WASHINGTON — The National Transportation Safety Board came down hard on the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration after the board found that a fatigued driver of a milk-hauling tank truck was abusing the hours-of-service agriculture exemption — with little oversight of the exemption from FMCSA — when he was involved in a fatal crash.
The NTSB met on Tuesday to discuss the findings and staff recommendations of an investigation into the multivehicle crash on June 9, 2021, that killed four people and injured 11.
“Unfortunately, the FMCSA lacks the data regarding how many agriculture-exempt carriers exist, and has no statistics regarding their crash rate or severity of crashes,” Michael Fox, an NTSB staff member, told the board.
“The use of the exemption was never intended to be an unmonitored operation. Staff found that due to limited oversight and lack of monitoring of motor carriers’ operation under the ag exemption, the extent to which these motor carriers operate beyond traditional hours-of-service limits — which can increase the risk of fatigued operation by a driver — is unclear.”
Fox cited research showing that drivers who operate after 10 hours of driving have a 3.5 times greater crash rate than those operating within the first hour. “Surprisingly though, drivers operating under the agriculture exemption could operate unlimited hours” within the exemption’s 150-mile radius.
“That’s astounding,” responded NTSB Chair Jennifer Homendy. “And we don’t even know apparently who’s doing that, because we don’t track them so we have no idea who’s using [the exemption]. That’s ridiculous to me.”
The accident involved a 49-year-old truck driver who was hauling a fully loaded 2015 Walker stainless equipment tank trailer under the exemption from a local dairy to the United Dairymen of Arizona cooperative plant near Phoenix. A fire resulted after the driver, traveling at over 60 mph in a 2016 Freightliner, plowed into a queue of slowed traffic. A total of eight vehicles were involved in the collision.
Investigators found the driver had less than a six-hour opportunity for sleep the day of the crash and regularly worked 70-80 hours per week.
“Although exempted from hours of service, Arizona Milk Transport did not have a program to manage driver fatigue,” according to NTSB. “The investigation found the company had poor oversight over its drivers and did not enforce its own policies regarding the maximum hours employees could work.”
As a result of the investigation, NTSB recommended that the U.S. Department of Transportation “develop and implement a program to determine the prevalence of for-hire motor carriers operating under agricultural HOS exemptions and study their safety performance, and to report the findings and any recommendations to improve safety to Congress.”
The agency further recommended that DOT require interstate motor carriers operating under an agricultural HOS exemption to “implement a fatigue management program or, if necessary, seek congressional authority to do so.”
Also cited as contributing to the crash was a final rule issued by the Federal Communications Commission in 2021 that ordered states to terminate the use of a band of wireless frequency for such things as collision avoidance technology so that it could be deployed instead for other commercial uses.
“Had some of the vehicles in the crash been equipped with the technology, the systems might have been alerted early enough that the collision might have been mitigated or prevented altogether,” according to NTSB staff. “A prominent role by the FCC and USDOT is needed to ensure an optimal environment for connected vehicle deployment with sufficient safety spectrum clear of interference.”
NTSB recommended that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration develop standards for forward collision avoidance systems in commercial vehicles and mandate connected vehicle technology on all new vehicles.
NTSB also voted to reclassify two recommendations to DOT and the FCC related to connected vehicle or vehicle-to-everything implementation.