Editorials

Truck crash reveals need for reforms

Seven vehicles and 18 people were involved in the crash that killed six in Chattanooga on June 25, 2015. The driver of the semitractor-trailer that plowed into a highway work-zone was using methamphetamine and had a history of crashes.
Seven vehicles and 18 people were involved in the crash that killed six in Chattanooga on June 25, 2015. The driver of the semitractor-trailer that plowed into a highway work-zone was using methamphetamine and had a history of crashes.

The Kentucky truck driver, who substituted methamphetamine for sleep before speeding through a construction zone on Interstate 75 in Chattanooga and killing six people last year, had a record that should have raised red flags: Four crashes in the previous three years, two of them in commercial vehicles.

Kentucky is one of only two states that does not include this critical information in three-year driver license records, which the National Transportation Safety Board said limited the trucking company’s ability to run a background check and assess the driver’s potential risk.

However, to have learned of the driver’s crash-prone history, the company, Cool Runnings Express, Inc. of London, would have had only to obtain his consent and pay $5 to the state for a five-year driver license record which does include crashes, according to state officials.

Why Kentucky’s three-year records exclude this critical information is not clear. In response to the NTSB recommendations, Kentucky Transportation Cabinet officials said they are researching whether there’s any logical rationale. If not the cabinet will move to include crash data on three-year records in the future, as the NTSB recommended.

The driver, Benjamin Brewer, of London, who is being held on $500,000 bond awaiting trial in Chattanooga on six counts of vehicular homicide, entered the work zone at 78 to 82 MPH, according to the NTSB investigation, impeding his ability to avoid a line of traffic. He had not taken rest breaks as required, was likely fatigued and had illegally used methamphetamine. A court-ordered drug test found Brewer was using meth less than three months before the crash. Pre-employment hair drug tests by the trucking company would likely have identified his methamphetamine use, the NTSB concluded. Brewer was arrested in Lexington last August after being indicted in Tennessee and was charged here with trafficking in a controlled substance and kicking a police cruiser.

While we all may hope this case is extreme, trucks are overrepresented in fatal work-zone crashes, reports the NTSB. Large trucks account for 11.4 percent of all fatal crashes but are involved in 30.1 percent of fatal work-zone crashes. The safety agency recommended that the Federal Highway Administration better advise traffic engineers how to use traffic control strategies and devices to prevent heavy-vehicle crashes in work zones.

The NTSB also called for federal regulations requiring trucking companies to consider a driver’s crash record and past violations and to give “great weight” to violations such as reckless driving and driving while intoxicated.

Putting someone behind the wheel of an 80,000-pound vehicle is a serious responsibility. The trucking industry and the government agencies that are responsible for highway safety should implement the NTSB recommendations.

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