WASHINGTON, DC — With major rulemakings, including the electronic logging device mandate, in its rear-view mirror, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) this year plans to double down on tests and studies as it tries to stem the rising number of truck crash fatalities.
In particular, the FMCSA wants to accelerate tests of autonomous vehicle technologies, believing it has the potential to significantly reduce crashes, injuries, and deaths on US highways, agency officials said at the Transportation Research Board’s 97th annual meeting.
“Technology is the next frontier,” Cathy Gautreaux, the agency’s deputy administrator, said at the FMCSA analysis, research, and technology forum at the TRB meeting Tuesday. “We’re on the cusp of revolutionary changes in the way we move both people and freight.”
Do not expect rulemakings that topped FMCSA’s list in the Obama administration era to resurface soon. There may be minor adjustments to hours-of-service rules for truck drivers ahead, but no significant reworking. Likewise, a new motor carrier safety fitness rating system is not expected soon. The agency is just beginning a two-year deep dive into its motor carrier safety measurement system (SMS), reworking the methodology for statistical analysis that could support a new safety rating system. That project stems from a National Academy of Sciences review of the SMS.
Instead, the list of research topics on FMCSA’s plate is long, from determining cybersecurity best practices and accelerating the adoption of automatic emergency braking systems in heavy trucks to the use of intelligent transportation systems to help truckers find parking.
“Expect work on these projects to move forward in 2018,” Gautreaux said. Do not expect a significant rulemaking activity from the Trump administration’s FMCSA, however, unless that activity is aimed at removing regulations the agency finds are unneeded or obsolete.
“Without compromising our mission, we will look to reduce regulatory burdens on industry wherever and whenever possible,” Gautreaux said. That mission is bringing down the number of truck-related crashes and fatalities, which have climbed as the US economy improves.
“After many years of improvement, highway fatalities have begun to creep upward,” she said. “We have much work to do to decrease these rates.” In 2016, there were 4,079 fatal crashes in the United States involving a large truck or bus, an 11.6 percent increase over the preceding two years.
“The economy is growing, so there’s a lot more transportation going on,” said Jack Van Steenburg, FMCSA’s chief safety officer. As “transportation” increased, and tractor-trailer vehicle miles traveled rose 4.1 percent from 2012 through 2015, so did crashes and fatalities.
The number of large truck occupant fatalities declined 38 percent from a high of 805 in 2006 to 499 in 2009, the year of the global financial crisis and recession. Since 2009, however, there has been a 44 percent increase in those fatalities, with the number reaching 722 deaths in 2016.
Van Steenberg and his colleagues no longer refer to accidents but “crashes.” Most often, crashes and fatalities are not truly “accidental” but caused by human error. In 2016, 40 percent of those truckers killed in crashes were not wearing seatbelts, Van Steenberg said.
“In another 18 percent of the cases the cause of death was unknown, and my suspicion is they weren’t wearing seatbelts,” he said. Failure to wear seatbelts is a factor in as many as half of all highway deaths, Van Steenberg said. Better education and enforcement are needed.
With Washington gearing up for another debate over infrastructure investment, Van Steenberg fears an increase in work-zone crashes and fatalities. “We’re talking with ATA [American Trucking Associations] about working together to prevent work-zone crashes,” he said.
“In 2016, about 27 percent of all fatal crashes in work zones involved a large truck,” Van Steenberg said. That is an increase from 24 percent in 2012, although the number hit 30 percent in 2014. Those figures are much higher than the overall percentage of fatal accidents involving large trucks, which remained between 11 and 12 percent from 2012 through 2016.
Those climbing crash and fatality numbers drive interest in autonomous vehicles. “Automation has the potential to save thousands of lives,” said Kelly Regal, FMCSA associate administrator for research and information technology. If automatic emergency braking systems were installed on all trucks, “they could potentially prevent over 5,200 crashes a year,” she said.
The Department of Transportation is working on “version 3.0” of its vision for autonomous vehicles and technologies, Regal said. As part of that effort, the FMCSA is working closely with the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the Maritime Administration, Federal Railroad Administration, and other agencies, she said.
“This will be more of a holistic framework, including the perspectives of all the surface modes, motor carriers, highways, pipelines, and railroads as well,” said Regal. “It seeks to identify barriers to putting autonomous vehicles on the road and to identify opportunities as well, to help us understand what we need to do to facilitate automated vehicles on the roads.”
A truck platooning demonstration project in Virginia last summer that hooked up the FMCSA and FHWA is only the first cooperative test of new technology FMCSA may arrange with other federal and state agencies, as well as truck manufacturers and research institutes.
"One of the focuses of the work we’re planning to do with FHWA will be looking at the impact of platooning on driver fatigue," said Jeffrey Loftus, chief of FMCSA’s technology division.