- Associated Press - Tuesday, May 10, 2011

WASHINGTON (AP) — On a clear June afternoon, a tractor-trailer truck crested a small rise on a stretch of interstate highway in Oklahoma. Plainly visible in the distance were more than a dozen cars and trucks that had stopped while a fender-bender was being cleared.

Instead of slowing, the 40,000-pound truck barreled ahead at nearly 70 mph, plowing into the traffic. It rode over three cars, dragging them under its wheels, and smashed others before finally halting. Ten people were killed.

Investigators said later the 76-year-old truck driver had slept only about five hours the previous night. He’d been on the road almost 10 hours.

The National Transportation Safety Board began a two-day forum Tuesday to hear from federal regulators, safety experts, and the truck and bus industries about what is being done to prevent deadly accidents like 2009 crash near Miami, Okla., and why past safety recommendations — some of them decades old — haven’t been enacted.

There has been a lot of progress — truck fatalities have come down — but there is still much work that needs to be done, NTSB member Robert Sumwalt said.

Fatalities in accidents involving big trucks have dropped significantly, from over 5,200 deaths in 2005 to about 3,200 deaths in 2009, according to the latest figures from the Transportation Department. But so have other types of highway fatalities, a trend many safety experts attribute to a decline in driving as a result of a weak economy. The concern is that fatalities may increase as the economy revives.

Big tour buses average about 20 deaths a year to passengers out of more than 700 million passenger trips a year in the U.S. — nearly the same as airline passenger trips. Between 2000 and 2009, tour buses were involved in 338 fatal crashes.

“We must remind ourselves that each data point in these statistics represents a family member that will never come home to loved ones,” Sumwalt said.

The Obama administration has proposed several steps to toughen bus and truck regulation. One proposal would require equipping trucks and buses with devices that record how many hours drivers are behind the wheel. Fatigue is a factor in about 40 percent of all truck crashes.

The administration also wants to reduce the daily limit on hours drivers may spend behind the wheel from 11 hours to 10 hours. The proposal also would require mandatory rest breaks, limit the overall work day to 14 hours and require drivers be given more time off to rest when they’ve reached their weekly driving limit of 60 hours.

“From an economic standpoint, it would do a great deal of harm to this industry and wouldn’t improve safety,” said Dave Osiecki, senior vice president at the American Trucking Associations.

Safety advocates say the administration is taking too long to make changes. They worry that industry opposition will prevent final action.

The two sides also are sparring over whether Congress should give states authority to raise weight limits on trucks on interstate highways to nearly 100,000 pounds and extend truck lengths. The trucking industry, as well as shippers, see cost savings if they can ship more products using fewer trucks and drivers. But bigger trucks are harder to stop quickly.

“Even if you don’t necessarily have more crashes, when there is a crash, there is more damage,” said Henry Jasny, general counsel for Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety.

There has been more attention on bus safety following a March 12 accident in which a speeding bus returning to New York City’s Chinatown toppled off an elevated highway and hit a utility pole, peeling off the roof. Fifteen passengers were killed and 18 injured.

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