Trucker Jeff Kolkman was an ace within Green Transportation’s squadron of “road pilots.” According to the 38-year-old father of four’s dispatcher, he was “a very safe driver who followed the rules. He always put safety first.” However, this quickly changed one spring afternoon.
In a dash-cam recording from inside the cab of a 2016 Volvo semi, Kolkman is seen staring down at a black tablet computer that was in his right hand, while also piloting the semi-truck down the interstate at speeds of 70 MPH. The video ends seconds later as the truck slams into the back of a 2014 Toyota Camry that was stuck in traffic outside West Terre Haute, Ind.
One witness told the state police that Kolkman’s big rig never braked. It “barely slowed down,” said another.
Four lives were taken in the horrible crash that took place near the Illinois-Indiana border last year, adding to the growing number of fatal truck accidents – almost three times the rate of deadly crashes overall.
A total of 4,102 people died in large truck crashes in 2017. Seventeen percent of these deaths were truck occupants, 68 percent were occupants of cars and other passenger vehicles, and 14 percent were pedestrians, bicyclists or motorcyclists. According to the federal government, that is a 28 percent increase over 2009.
“Those should be eye-opening numbers,” said John Lannen of the Truck Safety Coalition. “If air carriers or railroads reported similar numbers, there would be national outrage.” If we put those numbers into an airline example, it would be equal to a 737 airliner crashing twice a month, killing all on board.
And while these numbers seem enough to make a change, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the federal regulatory agency responsible for keeping us safe on the nation’s roads, have yet to mandate changes that have the potential to prevent thousands of rear-end truck crashes.
“They are absolutely a culpable villain in this picture,” said Steve Owings, co-founder of the advocacy group Road Safe America. “We need to hold them accountable.”
After a months-long investigation, The Star found that NHTSA ignored constant pleas from the National Transportation Safety Board to take action to avert trucks from rear-ending other vehicles. Though semi-trucks can collide with cars in several different ways, experts claim these types of accidents are among the most devastating and possibly the easiest to avoid with technology.
In at least 10 different occasions, dating back to the 1990s, the safety board recommended that NHTSA require forward crash avoidance and mitigation systems on all heavy trucks. Two decades later, NHTSA has yet to publish a proposed regulation of its own, or even attempt to.
“Many of these crashes could have been mitigated, or possibly even prevented, had rear-end collision avoidance technologies been in place,” the safety board said in a scathing 2016 critique of NHTSA’s failure to act.
Technology is on the rise, so there’s no reason a truck can’t be better equipped. Many new cars come equipped with automatic emergency braking and forward collision warning systems. By 2022, the auto industry promises that the mentioned safety equipment will become standard on all new passenger vehicles sold in the U.S.
The Star’s discovery sparked some members in Congress to claim that now is the time to act. U.S. Sen. Cory Booker, a New Jersey Democrat, claims the rising death toll from truck accidents is evidence that such safety concerns shouldn’t be left to market forces.
“Safety mechanisms for the trucking industry have not kept up with the pace of technological advancement,” Booker told The Star. “It’s time that Congress take meaningful action to improve safety across our transportation sector.”
If you thought it was bad before, motorists on today’s crowded roadways are even more vulnerable than they were a decade ago. And it’s going to continue to get worse in the decades to come as freight shipments by truck are continuing to climb, due to a growing economy and a consumer culture that relies on online shopping.
NHTSA will not disclose why it has not followed through on the National Transportation Safety Board’s recommendations. Though, its communications department released a written statement claiming it’s still studying the technology.
“NHTSA researched early systems from 2013 to 2016, and is currently studying next-generation AEB (automatic emergency braking) technology through a naturalistic driving study using a field operation test,” the agency said. “NHTSA expects to complete the critical field operation testing in 18 to 24 months. This research and other information will help inform an agency decision on next steps.”
Safety advocates call this “paralysis by analysis,” and say American motorists would have more safety if NHTSA moved forward with technology that’s been proven to save lives, rather than dedicating much of its limited resources towards ideas such as driverless cars.
“It’s all being pushed off by this need to focus on this thing in the future,” said Jason Levine, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety in Washington, D.C.
Former National Transportation Safety Board chairman Jim Hall said the priority should be on saving lives. “Our government has failed to fund safe roads and encourages 80,000-pound trucks on the same highways as families and children in 3,000-pound vehicles,” Hall said.