Auto-braking, collision detection systems should be standard in tractor-trailers, IIHS said

Investigators

RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) – Fatal truck accidents are on the rise, despite technology existing that could significantly cut down on accidents in which large trucks rear-end passenger vehicles. Those systems, however, aren’t standard equipment on semi-trailer trucks.

Automatic emergency braking is an option available in many cars now. It will become standard on most new cars in September 2022, but makers of big rigs aren’t required to put any kind of similar system in their trucks.

A fully-loaded semi can weigh 80,000 pounds or more. When it’s cruising at highway speeds, it’s not going to stop on a dime. If the driver isn’t paying attention or is incapacitated, the results can be disastrous. That’s what happened in March 2004 when 23-year-old David Mathis and his wife were killed as they returned home from their honeymoon.

The couple died when the driver of a tractor trailer fell asleep at the wheel on Interstate 95 in Florida. They were stuck in a traffic jam caused by an accident just down the highway.

“He ran right into them,” said Jane Mathis. “The coroner said he thought the crash killed them, but the car spun around and went under the side of the truck. That’s when the gas tank exploded.”

Mathis is now a vice president of the Truck Safety Coalition. She joined that group a few years after her son and daughter-in-law were killed to try to improve truck safety. Now there are systems that use radar to sense an obstacle ahead of a truck and use automatic braking systems to stop it in time.

“It’s a game changer,” Mathis said. “That tech has been around for quite some time.”

A new study by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety said forward collision warning systems and emergency braking could significantly reduce those kinds of crashes.

“In our study, both systems reduced about 40% of the collisions where a truck is likely to run into the rear of another vehicle,” said IIHS president David Harkey. 

IIHS Director of Statistical Services Eric Teoh examined data on crashes per vehicle mile traveled from 62 carriers operating tractor-trailers and other trucks weighing at least 33,000 pounds. He found that trucks equipped with forward collision warning had 22% fewer crashes and trucks with AEB had 12% fewer crashes than those without either technology.

Forward collision warning and AEB reduced rear-end crashes — the specific type of collision they’re designed to prevent — by 44% and 41%, respectively.

Although some major fleets operating big rigs on the roads have voluntarily added those systems, the majority have not.

“What we think is needed is a mandate or regulation from DOT requiring trucks be provided with these systems,” Harkey said.

Mathis said she’d be in favor of such an order.

“Anything less than that won’t work. It can’t be voluntary,” she said.

It’s estimated adding a system like this would add $2,500 to a new truck’s $150,000 price tag, according to calculations reported by the IIHS. That said, those safety systems aren’t exclusive to new trucks. Older rigs can be retrofitted with forward collision warning systems for about $1,000, the IIHS said.

“Getting this technology into trucks now is something that can be done with these retrofits,” Harkey said.

European countries are already ahead of the United States in this area. In 2013, the European Union required both automatic braking and collision detection systems on all trucks.

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