- The Washington Times - Friday, May 18, 2001

A new federal safety agency recommendation would require collision-avoidance technology on commercial trucks, which are involved in 40 percent of fatal rear-end collisions in the United States.

The most likely systems that the National Transportation Safety Board proposal would require radar to sense when trucks are approaching other vehicles too closely and emit visual or audible warnings to the truck drivers.

"Accident statistics and accident investigation findings indicate that accident consequences are more severe when commercial vehicles are involved in rear-end collisions and that the public can benefit from technology designed to help prevent these collisions," the NTSB said in its report issued earlier this month.

The threat of heavy truck collisions is especially great in the Washington area, said David Longo, spokesman for the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration.

"Large urban areas have most of the truck traffic," Mr. Longo said.

The Capital Beltway, which acts as the conduit for much of the area's truck traffic, creates one of the biggest risks of car-truck collisions, he said.

In Maryland, 21,763 automobile accidents involved rear-end collisions in 1999, the most recent year the State Highway Administration reports records. Of those, 1,958 involved heavy trucks and 10 of them resulted in fatalities. A total of 598 persons died on Maryland's roads in 1999.

Although rear-end collisions are common, they most often are deadly when they involve big trucks. The trucks need 20 percent more distance to stop because their weight and bulk give them so much momentum.

In Virginia, 12.6 percent of fatal crashes involved heavy trucks, killing 112 persons in 1999, the last year for which the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles has records.

Valerie Edgar, spokeswoman for the Maryland State Highway Administration, said automated collision-avoidance systems might be helpful, but they will never substitute for alert drivers.

"That alarm is going to be going off a lot, particularly in the Baltimore area and the Washington area," Mrs. Edgar said. "Passenger cars can cut in front of trucks and trucks need longer to stop."

State Highway Administration statistics show most collisions between big trucks and cars are the fault of car drivers.

"Every safety measure is a plus," Mrs. Edgar said. "But there's still going to be a need to communicate to passenger [car] drivers how to drive near trucks. You want to try to give them a lot of room."

Roadwork zones create one of the biggest risks, the NTSB said. Vehicles that back up traffic as they move slowly around work zones are like an invitation to a rear-end collision.

"The number of accidents that continue to occur at construction-work zones suggests that efforts to inform drivers of congestion at these work-zone sites have not been adequate," the NTSB said.

The NTSB recommendation was based in part on a DaimlerChrysler study that found 60 percent of rear-end collisions could be avoided if car drivers had an extra half-second warning.

Another option that could satisfy the NTSB recommendation would be a cruise-control adaptation that maintains a truck's speed until radar senses something in its path, at which point it automatically would apply the brakes.

NTSB recommendations alone do not require truckers to install the devices. Instead, the Transportation Department must first investigate alternatives and issue a rule. Only after the trucking industry gets a chance to comment on any new rules could they become requirements.

The Transportation Department still is studying options. They include the collision-warning system using audible or visual alarms, adaptive cruise control and variable message signs. The signs would be set up alongside roadways and be linked to video-monitoring systems. When a hazard is observed by personnel at a traffic management center, they could change the signs to notify drivers of upcoming hazards, such as traffic backed up around work zones.

The NTSB criticized the Transportation Department in its report, issued May 1, for dragging its feet. Six years ago, the NTSB made similar recommendations but then temporarily closed the file on collision-avoidance systems in 1999 because of "unacceptable action" by the Transportation Department. In other words, the Transportation Department did not act on the recommendations.

In fact, the NTSB said this month, private industry might be leading the way. "Industry analysts predict the market for [collision-avoidance systems] will grow from $11 million in 1998 to $2.4 billion in 2010," the NTSB report said.

All major truck manufacturers now offer the systems as options. Lexus and Mercedes-Benz plan to begin offering them on their 2001 model cars.

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