In a Digital Era where technology provides instant access to information, there is shockingly very little being done in Pennsylvania — and across the country — to take dangerous commercial truck drivers off the road immediately after they lose their license or are otherwise disqualified from driving.
This failure to tap into technological capabilities is costing innocent lives and putting countless unsuspecting motorists at risk every day.
Most recently, we saw the worst case scenario play out on Oct. 12, 2018, on I-83 in Lower Paxton Township, Pennsylvania, when Jack Edward Satterfield III, 29, of McComb, Mississippi, plowed his tractor-trailed into multiple vehicles, killing a young father, his 16-month-old daughter, and a college student in a separate vehicle. Personal Injury Attorneys Mark W. Tanner and James P. Faunes represent the widow and the Estates of her husband and daughter.
Satterfield, who was driving after having consumed five double-shot margaritas and two or three beers, never should have been handed the keys to a tractor-trailer in the first place. His commercial driver’s license had been suspended months prior to the accident, and there was an outstanding warrant for him relating to a moving violation.
Approximately 6.1 million commercial motor vehicle drivers operate in the U.S., according to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA). Of that number, 3.2 million operate interstate and hold commercial drivers’ licenses (CDLs), and 1 million operate intrastate and hold CDLs.
The driver’s license histories of these 4.2 million CDL drivers are kept as data by individual states, with only a handful of states embracing technology that alerts trucking companies when an adverse action is taken on a trucker’s license. These electronic systems, called Employer Notification Systems (ENS), would surely save lives. Yet, Pennsylvania, along with 34 other states, does not participate in an ENS program.
Federal law requires that trucking companies check the license status of their drivers upon hiring and once a year thereafter. That means that up to 364 days can elapse between the date a trucker loses his/her license and the date their employer is notified. This window during which a trucker may be operating illegally poses significant risks to innocent motorists because suspended drivers, across all vehicle types, have a crash rate that is 14 times higher than other drivers, according to a Report to Congress by FMCSA in 2015.
Commercial drivers are required by federal law to report to their employer if their CDL license is suspended, revoked, canceled, or if they are disqualified from driving within one business day following notice. Commercial vehicle operators also must notify their employer within 30 days of a conviction for any traffic violation (except parking), regardless of the nature of the violation or the type of vehicle that was driven at the time.
But researchers estimate that only 50 to 80 percent of commercial drivers self-report, according to the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators.
This failure to self-report — even if the failure pertains to moving offenses that do not trigger suspension, revocation or cancelation of a CDL license — deprives trucking companies of data necessary to predict future truck crash involvement of their drivers.
Indeed, research conducted by the American Transportation Safety Institute using data from 587,772 U.S. truck drivers found that a “failure to use/improper signal” conviction was the leading conviction associated with an increased likelihood of a future crash, and that drivers with this conviction were 96% more likely to be involved in a future crash.
Employer Notification Systems are state-operated, computerized systems that automatically update requestors (push-system) on license status, crashes and convictions or that allow requesters to regularly query the record (pull-system) for this information. The real-time, automatic notification can close the 364-day gap during which dangerous drivers may go undetected by their employers.
ENS enables trucking companies to take immediate action regarding dangerous drivers who might otherwise slip through the cracks. Such action could involve additional training or be as severe as terminating employment.
The American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators reported in 2016 that 16 states have ENS in place. They are:
There is no national database of drivers’ histories, which means that trucking companies must check the records of individual states. In Pennsylvania, driver’s license histories are closed records, and a trucking company must have a signed consent form from its trucker to gain access.
Some trucking companies hire monitoring services with the capability to check license status more frequently than the annual check required by federal law.
According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), 3,986 people died in large truck crashes in 2016. Some 66 percent were occupants of cars and other passenger vehicles, and 16 percent were pedestrians, bicyclists or motorcyclists.
IIHS identifies the main problem as being the vulnerability of people traveling in smaller cars. According to IIHS, trucks often weigh 20-30 times as much as passenger cars, and they are taller with greater ground clearance. This can result in dire consequences when smaller vehicles underride trucks in crashes.
Loaded tractor-trailers also require 20-40 percent more roadway than cars to come to a stop. Wet and slippery conditions and poorly maintained brakes can increase the amount of roadway needed to stop safely.
Truck driver fatigue also poses a crash risk, with surveys showing that many long-distance drivers violate federal regulations limiting their driving time to 11 hours a stretch.
In Pennsylvania, there were 6,807 total crashes involving heavy trucks in 2017, with 145 crashes involving fatalities, according to the state’s Department of Transportation. By road type, 1,915 crashes occurred on the interstate, 3,768 occurred on state-maintained roads that are not designated as interstates, 474 occurred on the Turnpike, and 650 occurred on local roads.
“We need our state legislature and Congress to work together to mandate greater protections for our motorists. Thousands of crashes resulting in this enormous loss of life, every year, require greater scrutiny of the practices that place unsafe drivers behind the wheel of these multi-ton vehicles, and participation in an ENS program represents a fundamental first step in that direction,” says Personal Injury Lawyer Mark W. Tanner. “I have met with the families who have lost loved ones in these tragedies, and the notion that a driver should never have been behind the wheel in the first place compounds their suffering and demands action.”
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