New tech for 18-wheelers improving road safety

Hidden danger on S.A. highways

SAN ANTONIO -- Department of Public Safety inspector Wayne Kenney waves his hands like an air-traffic controller, guiding hulking 18-wheelers through a roadside weigh station.

His voice is barely audible through the roaring of engines.

According to Kenney, about 2,500 trucks will pull through this weigh station every day. Part of his job is to make sure they’re safe.

“We'll probably inspect around 25 to 35 trucks a day,” Kenney noted.

All the trucks will go through automated sensors that can detect certain things – a flat tire or a faulty axle. The electronic systems also allow inspectors to view driver logs, including how many hours they’ve been driving and what they’re carrying for cargo.

“They’re tools that can help us,” Kenney said. “They’re not all conclusive, it takes the man-power to actually stop a truck and inspect it.”

Because they can’t inspect every truck, those inspections are done at random according to federal requirements.

And Kenney says that they know exactly where to look first.

"The one big thing we're looking for is brakes,” Kenney explained. “If you're the car in front of this truck and you throw on the brakes, you better hope he's got 10 working brakes. That's what you're after."

It’s an ideal scenario, Kenney says, almost never happens.

"They'll always have problems somewhere,” Kenney said. “You’ll have brakes that simply don’t work, they don’t move, there’s no motion to them.”

In a given day, Kenney says that he’ll have to remove two or three trucks from the roads, usually cases where multiple brakes are worn or completely shot.

That’s a rate of up to one in every 10 trucks.

According to TxDOT, commercial vehicles were involved in 1,992 accidents in Bexar County in 2016. Of those, 16 were fatal and 34 involved incapacitating injuries.

Nationwide statistics from the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration show fatal accidents spiked by a fifth between 2009 and 2013, then took a dip of about 5 percent between 2013 and 2014. Injuries consistently skyrocketed by 55 percent between 2009 and 2013, while property damage also increased by nearly a third.

Part of that is likely due to the fact that trucks logged more miles.

But Jeff Miller, a life-long trucker and driving instructor at Southern Career Institute, says there’s another reason:

"Driver error, whether that's driver fatigue or, nowadays, driver inattentiveness,” Miller said.

Miller noted that fatigue is less common than it used to be, as electronic logs make it almost impossible for drivers to exceed the maximum amount of road hours allowed by law.

But he says pre-trip inspections can and do get neglected due to pressure to make deliveries, meaning drivers often miss things like faulty brakes.

"A lot of things can go wrong in a short amount of time in these trucks,” Miller said. "By the time you notice a brake pad has gone bad, it's too late."

But Miller says that fault isn’t always on the truck driver. Drivers of what he calls “four-wheelers,” or standard cars, are often oblivious to what’s going on when they pass a truck.

For example, trucks are made to brake and handle best with a full 80,000-pound load. A truck that’s carrying a partial or empty load will take about 40 percent longer to stop – the difference between two football fields and two-and-a-half. Blind spots, he says, are also a major concern.

In order to address these issues, more and more companies are starting to invest in technology that helps augment the truck driver and improve the way safety investigations are done.

That includes cameras that monitor blind spots, lane displacement sensors that detect if a truck is drifting from its lane and warn the driver, governors that regulate speed and even kill the engine if a driver goes over their maximum hours, and cameras that monitor following distance and hit the brakes if the driver isn’t reacting.

Noel Smith, the director of SAGE Truck Driving School, says those features are far more advanced than the power locks and air conditioning “luxuries” found in his 2006 training unit.

"The main thing they're doing now is trying to deal more with safety and dealing with the driver himself," Smith explained. "Because he works long, monotonous hours."

Smith says he fully supports any technology that can make driving safer, and estimates as many as a third of the companies out there are already taking advantage of some of these technologies.

But even so, he says that given the several thousand dollars it costs to purchase most of those sensor systems, most are left sitting on the lot.

"I think trucking companies are receptive to the bottom line more than anything else. What makes them money? Is it cost-effective for them to do this?” Smith said.

According to Texas Trucking Association CEO John Esparza, the industry is working toward mandating some of these technologies, something that happens often when new safety mechanisms are introduced to the market. But that’s a long process that requires testing and feedback from state governments, truckers, and trucking companies.

He says speed governors will likely be the next technology to be required, although that likely won’t happen for another couple years. The more advanced sensors and camera technology may not become mandated until far later.

For now, Miller advises four-wheeler drivers to be extra careful. That means giving trucks as wide a berth as possible and being prepared for the unexpected.

Nothing that big and fast, he says, is ever idiot-proof.

"Nine times out of 10, you run into a truck, the truck will win,” Miller said. “It's just physics."


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