Sleep-Related Crash Prompts Fed Call for Research

By: AP
By: AP

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 exhausted truckers, a federal board recommended.

While drivers are ultimately responsible for getting enough rest, trucking companies and the government should also make the nation's roads safer by studying fledgling technology that would keep drivers alert, the National Transportation Safety Board said Tuesday.

The board hearing, held in Washington, D.C., and streamed live on the Internet, was held in response to an early-morning crash in western Wisconsin three years ago in which a bus carrying a high school band slammed into an overturned semitrailer, killing five people.

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

Some technology still in the early stages may eventually prevent such fatigue-induced crashes, NTSB investigator Jana Price told the board.

For example, a dashboard-mounted camera 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.

Tiredness is a factor in about one in eight large-truck crashes, Price said.

The Wisconsin crash occurred around 2 a.m. on Oct. 16, 2005, on Interstate 94 near Osseo. The NTSB found that the brakes on the bus had not been properly maintained, but 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 among the dead.

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

Kozlowski's lawyer, Daniel A. Haws, said his client was simply driving too fast when he tried to pull over to relieve himself. The defense blamed the crash on Rasmus, claiming he was overtired and didn't see the overturned truck because of vision problems.

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

Haws said the NTSB's arguments had been dismissed by the jury in the criminal trial.

"The evidence they use to say he fell asleep, the jury heard the exact same thing and said they didn't believe it," he said.

Kozlowski was on a 430-mile trip to haul groceries for Whole Foods Market Group. The crash occurred after he traveled about 320 miles from Munster, Ind., to St. Paul, Minn.

Records show that Whole Foods gave Kozlowski sufficient time to rest between assignments, but the NTSB said Kozlowski had not filled in his log book as required for five days before the crash.

NTSB board member Debbie Hersman proposed that Whole Foods Market Group be asked to implement a comprehensive fatigue-education program for its drivers. The board approved the proposal.

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

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

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

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

Even low-tech measures are effective. Price said studies found that rumble strips - textured strips of pavement that produce vibrations when a driver passes over them - reduced drift-off crashes by up to 60 percent.

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On the Net:

National Transportation Safety Board: http://www.ntsb.gov

National Highway Traffic Safety Administration: http://www.nhtsa.dot.gov

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