It happened again, this time on a road near Palm Springs, Calif., when a tour bus slammed into the rear of a tractor-trailer not long before sunrise.
Killed were the driver and 12 of his passengers, all returning from a trip to a casino in the California desert.
Exactly what might have caused the October collision was under investigation, with plenty of questions for the authorities to try to answer – including why there was no hint the driver hit the brakes.
“There were no skid marks from the bus at the time of the collision,” California Highway Patrol Border Division Chief Jim Abele told reporters. “The only skid marks were directly related to the big rig as it got pushed forward.”
That fact, sadly, suggests the driver might have fallen asleep at the wheel.
Fatigue-related collisions are a big problem on U.S. roads. The American Automobile Association estimates that one out of every six deadly traffic accidents is related to drowsy driving. The National Transportation Safety Board believes drivers who fall asleep at the wheel probably cause more than half of the crashes leading to a truck driver’s death. For each truck driver fatality, another three to four people are killed.
All of this mayhem drives up insurance premiums for trucking companies. It also has caused some insurance carriers to withdraw from issuing coverage.
That’s the bad news. The good news is that it also is spurring the development of monitoring systems that determine whether a driver is too tired or distracted to drive safely.
Adoption of this technology is expected to help lower rates, in much the same way that telematics, the installation of GPS fleet tracking systems and even digital maintenance logs have all done.
Among others, Delphi, Affectiva Inc., Eyeris Technologies and Harman International Industries Inc. are all working on “driver state sensing systems.”
These systems include cameras and software that tracks movements of a driver’s eyes and head. When the program detects that the driver’s gaze has moved away from the road for too long or the eyelids look droopy, it alerts the driver by making a noise and vibrating the seat belt.
The software developed by Eyeris also recognizes signs of road rage, which can indicate that a driver isn’t paying attention.
Wearable technology is also showing signs of promise. A number of trucking suppliers are developing and marketing headsets and even articles of clothing – including shirts and baseball caps – outfitted with sensors that can detect fatigue.
Helping moving matters forward, the highway traffic safety administration has awarded a grant to the University of Iowa to develop new methods of detecting drowsiness and other impairments to safe driving.
Regulators are responding, too, at the state and federal level.
New Jersey, for example, passed what is known as “Maggie’s Law” several years ago that allows prosecutors to file vehicular manslaughter charges against drivers who knowingly operate a vehicle while drowsy.
The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration is developing rules that would require mandatory screening of sleep apnea in truck drivers. The disorder, common in those who are obese, can result in daytime drowsiness and cause people to fall asleep without warning.
While the industry awaits those rules, experts advise trucking companies to begin testing their oversized drivers for sleep apnea for safety and legal compliance purposes.
A federal appeals court, in a first-of-its-kind ruling, recently held that a North Dakota long-haul truck driver’s rights weren’t violated when he was benched for refusing to be tested for sleep apnea.
Employing experienced drivers, hiring drivers with clean records and vehicle upkeep – all of these help keep insurance premiums under control. Adoption of the latest driver fatigue sensing technology promises to help, too, not to mention keeping our roads safer and claims down.
Andrew Mahoney is a CCIG insurance advisor. Reach him at AndrewM@thinkccig.com or 720-330-7925.