View from Exit 24

By Greg Grisolano, Land Line associate editor

Following the August release of the National Transportation Safety Board's report on this past 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 is closed, but the fallout has just started.

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 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.

The crash, which occurred near Cranbury, N.J., in June 2014, 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 before the crash. His tractor, a 2011 Peterbilt, was equipped with a forward collision-mitigation system that, for reasons investigators weren't able to determine, did not issue an alert before the crash.

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 on technology as a substitute for driver training.

"The fact that carriers want to get CSA credit through 'Beyond Compliance' (for using the technology)," he said, "gives OOIDA a case to point to where the technology was in use in a real-world situation - and it didn't work."

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.

NTSB investigators said they were unable to recover any data from the device that showed it had issued warnings before impact. One of the NTSB'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.

Valentini, who attended the NTSB meeting, said he was 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 truck 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?'"

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. LL