NTSB Chairman Deborah Hersman experiences life on the road
By Mindy Long
National Transportation safety Board Chairman Deborah A.P. Hersman got down in the trenches with professional drivers this Spring during a two-day, four-state journey from Washington, D.C., to Louisville, Ky. Hersman traveled with different drivers by tractor-trailer to the Mid-America Trucking Show in Louisville, where she honored America’s professional women truck drivers at the second annual Women in Trucking “Salute to Women Behind the Wheel.” During her trip, Hersman stopped at the TravelCenters of America in Hurricane, W.Va., to learn more about what life is like on the road. Hersman sat down with Road King to talk about transportation safety.
Q Why did you take to the road?
A I really wanted to get a sense of what it was like to be a truck driver and to get a sense of what life on the road is like. The NTSB investigates accidents and we make recommendations on safety measures, so I think this is an important part of my job. I want to understand my work better. Things look very different from the cab of a truck. You get a healthy respect for what those drivers are facing in inclement weather and congestion. I think there are a lot of myths about trucking and truck drivers. They’re very professional. They’re focused on safety and very conscientious of people and the cars around them.
Q What has this trip taught you?
A One of the issues I’ve seen so far is how technology can help improve safety — advanced collision warning systems, adaptive cruise control, electronic stability control, lane departure systems, tire pressure monitoring systems. That technology is on passenger vehicles and commercial vehicles are probably the ones that are the most in need of it.
Q What are your thoughts on tolling and safety?
A We’ve looked at accidents where traffic at toll booths is queued up and stopped, and more traffic is coming up at speed. I think that is another area where technology, such as the EZ Pass and electronic toll collection, can help.
Q What about Hours of Service (HOS) regulations?
A Fatigue has been on the NTSB most wanted list for 20 years. It affects all of us. The issue of fatigue isn’t as simple as hours-of-service rules. You need a multi-pronged approach. Part of the problem is in the past HOS has been based on arbitrary cut offs.
We need to look at things like fatigue risk management. Things such as scheduling are important both on the shipper and the driver side. If you are a shipper and you call for a pick up, you need to make sure it is ready to go. We also need to look at prescription and over-the-counter drug use. We do post-accident driver tests and we have seen how over-the-counter drugs have affected drivers. For example, diphenhydramine is the primary medicine in cold medicine. It is also in sleeping pills. Drivers get colds and need medicine, but those medicines don’t have warning labels and the drivers may not realize the effect they will have on their fatigue.
Q Some fleets are adopting electronic on-board recorders voluntarily. Is that moving you closer to your recommendation?
A It is helpful, but you don’t want only the best carriers to be doing those things. You want to level the playing field and get everyone up to that level.
Q One of your Transportation Safety Improvements is to prevent medically unqualified drivers from operating commercial vehicles. Can you tell us more about that?
A In 1999 we recommended that they have trained and certified medical examiners, which is what they have on the aviation side. That way people aren’t doctor shopping and if something isn’t done right, there is someone who is held accountable. Now drivers can go to anybody. I have a CDL and I’ve had three medical exams for it. I had to make multiple stops because my primary care physician couldn’t do the hearing, vision or lab work required. After I had that done, I had to go back to have my primary care physician sign off on it.
The NTSB is an independent federal agency charged with determining the probable cause of transportation accidents and promoting transportation safety. As chairman of NTSB, Deborah A.P. Hersman is on the front lines conducting safety studies and evaluating the effectiveness of other government agencies’ programs for preventing transportation accidents.