WASHINGTON — On a clear June afternoon, a tractor-trailer truck crested a small rise on a stretch of interstate highway in Oklahoma. Plainly visible in the distance were more than a dozen cars and trucks that had stopped while a fender-bender was being cleared. Instead of slowing, the 40,000-pound truck barreled ahead at nearly 70 mph, plowing into the traffic. Ten people were killed.
Investigators said later the 76-year-old truck driver had slept only about five hours the previous night. He'd been on the road almost 10 hours.
The National Transportation Safety Board began a two-day forum Tuesday to hear from federal regulators, safety experts, and the truck and bus industries about what is being done to prevent deadly accidents and why past safety recommendations — some of them decades old — haven't been enacted.
There has been a lot of progress — truck fatalities have come down — but there is still much work that needs to be done, NTSB member Robert Sumwalt said.
Fatalities in accidents involving big trucks have dropped significantly, from over 5,200 deaths in 2005 to about 3,200 deaths in 2009, according to the latest figures from the Transportation Department. But so have other types of highway fatalities, a trend many safety experts attribute to a decline in driving as a result of a weak economy. The concern is that fatalities may increase as the economy revives.
The Obama administration has proposed several steps to toughen truck regulation. One proposal would require equipping trucks and buses with devices that record how many hours drivers are behind the wheel. As much as third of all commercial motor vehicle crashes are due to fatigue, according to the NTSB.
The administration also wants to reduce the daily limit on hours drivers may spend behind the wheel from 11 hours to 10 hours. The proposal also would require rest breaks, limit the overall workday to 14 hours and require drivers be given more time off when they've reached their weekly limit of 60 hours.
"From an economic standpoint, it would do a great deal of harm to this industry and wouldn't improve safety," said Dave Osiecki, senior vice president at the American Trucking Associations.
Safety advocates say the administration is taking too long to make changes.