Drivers are tailgating Joe Pryor’s semi-truck on Ohio 49, cutting him off when changing lanes, not signaling their intentions and hanging out in his blind spot – seemingly all at once.
As the economy has improved and logistic centers that need thousands of semi-trucks have been added in the region, an investigation by this newspaper found the number of commercial vehicle crashes and fatalities has increased in Ohio in the past four years.
“Big factors in any crashes really are the economy and how many trucks and cars are on the road,” said Jim Feddern, the motor carrier enforcement manager for the Ohio State Highway Patrol.
“When the economy is somewhat up … there is more freight moving, more cars on the road.”
Truck operators and owners say safety has greatly improved, decreasing the number of crashes from 10 to 20 years ago and statistics point to car drivers increasingly being blamed for the wrecks.
But safety advocates say more needs to be done to protect drivers from dangerous conditions caused by a larger mix of large trucks and other vehicles on roadways.
“The more people can be out there talking about truck safety, the better,” said Michael Leizerman, a Toledo personal injury attorney with E.J. Leizerman & Associates. “I have just sat with too many families where people have been killed.
Ohio crashes increase, nationally down
The number of Ohio crashes involving commercial vehicles, which include trucks and buses, rose from 19,758 in 2012 to 22,490 in 2015, a 13 percent increase, according to the OSP.
Fatalities involving commercial vehicles in Oho increased from 162 to 181, a 12 percent increase, during the same time period.
Nationally, there were 3,649 fatal crashes involving large trucks or buses in 2014, the most recent year for which data is available, down slightly from 3,821 the previous year, according to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration. In 2012, there were 3,726.
That’s down from 4,032 such crashes in 1975, the first year for which that number was tracked, according to the administration. And it’s well down from a high of 6,007 fatal crashes in 1979.
Since 2007, when there were 4,472 fatal crashes, the number of killer crashes each year has stayed below 4,000, according to federal data.
And this downward trend has occurred as the number of registered large trucks and buses rose dramatically, essentially doubling from 5.8 million in 1975 to 11.7 million in 2014.
Hauling 28,000 pounds at 65 mph
On a typical day, Pryor drives his truck from the Dayton Origin Distribution Center in Clayton, where his trailer will be filled with parts for the DMAX truck engine plant in Moraine. A day later, Pryor will return to pick up the trailer and take it to a DMAX warehouse in Dayton.
On the way from the distribution center, smaller cars swarm Pryor’s truck. They follow too closely and edge into his lane front of him, without signaling or allowing enough room.
“A lot of them, they’ll cut in front of you, and then they’ll slow down,” Pryor said with a chuckle.
“You’ve just got to take it slow,” said the 14-year Jet Express driver and retired Pittsburgh firefighter. “You’ve got to be calm, cool and collected. That’s part of your job.”
The safety imperative is in the air at Jet Express. A sign greets drivers as they pull into the Jet Express depot off Webster Street.
“Your livelihood depends on your CSA scores,” the sign says. Other signs on company property echo the same message.
More safety regulations needed
Leizerman served as the first chairman of the American Association for Justice’s Trucking Litigation Group.
The cross-section of the semi-truck drivers against whom he brings claims are “some of the worst of the worst,” he said.
Leizerman said highway safety will get safer as truck companies adopt newer technologies, such as the forward collision avoidance mitigation systems. Such systems can automatically apply brakes in situations where drivers fail to do that.
Technology will answer what he sees as some of the chief problems among truckers: fatigue and distraction. He wants exploration of self-driving trucks and dedicated lanes for trucks.
But he sees what he thinks is an easing of regulations. While drivers were expected to stop driving after 10 hours of service, that was raised to 11 hours, he said.
“What I would like to see is some more enforcement,” Leizerman said. He looks forward to a requirement for electronic driver logs as a way to defeat what he calls “double log books” — drivers who keep one log book for motor carrier inspectors and another, authentic log tracking actual miles and hours.
Leizerman is alarmed at how many truckers are getting hit with inspection violations so severe that they’re not allowed to legally drive another inch — “out-of-service” violations, such as brakes that need attention or lights that are out.
“Somewhere around one in five to one in four trucks that are inspected in this country are out of service,” Leizerman said. “That’s amazing when you think about it.”
The national average is 20.3 percent for vehicles that are out of service, meaning that for one in five trucks that are stopped, the vehicle has such severe violations that it’s illegal for them to be on the road, the attorney said.
“There’s no reason for that,” he said.
The larger issue remains: There are in his view too many truck deaths and too many injuries, even if around 60 percent of those fatal crashes are the fault of the smaller car driver, Leizerman said.
“I hope one of these days —maybe 10, 20, 30 years from now — I’m put out of business,” he added. “I say that in all sincerity.”
Inspecting Ohio roadways
An Ohio State Highway Patrol motor carrier enforcement inspector waits for his moment in a Chevrolet SUV parked in a turnaround between the westbound and eastbound lanes of Interstate 70.
“That guy,” the inspector suddenly said, slamming his shifter into drive. “We’re going to stop Mr. ADS here.”
The inspector, John Rammel, quickly pulls left onto the interstate’s westbound passing lane and hammers the accelerator.
He catches up to a tractor-trailer with Illinois plates, hauling an Advanced Drainage Systems (ADS) trailer that has a back door open.
“If he’s in the right lane, and that (door) starts to swing out, as you can see, it wouldn’t be the safest thing,” Rammel said in a relaxed Southern drawl.
Searching out and correcting anything less than the “safest thing” is Rammel’s job and the job of his fellow motor carrier inspectors.
They have their work cut out for them, especially in the Miami Valley, home to the intersection of I-70 and I-75, called by many the “crossroads of America.”
More miles, more crashes
In an era of just-in-time delivery and “warehouses on wheels,” there are more trucks on the road driving more miles.
The Miami Valley is home to a growing number of logistics operations —Caterpillar, Payless Shoes, Procter & Gamble, Dole Foods in Clark County and others, including the recently announced Spectrum Brands center at Dayton International Airport.
Professional truck drivers drove over 279 billion miles in 2014, more than double 25 years ago, according to American Trucking Associations.
Small cars are out in force, as well. According to AAA, American drivers traveled about 2.45 trillion miles in 2015, a 2.4 percent increase from 2014.
Busier roads see more accidents, Feddern said.
“People have jobs, and our stats bear out that the highest crash times are Monday through Friday, 6 a.m. to 6 p.m.,” Feddern said.
State data shows most truck-related crashes occur in the most-populated counties in the state along busy highways.
When cars are at fault
According to a University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute study released in 2013 — a study examining 8,309 fatal car-truck crashes found car drivers were fault in 81 percent of crashes versus 27 percent of truck drivers
Cars were the encroaching vehicle in 89 percent of head-on crashes, 88 percent of opposite-direction sideswipes, 80 percent of rear-end crashes, and 72 percent of same-direction sideswipes – “obvious indicators of fault,” according to an American Trucking Associations summary of the study’s findings.
“Cars have a tendency to follow too close,” Feddern said. “They cut off trucks, especially in rush-hour traffic when traffic is fairly heavy.”
When it comes to safety, drivers of smaller cars have a key role to play, Feddern and others say.
“The thing to impress on people is, don’t tailgate a truck,” Feddern said. “Give them plenty of room when you’re changing lanes. Don’t hang out in those blind spots.”
‘It’s public safety. That’s what his job is’
Rammel is not a trooper, and he can’t cite commercial vehicles for problems similar to the truck on I-70 with the back door ajar.
But he does file a driver/vehicle examination report with the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio. The violation on the Aug. 19 report is listed as “failing to secure load.”
There may be consequences for the trucker and his carrier if CSA – compliance, safety and accountability, a federal tracking system — points are assigned to the incident.
Drivers try to keep their CSA scores low. CSA points are part of a safety enforcement regimen of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration. Drivers are evaluated on unsafe driving, compliance with hours-of-service requirements, vehicle maintenance and much more.
“It could affect their employment down the road,” Feddern said of accumulated CSA points.
“When I first started this job, it was nothing to do what we’re going to do today and just pick a truck and find tons of violations,” Rammel said. “And when I say tons of violations, I mean, tires, no brakes, that kind of stuff.
“Now,” he added. “It’s a little bit harder for us to find violations because companies are taking better care of their trucks.”
Put into effect in 2011, the CSA system is responsible for helping persuade drivers and trucking companies to give problems prompt attention, Feddern said.
“They took the minor violations a little more seriously” after CSA was introduced, he said. “A clearance light was out before. (The attitude before CSA was) Eh, we’ll get it when he get it. Now, it’s two (CSA) points. An inoperative tail light is six points.”
‘Trucking is becoming safer’
Sean McNally, spokesman for the Arlington, Va.-based American Trucking Associations, said since the 1980 deregulation of the trucking industry, the number of fatal truck-involved crashes is down 32 percent and the number of fatal crashes per 100 million miles driven has dropped 74 percent.
“I think that’s pretty definitive that the trucking industry is getting safer,” McNally said.
McNally cites several reasons for fewer deaths. He said the industry has done a better job at driver training and improved equipment with about $9.5 billion invested annually in new equipment, driver training, maintenance and repair and other safety measures.
Brad Bradley, director of safety for Home Run Trucking Inc., of Xenia, said safety is an ongoing focus. It’s involves regular training, including mandatory training, videos, testing — “You have to get 100 percent to pass,” he said of testing — inspections of vehicles by independent inspectors and more.
CSA scores are taken seriously, he said. Drivers are expected to check for items as minute as a license plate light. Something as small as that will give inspectors a reason to pull a driver over, he said.
“There’s not a load out there that’s more important than human life,” Bradley said.
Top 10 counties in Ohio
These counties have the highest car-truck crash rates in the state of Ohio. Click on each color to see the amount of car-truck crashes per year.
McNally acknowledges that federal regulations also played a role in safety. The limit on driver hours of service rule “obviously has had an impact.”
Since 2004, when the current hours-of-service regimen went into effect, truck-related fatalities fell 25 percent.
Another federal rule is on the horizon: The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has proposed requiring speed limiters on all newly manufactured heavy-duty trucks.
Steve Owings, co-founder of Road Safe America, a truck safety advocacy organization, welcomes the proposal as a good first step, but calls it “outlandish” that the rule would apply only to new trucks.
“This is like saying seatbelts should be worn on future cars, even though cars have had seatbelts for decades,” said Owings, an Atlanta-area resident. “These heavy trucks have had speed-governing capability for decades. There’s no reason why this rule shouldn’t require the trucks that have the capability to use it.”
Sandy Rosenfeld, manager of safety operations for transportation data company Fleet Advantage, said the newly proposed rule — published Sept. 7 and open to public comment for 60 days — will lead to a drop in fatalities and less severe accidents.
John Sternal, a spokesman for Fleet Advantage, says data itself plays as important a role as individual examples of safety technology.
“The fact that we can now analyze all these components of data to either improve the driving behavior or the vehicle’s performance is really the ‘Aha’ moment here,” Sternal said.
Fleet Advantage has recommended that its trucking clients have speed limiters have limit set no higher than 68 mph, Rosenfeld said.
“With the new technology out there, it’s literally allowing them (drivers) to be safer and encouraging them to be safer,” she said.
“We want every driver comes home at night,” she added. “That’s very important.”
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