Safety innovations could reduce the toll of fatal truck crashes

Technological advances like autonomous emergency braking (AEB) and platooning of trucks may help save lives prior to the introduction of autonomous trucks

Columbia, Missouri sits at the crossroads of America. Interstate 70 slices the state in half, as it crosses Missouri and the nation. Missouri has long been at the center of transportation in the United States, with St. Louis and Kansas City having long histories as major transportation hubs for river, train and truck transportation.

Thousands of trucks pass along I-70 every day and that number is likely to continue to grow. The trucking industry has complained for years that they have a shortage of drivers, and as trucks become more important for delivering products across the country, that shortage could become more acute.

Problems of truck safety

Large trucks pose other challenges. In addition to a shortage of drivers, there are always concerns regarding the safety of those drivers. Driving a large truck across the country can be both a stressful occupation and one with long stretches of boredom.

There are also health concerns of the sedentary lifestyle faced by most truckers, which can lead to medical problems like sleep apnea, where drivers sleep poorly and are more likely to fall asleep behind the wheel.

Unhealthy drivers pose a risk for everyone else on the highways. Drivers with problems like sleep apnea could fall asleep while cruising along on I-70 at speed, crashing into the back of a slower moving car or running across the median and striking other vehicles in that lane head-on.

Large trucks and a large percentage of fatal crashes

In 2014, there were 3,360 fatalities from large truck crashes. For drivers of passenger vehicles, the frightening statistic is that while these crashes only made up 11 percent of the total number of highway fatalities, 97 percent of those who die in these crashes are the driver or passenger in the other vehicle.

Truck driver fatigue often contributes to these crashes. Drivers are pushed to drive the maximum number of hours allotted by federal regulations. The crash that injured comedian Tracy Morgan and killed another man who was with him occurred with a driver who had driven 13.5 hours of his 14-hour daily driving time limit.

In that case, in addition to his driving almost the full 14 hours of duty time, he had driven 12 hours from his home to where he picked up the truck, and the NTSB found he had been awake for 28 hours prior to the crash.

Get rid of the drivers?

Given the many failings of truck drivers, technology appears to offer a solution. Just get rid of the human drivers and replace them with automated trucks. While this may have sounded like science fiction a few years ago, development by Google and other automotive companies have led to innovations that could make autonomous trucks a reality.

Before that happens, one feature could help prevent devastating truck crashes is automatic braking. Autonomous emergency braking (AEB) technology has been urged by many safety advocacy groups and the Department of Transportation could eventually require it on all passenger vehicles. A recent announcement from 10 manufacturers indicated they would voluntarily add this technology to their vehicles.

AEB can save lives and lessen damage in crashes because unlike human drivers, it never suffers from fatigue or becomes distracted. Too many crashes occur when traffic slows or stops on a highway due to construction, congestion or another accident. A driver not paying attention can slam into the rear of that traffic with disastrous results. The Tracy Morgan crash occurred in a construction zone was just this type of crash.

Waiting for regulators

For trucks, such a system may be more difficult given the tremendous size of large trucks and the variability of weights, which can range from 10,000 pounds up to 80,000 pounds. Federal regulators will need to analyze which systems are reliable before mandating their inclusions on all trucks.

However, given the savings in lives and other costs, which for large truck and bus crashes has been estimated by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention at nearly $100 billion, it is likely AEB will receive a strong push towards full development and implementation.

Saving fuel and saving lives

The next development is likely to be platooning of trucking fleets. If you watch traffic on I-70, you will see many trucks from the same companies. Platooning is a concept borrowed from bike racing, where one rider follows a lead rider very closely, "drafting" in his slipstream and saving energy.

For trucks, fuel savings will be the first goal. The following trucks have been shown to receive fuel savings of about 10 percent. If you are a major trucking company, with thousands of trucks crossing the nation every day, such savings are very attractive.

While platooning may save fuel, the more important savings would be safer overall operations of trucks. The technology is still very new and there are many hurdles to be overcome, but if the technology proves reliable, it could help save more than fuel.

Reducing truck crashes likely means many lives saved among passenger vehicles and each life saved is one less family left dealing with the tragic loss of a loved one.