Integrated Safety System Technology is Here
Heavy-duty technology advancements are improving driver and highway safety.
In just over a decade following the 1956 Federal Aid Highway Act, the brand-new interstate highways laced up the nation coast to coast and border to border. The result was a boom for commercial trucking, which became -- and remains -- the number one way to connect large cities with small ones and the goods with the people. To accomplish this, Class 8 (tractor-trailer) truck drivers alone travel more than 175 billion miles a year, with many of them averaging 100,000 miles or more of driving each year.
With all of those miles, truck manufacturers, fleet operators, and drivers have a great responsibility to keep the roads we share safe for all drivers and the communities that surround them. That's why the industry is constantly innovating with safety technology, such as stopping systems, stability control, collision mitigation, lane departure warnings, and other driver-assist functions. Those of us in the transportation industry understand that innovation is more than a business plan; it's a way to save lives and improve efficiency.
Regulatory agencies obviously stay very close to technology advancements that make our roads safer. Just as they have done with the passenger car industry, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration continues to update federal safety standards for commercial vehicles to ensure that safety remains a priority. During the past five years, NHTSA has spent considerable time studying tractor-trailer safety standards and has recommended changes to strengthen regulations, covering everything from braking standards to electronic stability control and collision safety systems. To meet the increasing demand for safety while also balancing investment requirements, manufacturers have been working on the development and delivery of integrated, or combined, active braking system technologies that improve vehicle stability in certain conditions and reduce the likelihood of a multitude of crash types. The result is that increasingly sophisticated and effective technology has become more widely available and accepted by the fleet community.
Putting the Brakes on Collisions
In 2011, more than 3,700 fatalities resulted from large-truck crashes in the United States. Oftentimes, improper decisions by passenger car drivers are responsible for these collisions. When a 2,000- to 4,000-pound passenger vehicle darts in front of an 80,000-pound tractor-trailer rig, prompt assessment, reaction, and effective braking systems are critical to prevent a crash.
New braking standards enacted by NHTSA in 2009 mandate a loaded truck-tractor traveling at 60 mph must come to a complete stop within 250 feet, rather than the old standard of 355 feet. This is a 30 percent reduction in truck-tractor stopping distance. The standards are being phased in during a four-year period, with the most common three-axle truck-tractors meeting the new stopping distance in August 2011 and two-axle and severe duty truck-tractors meeting the new rule by August 2013. NHTSA estimates the braking requirement will save 227 lives, prevent 300 serious injuries, and reduce property damage costs by more than $169 million annually.
Assisting Drivers with Collision Safety Systems
Another big area of safety improvement has been in collision safety systems, which include forward collision warning, lane change assistance, and lane departure warning. These systems assist drivers by quickly recognizing and responding to potentially dangerous driving situations, such as sideswipes, rear-end collisions, or following too closely. Reactions range from audible and visual warnings to alert distracted or drowsy drivers to automatic braking to eliminate or mitigate an impending crash. NHTSA is expected to announce a decision on whether to mandate collision safety systems for commercial vehicles by late 2013.
While radar-based collision mitigation technology was first introduced five years ago, continuous innovation has brought major advancements in improved object tracking performance and stationary object warning capabilities. By using advanced radar sensors with improved object resolution and tracking, the systems are designed to minimize false warnings. One of the highlights of this cutting-edge technology includes the ability to perform evasive maneuver checks, giving the system visibility into adjacent lanes. If the system recognizes the potential for a rear-end collision and detects an object in an adjacent lane, it "understands" the driver cannot perform an evasive maneuver, and the system will apply the service brakes sooner. The earlier the system brakes, the higher the likelihood of avoiding a crash or reducing the energy of the crash.
The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Association has named "failure to keep in proper lane," which is often caused by driver distraction or fatigue, as the third-most-cited reason for a fatal truck accident, Lane departure warning systems use a forward-looking, vision-based camera designed to monitor the road ahead and the vehicle's position in the lane, detecting and notifying the driver of lane drifts, weaving, or lane changes that occur without a turn signal.
Reducing Rollovers and Loss-of-Control Events
Another area receiving a great deal of attention is the effort to reduce rollovers and loss of control incidents for Class 8 vehicles. Last May, NHTSA proposed a new standard to require electronic stability control (ESC) systems on truck-tractors and large buses for the first time ever. Light vehicles preceded heavy-duty vehicles with a 2007 federal mandate that required automakers to install ESC systems on all passenger cars, SUVs, vans, and pickup trucks manufactured on or after Sept. 1, 2011.
NHTSA estimates that during a three-year period, passenger-car ESC saved more than 2,200 lives. The agency believes it could be equally effective in the commercial vehicle segment.
Applying the ESC technology to the heavy-duty fleet could prevent up to 56 percent of rollover crashes each year and another 14 percent of loss-of-control crashes in these vehicles. NHTSA estimates that requiring ESC on the nation’s truck-tractors and large buses would prevent up to 2,329 crashes, eliminate an estimated 649 to 858 injuries, and prevent between 49 and 60 fatalities a year. The agency is reviewing the commentary that the industry has submitted and expects to issue a final rule by the end of 2013; the regulations likely will be phased in starting in 2015.
Truck manufacturers, fleets, and equipment manufacturers have been proactively addressing safety improvements, as well. Technology to reduce rollovers for trailers and tractor-trailers has been around for more than 10 years with very impressive results. Stability control systems are integrated right into brake systems and incorporate additional sensors and sophisticated software capable of identifying when a truck is in an imminent rollover or a loss-of-control situation. Then, the technology automatically takes the appropriate action, which could include reducing engine torque, applying the engine brake, and applying all or individual service brakes.
Stability control was first widely adopted among fire truck and emergency fleets and has had tremendous success in reducing rollover and loss-of-control incidents in highly demanding driving environments. Even without a new federal regulation, electronic stability control systems are becoming more common on commercial vehicles: In 2012, about 50 percent of new truck-tractors and 80 percent of new motor coaches were equipped with such systems. However, the mandates will certainly speed large-scale adoption.
A Commitment to Safety
For truck drivers, the interstate is their workplace and their community. If you drive the 1,000-mile trip along I-40 from Memphis to Little Rock to Oklahoma City to Amarillo and over to little San Jon, New Mexico (which a truck driver would do in two days, 500 miles a day), you will see how trucks provide the lifeblood to all communities.
From rural areas -- where a fifth of this nation’s population still works and lives -- to large cities, keeping this vital economy connected and moving safely is a commitment all of us in the trucking industry make every day. And it's a commitment being fulfilled as industry and government work together to implement integrated safety system technology.
This article originally appeared in the March 2013 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.