the crash was that none of the bus passengers were wearing their seat belts, and that the bus driver failed to implement the college’s policy requiring passengers to wear seat belts. This prompted the board to recommend that all 50 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico “enact legislation that provides for primary enforcement of a mandatory seat belt use law for all vehicle seating positions equipped with a passenger restraint system.”

“This is the third highway crash that the NTSB has investigated this year in which the passengers did not use available restraint systems in commercial vehicles,” NTSB Chairman Christopher A. Hart said during his closing remarks Tuesday. “Today, to reduce the effects of highway crashes, we have called for primary enforcement of seat belt laws for every seating position with an available seat belt. It takes time to enact and implement new laws but when it comes to using seat belts, passengers don’t have to wait. They can reap the safety benefits immediately simply by using available restraints.”

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