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Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Sleep-related Crash Prompts National Call for Alerts for Tired Truck Drivers

Developing Technology May Prevent Sleep-related Crashes

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) recently recommended that trucking companies should work harder to enforce that their drivers get rest, and the government should move toward mandating the use of alarm systems to alert fatigued truckers.

At the hearing, held in Washington, D.C., the federal board said that trucking companies and the government should also make the nation's roads safer by studying fledgling technology that would keep drivers alert. The hearing, streamed live on the Internet, was held in reply to an early-morning crash in western Wisconsin three years ago that killed five people when a bus carrying a high school band slammed into an overturned semi-trailer.

It was concluded by NTSB investigators that the truck driver fell asleep at the wheel and began to drift off the interstate's shoulder. The rig overturned when he swerved back onto the road. The bus plowed into the truck.

NTSB investigator Jana Price told the board that new technology might eventually prevent such fatigue-induced crashes.

For example, a dashboard-mounted camera, still in the early stages of development that tracks a driver's eye and eyelid movements could alert a driver who appears to be falling asleep.

"That can be useful since drivers are often unaware of their own fatigue," she said.
Price added tiredness plays a role in about one in eight large-truck accidents.

The Wisconsin crash happened about 2 a.m. on Oct. 16, 2005, on Interstate 94 near Osseo. The brakes on the bus had not been properly maintained, but the NTSB said that poor visibility meant the bus driver couldn't have avoided the rig even if the brakes were in ideal condition. Bus driver Paul Rasmus was one of the victims.

Michael Kozlowski, of Schererville, Ind., was driving the semi and was not seriously hurt. In 2007, a jury acquitted him of negligent homicide, causing great bodily harm by reckless driving and causing injury in the crash.

Daniel A. Haws, Kozlowski's lawyer, said his client was only driving too fast when he tried to pull over to relieve himself. The defense blamed Rasmus for the crash, accusing him of being overtired and not seeing the overturned truck because of vision problems.

According to NTSB investigators research indicated that Kozlowski did fall asleep. Onboard equipment showed that the truck left the road at a gradual angle without slowing, and investigator David Rayburn said that witnesses reported seeing the truck drift.

Haws said that the NTSB's arguments had been dismissed by the jury in the criminal trial.
"The evidence they use to say he fell asleep," he said, "The jury heard the exact same thing and said they didn't believe it."

Kozlowski was making a 430-mile trip to deliver groceries for Whole Foods Market Group. The crash happened after he traveled about 320 miles from Munster, Ind., to St. Paul, Minn. Records indicate that Whole Foods allotted Kozlowski sufficient time to rest between assignments, but the NTSB said that for five days before the crash Kozlowski had not filled in his logbook as required.

It was proposed by NTSB board member Debbie Hersman that Whole Foods Market Group implements a comprehensive fatigue-education program for its drivers. The proposal was approved by the board.

Whole Foods couldn't comment because of the pending litigation, said company spokeswoman Libba Letton.

To step up enforcement of trucking companies, the NTSB also called upon the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, making sure their record-keeping is current and drivers are being given proper time to rest.

The use of technology designed to warn of impending collisions and automatically engage the brakes was debated by investigators, who also discussed concerns that automatic braking could interfere with the stability of large rigs. The board recommended that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration study the technology and mandate its use if it proves effective.

NTSB investigator Price also discussed technology that detects when a vehicle is veering from its lane and alerts the driver with a light or an alarm. But she said that some drivers complain that the alerts can be distracting.

Price said even low-tech measures can be effective. Studies show that textured strips of pavement that produce vibrations when a driver passes over them, called rumble strips, reduced drift-off crashes by up to 60 percent.

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