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Fatal Truck Accident Results in New Federal Recommendation to Improve Truck Driver Screening

On June 24, 2011, a commercial truck pulling two empty trailers collided with an Amtrak passenger train at a Nevada railroad crossing. The catastrophic accident killed four passengers aboard the train, the train’s conductor, and the truck driver. A federal investigation into the accident reveals this tragedy was the result of two common causes for fatal trucking accidents.

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), the federal agency responsible for reviewing accidents involving railroads, airplanes and other modes of transportation, recently completed its investigation of the Nevada trucking accident. Using physical evidence found at the scene as well as video recording from the train, the agency was able to reconstruct the accident. The NTSB determined that the commercial truck hit the train going about 30 mph.

Inadequate Brakes One Cause for Fatal Truck Accident

More importantly, investigators found that nine out of the truck’s 16 brakes were not working or not adjusted correctly. And it was determined that the anti-lock brake systems of the two trailers weren’t maintained correctly. For example, wires to malfunction indicator lights had been disconnected. Accident reconstruction results showed that if the truck’s brakes were working as they should, the vehicle would have stopped well short of the crossing.

So, the investigation points to one cause: the truck was improperly maintained.

However, further investigation revealed an additional contributing factor. The driver had a checkered employment history, which should have created red-flag warnings for his latest employer. Specifically, the driver had approximately 30 jobs in the 10 years prior to this fatal accident, had at least three prior accidents, and had his driver’s license suspended at least four times. (In addition, the driver reportedly was using a cell phone just prior to the fatal crash.)

New Ways to Improve Truck Driver Background Checks

Given this, the NTSB has issued three new recommendations earlier this month to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) designed to improve trucking companies’ screening of new drivers and reduce the number of fatal truck crashes:

  • Create a database of commercial driving employment history for all commercial drivers
  • Require motor carriers to do background checks into all potential new drivers that go back 10 years using the new employment history database
  • Further still, require trucking companies to access a prospective new driver’s records from the existing Commercial Driver’s License System and National Driver Register (non-commercial driving) to provide a more comprehensive view of the applicants overall driving history

The NTSB has requested the FMCSA consider the recommendations and make a decision within three months on if or how it intends to implement them.

As this tragedy indicates, the causes and responsible entities for commercial truck crashes are often multiple and intertwined.