Archive for the ‘Transportation’ Category

Low clearance: truckers, this one is for you

Wednesday, January 19th, 2011

A website called 11foot8 videos chronicles “the good, the bad and the ugly” of low clearance truck accidents at a single Durham NC trestle bridge. While one might think this is the purview of inexperienced drivers and rental trucks, the videos don’t lie: professionals have had their share of accidents, too.
When professionals make a mistake, the results can turn deadly. In September, four people were killed when a bus crashed into a railroad bridge in Syracuse after deviating from the normal route. And even non-fatal incidents wreak havoc in terms of injuries, property losses, hazards to pedestrians and other drivers, and costly traffic tie ups. Here are photos of four serious nonfatal truck and bridge collisions
Prevention tips
Prevention might seem obvious to some, but approximately 5,000 bridge-truck collisions per year say otherwise. Here are some pointers we gleaned from the pros:

  • Plan route in advance and stay on route
  • Check atlas and or gps systems in advance
  • Keep atlases and gps systems up to date
  • Check with any state or major city DOTs (examples: NYC; TX); they often provide good information about the local area
  • Be religious about watching for and heeding signage
  • If on an unfamiliar route, check with other drivers about hazards
  • Talk to shippers and receivers on your route about nearby low clearance
  • When in doubt, don’t risk it

Additional Resources
America’s Independent Truckers Association (AITA) offers an online database of low clearance bridges with heights broken down by state.
For situations that might require escorts, AITA maintains a truck escort referral listing
This trucker forum discusses low clearance solutions.

Commercial drivers & medical certification (and other alarming commercial transportation safety matters)

Thursday, October 7th, 2010

On Mother’s Day in 1999, Custom Bus Charters’ bus driver Frank Bedell veered off a highway near New Orleans, killing 22 passengers and injuring 20 others. Just 10 hours before this trip, Bedell was treated at a local hospital for “nausea and weakness.” He had been treated at least 20 times in the 21 months prior to the accident, and 10 of those times involved hospitalization for “life-threatening” heart and kidney disease. You can read more about this horrific crash, which remains one of the nation’s deadliest bus crashes, at Loopholes let sick man drive, safety board says. Also of interest: Breaking the law went with the job.
This accident brought the issue of the medical competence of commercial drivers to the public attention in a dramatic way. In its subsequent report of the accident after the investigation, The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) determined that “…the probable cause of this accident was the driver’s incapacitation due to his severe medical conditions and the failure of the medical certification process to detect and remove the driver from service. Other factors that may have had a role in the accident were the driver’s fatigue and the driver’s use of marijuana and a sedating antihistamine.
The incident and investigation prompted NTSB to issue Safety Recommendations revolving around medical certification of commercial drivers.
How are we doing today?
Nearly a decade later, how are these safety measures designed to protect the public from medically unsafe commercial drivers working out? Not too well, according to a recent investigative report by News21, which was published by MSNBC in the article Truckers fit to drive — if a chiropractor says so: “From 2002, when the recommendations were made, through 2008, the last year for which data is available, there were at least 826 fatal crashes involving medically unqualified or fatigued drivers, according to a News21 analysis of the FMCSA Crash Statistics database.”
The article paints a scary portrait of a driver medical certification program that is pretty broken. Truck drivers can pop into roadside clinics to pick up certifications issued after a cursory examination by almost any health professional. And that’s a good scenario – drivers can also download online certificates and fill them out themselves or ignore the requirement entirely. Forgeries are a common occurrence. Being caught without a certificate might result in a slap-on-the-wrist fine. While there have been calls for a national registry for medical certification of commercial drivers, the idea has made little progress. It will probably take the next big incident to ignite public outrage to motivate any change.
For a resource on current regulations, see the US Department of Transportation Motor Carrier Safety Administration’s Medical Programs, which includes medical regulations and notices, including drug and alcohol testing.
The News21 story on commercial drivers is the third part in a series of four articles that deal with transportation and public safety. Here are the others:

Part 1:
Driving While Tired: Safety officials are slow to react to operator fatigue:
“NTSB does not track fatigue-related highway accidents on a regular basis. But in 1993, the board commissioned a study expecting to learn about the effects of drugs and alcohol on trucking accidents. Investigators studied all heavy-trucking accidents that year and made an unexpected discovery: Fatigue turned out to be the bigger problem. NTSB Crash investigators said driver fatigue played a key role in a bus accident in Utah in 2008 that killed nine people returning from a ski trip.
The study found 3,311 heavy truck accidents killed 3,783 people that year, and between 30 percent and 40 percent of those accidents were fatigue-related.”
Part 2: Video in the cockpit: Privacy vs. safety
In 200, the NTSB added a recommendation for video recorders to be installed in commercial and charter planes to its “most wanted” list. Pilot unions and other groups have lobbied this safety measure. See this story’s sidebar article: Shhhh! Your pilot is napping
Part 4: Outsourcing safety: Airplane repairs move to unregulated foreign shops
“More maintenance has moved overseas. Airlines are not required to use regulated repair shops. Foreign repair stations can go five years between inspections, and even then are often tipped off that inspectors are coming. Manuals are in English, but not all the workers read English. Drug tests of workers are illegal in some countries.
A News21 analysis of Federal Aviation Administration data showed that about 15,000 accidents or safety incidents in all aviation travel can be attributed at least in part to inferior maintenance or repairs since 1973, when the FAA started keeping such records. In these accidents at least 2,500 people died and 4,200 were injured.”
Most wanted list: transportation safety improvements
The NTSB keeps a most wanted list of transportation safety improvements, in which it makes recommendations for critical safety improvements for various transportation sectors. Recommendations are designed to improve public safety and save lives, but many have been on the list for years. In some cases, individual states may have requirements, but these recommendations are national in scope. While issues on the “most wanted list” are pending, individual employers might use the list as best practice guidance for safety programs to limit exposure both for workers compensation and other liability issues that might arise from commercial transportation accidents.
You can find more reports on transportation and public safety at News21, “a national initiative led by 12 of America’s leading research universities with the support of two major foundations” with a purpose of furthering in-depth and investigative reporting. In 2010, one of the main areas of focus has been Breakdown: Traveling Dangerously in America.

Toyota: Hands Off!

Wednesday, February 3rd, 2010

Toyota, the world’s largest automaker, is in the midst of a public relations nightmare. Over two million vehicles have been recalled for a problem with acceleration: gas pedals are prone to sticking, which leads to unstoppable cars hurtling along at high speeds. For months, Toyota denied that there was a problem. Well, there is no denying it now. U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray Lahood has advised owners of the vehicles not to drive them. [Update: he is backpedaling from his statement.]That’s over two million people who are not supposed to drive for the foreseeable future. With all due respect, Mr. Secretary, in this culture where the automobile is less a luxury than an essential, what are these millions of drivers supposed to do?
For the sake of clarity, here are the specific vehicles with a pedal problem:
2007-10 Camry
2009-10 RAV4
2009-10 Corolla
2009-10 Matrix
2005-10 Avalon
2010 Highlander
2007-10 Tundra
2008-10 Sequoia
2004-09 Prius
2007-10 Tacoma
2009-10 Venza
We frequently blog the compelling issue of personal risk management: the myriad decisions we all make in mitigating risk and prolonging the chances of living to see another day. Well, we have here a crisis of huge proportions that confronts Toyota drivers with some very difficult decisions. In keeping with our usual mandate, we will try to focus primarily, but not exclusively, on the implications for workers comp.
At the head of the line are companies that operate Toyota fleets, or that have employees operating Toyotas leased by the employer. At this moment there are irrevocably immense liabilities in allowing employees to continue to drive the vehicles listed above. Of course, the usual “to and fro” issues prevail in determining whether employees injured in an accident are covered by workers comp. (Astute readers will recall that in California, anyone driving a company car is covered by comp 24/7.) But even where comp should be the “exclusive remedy,” employers are vulnerable to suits alleging “wilful intent” should they insist that Toyota drivers stay behind the wheel. Prudent risk managers will rent alternative vehicles until the Toyotas have been repaired.
For employees driving their own Toyotas, the “to and fro” rule prevails. However, what happens when an employee is “in the course and scope” of employment and gas pedal lock leads to an accident? Will the employer be held liable for the injuries to third parties? Should employers prohibit employees from driving the compromised Toyotas while working? If yes, how are these employees supposed to do their jobs? Who pays for the replacement vehicles?
Secretary Lahood has accelerated the risks associated with the Toyota recall. He has put the nation on notice than any use of the above vehicles entails unreasonable risk.
This all brings to mind a Toyota ad campaign from an earlier decade. The slogan was: “Get your hands on a Toyota. You’ll never let go.” I remember thinking at the time that there was a gruesome ambiguity to the wording. The image of a dead driver behind the wheel of a crushed vehicle rose up in my (admittedly hyper-active) imagination. Well, that slogan has come back to haunt the automotive giant. This is no time to put your hands on the wheel of a Toyota. Until this immanent hazard is addressed, it’s definitely time to let go.
We just noticed that Renaissance Alliance’s Consumer Insurance Blog has a post on what to do if you experience sudden acceleration – it includes a video and some tips from Consumer Reports – whether you own a Toyota or not, it’s a good safety skill to learn

Rhode Island’s Beacon Mutual: Promises, Promises

Tuesday, August 7th, 2007

In response to a workers comp crisis, state legislatures are often tempted to set up their own insurance companies. Unfortunately, the insurer of last resort frequently becomes the one and only insurer: bloated by patronage and the recipient of unfair market advantages, the state fund can become a monstrous leviathan, dwarfing other carriers and all but eliminating competition in the marketplace.
Take Rhode Island. Beacon Mutual dominates the market. It would be nice to report that the dominance is based upon fair pricing and sheer competence, but it isn’t. Studies last year (one by Guiliani Associates) revealed that the fund made political payoffs, undercharged companies with ties to politicians and misspent millions. (See The Insider’s perspective when the scandal first broke here.) Rhode Island might be small, but when it comes to corruption, they think big.
Governor Carcieri did not mince his words:

Specifically, this market conduct examination shows that Beacon Mutual’s former leadership fostered a corporate culture that suffered from weak management and controls; inappropriate producer, agency and vendor relationships; favoritism and bias in pricing; inappropriate and lavish spending; and a total disregard for public oversight and for Beacon’s public mission and purpose. In short, Beacon Mutual’s conduct was completely inappropriate and reprehensibly abusive of the public trust.

Underwriting for Gangsters
In response to these rather embarassing findings, Beacon Mutual has made a a lot of promises. You can find 79 specific recommendations and Beacon Mutual’s response here. Let’s focus for the moment just on the underwriting process: the way an insurer evaluates risk and prices policies. It’s supposed to be objective and fair. It’s supposed to operate the same way for every risk in a given class. Here’s how it operated under Beacon Mutual:
Underwriters priced accounts any way they liked. If you were well connected, you might enjoy a substantial discount over your competitors. Two companies, same work, very different cost of insurance (with no relationship to prior losses).
– Now Beacon Mutual promises to file pricing plans and rigidly apply the same criteria to all risks.
The former head of underwriting had no background in insurance or underwriting. He maintained a “VIP list” of companies that should receive favorable rates, including the companies of board members and those with ties to high-ranking managers and certain Rhode Island politicians. Apparently, the only risk assessment he was concerned with involved not getting caught. (He screwed that one up, too.)
– Now Beacon Mutual has hired a professional underwriter as a Vice President.
The unusual underwriting process at Beacon Mutual involved a committee comprising, among others, of the human resource director and the VP for information Systems. I’m sure that those folks had interesting things to say about risk, but their opinions were on the level of the proverbial “man in the street.”
– Beacon Mutual promises more “transparency and control” in the underwriting process.
There were no written procedures for underwriting. The process was whatever political expediency dictated at the time.
– Beacon Mutual now has an underwriting manual. (Gee, I hope they follow it.)
Documents at Beacon Mutual had no date stamp, so it was pretty easy to retrofit documentation when the need arose.
– Beacon Mutual now has a date stamping machine (and they promise to use it).
Finally, if Beacon Mutual liked an agent, they cut a bigger commission check. Conversely, if an agent dared to write a policy with some other carrier, they would likely see a reduction in their future commissions. Agents had to think long and hard about writing business with an outside carrier.
– Beacon Mutual now promises to eliminate higher commissions for preferred agents.
Open Market in RI?
Until recently, if an outside carrier offered a policy to a RI company, Beacon could arbitrarily lower their rates to keep the business. No one can compete against that kind of advantage.
So is Beacon Mutual really going to play fair? Is this a good time for other carriers to re-enter the RI marketplace? Maybe. Beacon Mutual has made a lot of promises. They have committed to the kind of transparency that governs virtually all other comp carriers. Beacon Mutual has long ruled RI, the way a bully rules a neighborhood. Bullies don’t like to give up control. Only time will tell if Beacon Mutual and the state’s traditionally lax regulators are really serious about leveling the playing field.

New attention on trucker wellness

Monday, July 16th, 2007

Truckers are too fat, they smoke too much, they don’t sleep well and many have such big bellies they can’t even fasten the buckle on their seat belt. That’s according to a recent Associated Press story by Emily Fredrix, who points out that truck drivers account for 15% of the nation’s work-related deaths, and poor health is often a contributing factor:

“As many as half of drivers are regular smokers, compared to about one-fifth of all Americans. Many truckers are obese, and only about one in 10 get regular aerobic exercise … Sleep apnea, which is linked to obesity, is rampant too. An industry study a few years ago found 28 percent of drivers had it; that compares with about 4 percent in the general population who have the disorder.”

The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) is increasingly concerned about the health and wellness of the nation’s trucker drivers – particularly those who drive large trucks. Today, health conditions like severe high blood pressure or severe heart conditions can be a bar to obtaining commercial driving licenses. FMCSA is now considering tightening its rules to encompass other health conditions, such as diabetes and high blood pressure.
It’s no surprise that regulators would be looking at this issue. Both on the job and off, truck-related crashes take a high toll. In 2005, 5,212 people were killed in crashes involving large trucks, more than 12% of all traffic fatalities. Of these, 78 percent were occupants of another vehicle, 15 percent were large truck occupants, and 9 percent were non-occupants. The annual death toll from truck-related crashes is the equivalent of 52 major airline crashes every year, one crash every week resulting in 95 deaths. (Source: Truck Safety Coalition).
A May 2007 circular – The Domain of Truck & Bus Safety Research – cites a 1990 National Transportation Safety Board Study which described crashes fatal to drivers of heavy trucks:

” … 19 of 185 fatally injured truck drivers (10%) in the core sample studied had such severe health problems that NTSB pinpointed health as a major factor in, or the probable cause of, the crashes studied. Seventeen of those 19 crashes (89%) involved a form of cardiac incident at the time of the accident, e.g., sudden incapacitation of the driver due to an acute heart problem. NTSB said that percentage might be a conservative estimate because information in other accident reports indicated possible cardiac problems that were not confirmed because autopsies had not been conducted.”

According to the Large Truck Crash Causation Study 2006 report, which analyzed multi-year data of a large number of crashes involving trucks to determine cause, 88% of the critical reasons for accidents were assigned to drivers as opposed to vehicle failure, environment or other reasons. Critical reasons for driver-related crashes were further analyzed, and 15.6% fell into the category of “non-performance” issues – such as the driver being asleep, disabled by heart attack or seizure, or other disabled by some other physical impairment.
Voluntary wellness initiatives
Many employers are taking health issues seriously. Fredrix’ article explores ways that some employers are implementing a variety of work-based wellness initiatives aimed at improving health, such as paying for screenings for sleep apnea, high blood pressure and cholesterol and offering weight loss and nutrition programs. Such programs can have a very favorable cost-benefit ratio, such as the drop in workers compensation claims and the 75-80% reduction in lost work days experienced by Con-way Freight of Ann Arbor, Mich., after implementing trial wellness programs. Other experts point to a $3.14 return for every $1.00 invested in wellness programs.
Additional Resources
U.S. Department or Transportation – Analysis & Information Online
National Large truck Crash Facts – view national data, or click map for your state’s data
OSHA Trucking Industry Safety and health

Commercial Drivers: Unsafe at Any Speed?

Tuesday, January 2nd, 2007

We begin the new year, alas, with a nightmare: You’re barreling down a three lane highway at 70 mph, when a tractor trailer rig pulls up behind you. All you can see in your rear view mirror is the ominous grill of a Mack truck. What runs through your mind? Do you console yourself with the notion that the driver is at least trained to operate the 10 ton rig? Can you safely assume he knows what he’s doing? Maybe not.
Commercial drivers are supposed to go through an elaborate training and certification process. They are drug tested randomly and after every accident. Prior employers must fully disclose their actual job performance. They must pass bi-annual physicals – and if they fail, there is no protection from the ADA to put them back behind the wheel. That’s reassuring, isn’t it? Well it would be, if the system were being run the way it’s supposed to.
In an alarming article by Stephen Franklin and Darnell Little in the Chicago Tribune, we learn that there are literally thousands of commercial drivers on the nation’s highways who obtained their licenses under suspicious circumstances. In the last five years, the federal government has discovered licensing fraud in 24 states. The payment-for-license schemes usually center on so-called third-party examiners who are hired by states to perform driver testing. In other words, the aggressive driver coming up behind you in a 10 ton rig may have no idea what he’s doing.
There are about about 1.5 million commercial drivers operating in the country. That’s up from just 200,000 in 2002. Commercial driving is one of our fasting growing occupations. Trucking tends to pay well, so it attracts a lot of people who might not otherwise qualify for the jobs. The gap between available jobs and skilled workers gives rise to the entrepeneurial spirit. If you look closely at states with relatively lax enforcement (Illinois under disgraced Governor Ryan, Missouri, Wisconsin), you will find CDL license mills that offer phony certifications (for the right price).
How many commercial drivers are operating with fraudulant licenses? At one point the federal government tallied up 15,000 licenses nationally that it believed were obtained under suspicious circumstances. But it didn’t have any details from the states on nearly 7,000 of those drivers. They have become highway ghosts, beyond detection and potentially lethal. If the government is pretty sure that one percent of the drivers are not qualified. It’s no great extrapolation to assume that as many as three or four percent may be illegitimate: that’s anywhere from 45,000 to 60,000 drivers operating, in the words of one judge,”10 ton torpedoes.” One study of 300 drivers with illegitimate licenses found that 200 of them were certified to haul toxic waste. Does that make you feel any different about the truckers who surround you on your morning commute?
Safe Driving is Essential
One of Lynch Ryan’s fundamental themes is the importance of safe driving. We recommend that employers annually check the licenses and driving records of any and all employees who drive during “the course and scope” of employment, whether or not they operate company vehicles. Your great salesman might be a terrible driver – and because employers are responsible for the actions of their employees, that salesman might become a huge liability. (We blogged one dramatic example here.)
Even if you are confident that your people drive safely, their ultimate well being is dependent upon the actions of other drivers on the road. Given the fraud and abuse in the CDL system, that’s not exactly a reassuring thought.

Ben, why weren’t you wearing a helmet?

Tuesday, June 13th, 2006

Earl Weaver, the eminently quotable Baltimore Oriole Hall of Fame Manager and World Series winner, once said of the young Carl Yastremski, my boyhood idol, “He’s the best player in baseball – from the neck down.”
Weaver’s quote came to mind this morning when I learned that, while riding his Suzuki Hayabusa motorcycle (the fastest “street-legal” bike on the market, according to Susuki), Ben Roethlisberger, of the reigning Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh Steelers, had been seriously injured when he drove into the side of a Chrysler New Yorker that was making a left turn in front of him in downtown Pittsburgh.
Following surgery to repair his injuries, which were mainly to his head and face, the Pro-Bowl quarterback was listed in serious, but stable, condition.
Harken back to Newton’s first law of inertia, the one about a body in motion remaining in motion until something stops it. In this case, although the the fastest street-legal motorcycle on the market stopped nearly instantaneously when it hit the New Yorker, Roethlisberger kept going until he also plowed into the side of the car (somewhere in America someone is going to refer to this as the “mother of all sacks”).
Unlike Sunday afternoons in the fall and against the advice of his coach, Bill Cowher, the quarterback was not wearing a helmet.
I’ve been planning to write about motorcycle helmets for nearly a week ever since learning that the Michigan House of Representatives, by a vote of 66-37, had voted to repeal the state’s 37 year old helmet law. But Big Ben going belly up yesterday has gotten me off the mark.
One could write for hours, days even, about the psychology involved in deciding to leave the helmet behind, but I won’t, because the science and the medicine and the logic here seem so simple. Even most of the people who don’t wear helmets will admit that they save lives, but, as an otherwise intelligent Massachusetts Representative told me a few days ago when we were debating this motorized russian roulette, “Citizens should have the ‘freedom of choice’ to decide for themselves.”
One could also write about the millions of dollars it takes to treat and care for even one victim of a serious head injury, but I won’t do that either, because the numbers have been trumpeted for decades and they don’t seem to resonate with the audience that needs to hear them.
And one could write about the statistically significant increase in motorcycle fatalities in the 20 states that have totally repealed their helmet laws and in the 26 others that only require helmets for young operators. In fact, since 1967, motorcycle deaths and serious injuries have been directly proportional to the on-again, off-again efforts of congress to either reward or penalize states regarding helmet laws. Since late 1995, it’s been off-again, and fatalities have risen 89%. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety has an excellent summary of the history of helmet laws in the US.
In 2004 alone, more than 4,000 people died in motorcycle accidents – an 8% increase over 2003, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. And NHTSA also reports that the per capita rate of motorcycle fatalities was 41% higher in states without helmet laws.
But none of this doom and gloom stuff penetrates what must be the really thick cranial tissue of the people who count – the ones who, above all else, want to feel the wind moving through their hair (and the bugs through their teeth) at 65 mph.
As a diehard New England Patriot fan, I really want to see Ben Roethlisberger on the field challenging my team for all he’s worth. So, I hope he makes a miraculously speedy recovery and is his old self by the start of training camp. But what would be really great, better than any football game, is if Big Ben, as soon as he’s sitting up and able to mouth coherent speech, were to make a big-time television public service announcement. A TV spot in which he would tell every kid and every football fan in America that he was wrong, that he was stupid, that he is not immortal and that he will never, ever again ride a motorcycle without wearing the best helmet made in the universe.