OOIDA: NHTSA cab crashworthiness study 'didn't hit the mark'

By Greg Grisolano, associate editor

The federal agency responsible for saving lives, preventing injuries and reducing vehicle-related crashes earlier this year released its congressionally mandated study, which was supposed to assess the standards of cab construction and crashworthiness of commercial trucks.

But instead of an assessment of whether or not the industry's so-called "best practices" were up to the task of protecting truckers in a rollover, vehicle or fixed-object crash, the report proffered by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration touts speed limiters, electronic stability control systems, forward collision warning systems and other technologies.

OOIDA Director of Government Affairs Laura O'Neil-Kaumo says the study "didn't hit the mark with what Congress had instructed them to."

"In our opinion, we think this language was designed to look at the actual structural integrity of the cabs and to provide a report on whether or not we should pursue some formalization of cab construction standards," she said.

How we got here

Section 32201 of the Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act (MAP-21) directed the Secretary of Transportation to conduct a comprehensive analysis of the need for crashworthiness standards for "property-carrying commercial motor vehicles with a gross vehicle weight rating or gross vehicle weight of at least 26,001 pounds involved in interstate commerce, including an evaluation of the need for roof strength, pillar strength, air bags, and other occupant protections standards, and frontal and back wall standards."

The mandate was in response to an effort initiated by the widow of OOIDA Member Carl VanWasshnova.

On Nov. 13, 2009, Carl was killed after his 2004 Freightliner day cab collapsed around him in a low-speed crash.

After Carl's death, Sarah VanWasshnova, from Port Orange, Fla., traveled to Washington, D.C., several times, and worked with Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., as well as OOIDA and the American Trucking Associations, to push NHTSA to develop tougher crashworthiness standards.

The passage of MAP-21 included the mandated study - a first step in identifying why truckers die in low-speed crashes and finding ways to better protect them in all crashes.

In that charge, Congress, as the agency noted specifically in its own report, highlighted roof strength, pillar strength, air bags and other occupant protections standards, as well as frontal and back wall standards should be evaluated.

In response to that directive, NHTSA contracted with the University of Michigan's Transportation Research Institute to review heavy truck crashworthiness. For the purposes of the study, heavy trucks are classified as vehicles having a GVWR greater than 26,000 pounds, meaning the study looked at both Class 7 and Class 8 trucks. To review crashes, UMTRI used its Trucks In Fatal Accidents database and a 2000-2003 Large Truck Crash Causation Study.

What they found

According to the study, SAE International spent seven years researching and developing Recommended Practices to improve cab crashworthiness. These standards and practices were published in 1998, and are voluntary. The RPs outlined in NHTSA's study primarily focus on how to evaluate occupant restraint systems in frontal impact or lateral rollover crashes, as well as frontal and roof strength evaluations. The NHTSA report notes that those standards have not been updated in over a decade.

The agency's report notes that from 2000 to 2007 an average of 757 truck occupant fatalities occurred each year. The report states that the majority of those fatalities were truck drivers, more than half of whom were not wearing seatbelts. Since 1990, the number of large truck fatalities relative to the number of miles traveled has been down, and that the overall trend shown is a decline in commercial vehicle fatalities relative to vehicle miles traveled. The most recent NHTSA data shows 697 large truck occupant fatalities in 2012.

According to the study, just three event occurrences make up 89 percent of crashes resulting in either a fatality or severe injury to truckers. Those three events are: rollovers; collisions with other vehicles; and collisions with a hard fixed object. Of the three, rollovers accounted for 41 percent of crashes; collisions with other vehicles accounted for 33 percent; and crashes with a hard fixed object accounted for 15 percent of all fatal or serious injury crashes.

The report states that while the frequency of primary crash types differs between medium and heavy trucks, the crash types that produce the most fatal and incapacitating injuries are the same.

Although the agency assessed the current state of the art with respect to cab designs and occupant restraint systems, and also reviewed current best practices from vehicle manufacturers and current SAE Recommended Practices, the report says additional significant research is needed to determine "the feasibility of new Federal safety standards above the current designs and best practices."

The report also noted that observed seat belt usage among truckers has increased from 48 percent in 2002 to 77 percent in 2010. Despite the uptick in usage, the report notes that lack of seat belt use was present in many fatal crashes. A potential solution offered by UMTRI to enhance driver safety is to encourage the installation of enhanced seat belt warning systems. Side curtain air bags were also noted for their benefits at mitigating ejections in passenger cars. Currently, Volvo is the only commercial truck manufacturer in which airbags are standard.

First steps

Right now, the standard is tantamount to best practices, but O'Neil-Kaumo says the Association wants to know if that standard could be improved upon for the safety of the drivers.

"We would have liked to have seen them prioritize this and make a really big impact on crashworthiness standards and do a more comprehensive study," she said. "We understand that their funds are limited. But that being said, I think this was a first swipe. I think this is an ongoing conversation, and there is still work that needs to be done."

So where does that conversation need to go from here?

"It needs to actually look at what Congress told them to do, which was the structural integrity of the cab," she said. LL

Clarissa Hawes contributed to this report