Safety Board Wants Trucks and Cars to 'Talk' to Each Other

August 13, 2013

Connected vehicles — advanced highway technologies that allow cars and trucks to talk to each other to prevent accidents — may be nearer in your future than you think.

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has urged that connected vehicle technology be mandated on all new highway vehicles. The NTSB made the recommendation in response to fatal school bus accidents at intersections in New Jersey and Florida last year.

In the New Jersey crash, an 11-year-old girl was killed when the school bus she was in was struck by a dump truck at an intersection. The Feb. 16, 2012, collision claimed the life of sixth-grader Isabelle Tezsla and resulted in life-threatening injuries to her two sisters, Sophie and Natalie, and a schoolmate, Jonathan Zdybel, 11. The girls were triplets. Fourteen other children suffered minor injuries.

The next month in Port St. Lucie, FL, a semi tractor-trailer truck hit a school bus on a side toward the rear, spinning the bus around. One student was killed and four others were seriously injured.

The accidents drew the attention of the safety board, which became the lead agency in the probe of the collision. The NTSB met in late July to issue its final conclusions about the likely cause of the New Jersey crash as well as recommendations to prevent similar tragedies.

The board was meeting to determine the probable cause of the New Jersey accident and to make safety recommendations. Findings from the previously concluded Florida accident investigation were also considered because of the similarities in the two crashes.

The New Jersey accident was caused by the school bus driver's failure to note the oncoming dump truck when he pulled into the intersection, the board said. The bus driver had stopped part way into the intersection to get a better view of traffic coming from the left — the direction from which the dump truck was traveling — and should have been able to see the truck, investigators said.

Instead, the driver proceeded fully into the intersection. The board concluded that the bus driver experienced "inattention blindness" — he saw, but didn't register that he was seeing, a truck coming, because he was suffering from fatigue and the sedating effects of several prescription medications.

"This (connected vehicle) technology more than anything else holds great promise to protect lives and prevent injuries," NTSB Chairman Deborah Hersman said. That was particularly true of crashes at intersections like the two school bus accidents, she added.

Vehicles equipped with the technology can continuously communicate over wireless networks, exchanging information on location, direction and speed 10 times a second. The vehicle's computer analyzes the information and issues danger warnings to drivers, often before they can see the other vehicle.

The DOT began field-testing connected vehicle technology last year. The safety pilot included the installation of wireless devices in up to 3,000 vehicles — including trucks, cars and buses — in one location to evaluate the effectiveness of connected vehicle technology to prevent crashes. It took place on the streets and highways of Ann Arbor, MI, from Aug. 2012 to Aug. 2013.

"This test will be an important step towards the U.S. Department of Transportation's top priority — a safer transportation system," said Peter Appel, administrator of the Research and Innovative Technology Administration upon launch of the pilot program. "Technology is an investment in the future … and will allow us to learn how drivers use electronic alerts to avoid crashes in a real-world environment."

During the pilot, drivers were alerted to impending dangers in real-time so they can take action to avoid crashes. DOT will collect data from the vehicles in order to understand how different types of motorists respond to safety messages in the real world.

"We envision connected vehicle technology as a platform to save many lives on America's roads, and foster innovations we've yet to imagine — a game-changer for vehicle safety," said National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) Administrator David Strickland. "When completed, the pilot will demonstrate first-hand how connected vehicles communicate in the real world, bringing us a step closer to what could be the next major safety breakthrough."

NHTSA officials have said they hope to make a decision on whether to proceed to setting standards or whether to continue their research by the end of this year.

From 2002 to 2011, nearly 87,000 people were killed in accidents at intersections, accounting for 22% of overall traffic fatalities, investigators said.

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