Handling the truth

Fleets use advanced technology to recreate accidents — and prevent them from happening.

Editor’s Note: This is the first of two articles on the topic of accident prevention. This installment mostly addresses the use of data to determine causes and contributing factors. The second installment in October will address tools for managing driver safety.

In June 2002, a driver for a Comcar Industries subsidiary was killed when his vehicle hit the rear of an articulated dump truck. Normally, a rear-end collision is evidence enough that the driver failed to control his speed and distance. Not this time.

After the accident, Tom Lowe extracted the “black box” from an Eaton Vorad collision warning system in the truck. Upon review, the data revealed that the dump truck moved directly onto a two-lane 65 mph highway. The dump truck did not use an available acceleration lane, leaving the Comcar driver only 1.5 seconds to react.

The Comcar driver’s estate secured a seven-figure verdict due to the information, says Lowe, vice president of risk management for Auburndale, Fla.-based Comcar, which operates five separate trucking companies. “If the driver had gone left, the violent move would have jackknifed the truck,” perhaps causing further serious injuries or deaths to traffic in the oncoming lanes, he says.

“Our philosophy is that we are morally obligated to pay for the damage which we cause,” Lowe says. “But we have every right to fight and defend ourselves when another party is pursuing a claim that far exceeds damage, or is trying to tag us with something we didn’t participate in.”

Accidents often are very complex events. Sometimes the cause is transparent – the errant turn in traffic or speeding. Usually, however, the cause is not a single event; other vehicles are involved, and decisions and events leading up to the accident may begin hours beforehand – even days, considering driver training or inexperience.

Whatever the cause, carriers should be proactive in collecting, analyzing and documenting all accident and incident data. Today, onboard recorders and computers give fleet managers a second-by-second account of events with only a mouse click.

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Having real-time visibility of events carries its own set of challenges, however. Any safety-related information drawn from a vehicle, such as rapid deceleration or hard braking, becomes another event to manage and respond to. Plaintiffs’ attorneys may jump on any mismanagement of that information as an indication of your failure to control and supervise drivers properly. But don’t think the solution is to avoid capturing data; that bears its own legal risks that may be greater than the risk of transparency. (See “Eyewitnesses in your trucks,” page 48.) So with safety event data inescapable, more fleets are looking beyond the “black box” toward real-time information in order to immediately identify incidents that may in fact be accidents, or at least eventually may be the cause of one if left unchecked.

Data recording
A vehicle’s electronic control modules (ECMs) broadcast a wide array of data through the J1708 and the J1939 controller area networks (CANs). All major providers of onboard computing and wireless communications systems offer software applications that monitor these networks to capture and report critical events. Rapid deceleration (typically defined as 9 mph per second) is the most common type of critical event, as it could denote an aggressive driver or a close call.

With the rapid expansion of onboard truck electronics and the possibility that the data may be produced in litigation, Lowe has mixed feelings about the benefit of such systems. “Commercial motor vehicle drivers in our fleets are professionals,” he says. “They do a good job every day. However, if electronics can help the driver or driver manager do a better job in protecting other motorists, property and themselves, then management needs to know every detail of what is in the box.”

Those details, according to Lowe, include: How often is the data overwritten? How many trip segments are stored? Who can access the data? Is the data fed to other systems that are backed up? Is the data covered under a retention policy?

Cargo Transporters uses Critical Event Reporting (CER), a Web-based application from Qualcomm to monitor for two types of events. With the application, the Claremont, N.C.-based company can monitor its 450-truck fleet continuously for hard braking and activation of the roll stability control system in its tractors.

When the system detects an event, the safety manager receives a report that has a second-by-second account of the vehicle’s operations for five minutes prior and two minutes after the event. Drivers also receive an automatic message in the cab through the Qualcomm OmniVision system to call the safety department, says John Pope, chief executive officer of Cargo Transporters.

With Qualcomm’s CER, customers instantly can see where the event happened on a digital map or satellite view. With the satellite view, a fleet manager could see that a hard-braking event occurred on a cloverleaf onramp as a result of going too fast for the curve, says Norm Ellis, vice president and general manager of transportation and logistics for Qualcomm Enterprise Services.

PeopleNet’s Onboard Event Recorder (OER) application captures data continuously for a minimum of 60 seconds before a sudden start/stop event and 30 seconds afterward. The record of events can be sent immediately by e-mail to management and is presented graphically through PeopleNet’s Web interface, says Matt Feyen, group product manager. The information captured includes the vehicle number, time, RPMs, odometer and the on-off status of six different “switches” such as cruise control, brakes and throttle.

In May, a driver for O’Neal Steel was traveling through Mississippi on Interstate 10 when he was rear-ended by a bus. The driver said the incident was the bus driver’s fault and that he simply was slowing down because of traffic congestion, says Harry Clark, traffic manager for the 190-truck private fleet based in Birmingham, Ala.

To corroborate the driver’s story, the fleet used PeopleNet’s OER. The detailed second-by-second report showed the impact occurred when the driver was moving at about 3 miles per hour, Clark says; the data also showed that, leading up to the incident, the driver had decelerated from highway speeds at a normal rate.

In addition to using the OER to review incidents, Clark says the reports have proven useful to investigate cases of “flat-spotted” tires on tractors and trailers from drivers slamming the brakes. “The driver may not tell you what happened,” he says.

A continuous speed and distance monitoring application called XataScope comes as a standard feature in the Xatanet fleet management system. The application captures a detailed second-by-second account of the operation of the vehicle. When an exception is detected, the information is transmitted automatically to a Web-based interface or e-mail, says Tom Flies, Xata’s senior vice president of product management.

DriverTech’s event recording system also comes standard in its DT4000 TruckPC onboard computing platform. For each rapid deceleration event, the TruckPC captures and instantly reports the complete history of RPMs, mph and GPS readings for two minutes before the event and one minute afterward. The company also offers a video-camera event-recording feature as an option, says Scott Lemon, vice president of sales.

Rather than just present users with a static display of information, Cadec offers an animated playback feature of the events leading to a critical event. Its Electronic Tach-O-Graph (ETOG) application for its Mobius TTS onboard computer lets users see the vehicle progressing on a map along with graphs that give a second-by-second account of vehicle location, speed, RPM and other parameters.

“It is a very powerful tool that most customers take advantage of,” says Frank Moreno, director of marketing.

Safety integration
Providers of onboard computing and wireless fleet management systems also are working to integrate data from various driver safety systems. The range of possibilities includes roll stability control, forward- and side-collision warning, lane departure warning (LDW) and video camera systems.

Currently, most technology providers say that integration between onboard computers and driver safety systems is in the early stages. One of the driving forces behind integrating more information from the vehicle into onboard computers is the J1939 CAN, Ellis says. The technology, which started with 2007 vehicles, has more bandwidth that will allow the vehicle to incorporate more third-party devices such as driver safety and camera vision systems. It also is more fault-tolerant, as the J1708 sometimes produces false readings, he says.

Fleets still must evaluate if the extra information is worth the resources required to manage it. Consider an LDW system: A 2005 report by the American Transportation Research Institute found that drivers are between 91 and 100 percent more likely to be involved in a future crash if they have been convicted of improper or erratic lane changes. So even if it were possible to monitor every event, would it be worth the effort?

The Iteris LDW system can provide reports on driver habits such as the number of times, per 1,000 miles, a driver makes a turn without using his signals. Treating each individual lane violation as a separate event would be too much data to manage, says Bill Patrolia, director of North American truck sales. “In my mind, the usefulness of data is collecting behavioral stuff over time to know your good and bad drivers,” Patrolia says.

Considering outside events
When used together, the vehicle’s ECM and third-party onboard computing systems provide a detailed record of how the driver and vehicle operated leading up to a critical event. But equally – if not more – important is to know what happened outside the vehicle during the same timeframe.

Forward- and side-collision warning systems such as the Eaton Vorad are tools that help drivers speed up their response time to a critical event. Fleets also can use these advanced systems to record information in the event of an accident.

Comcar Industries specs all of its company equipment with the Eaton Vorad, Lowe says. The company added Vorad’s optional Accident Reconstruction software feature. In the event of a severe impact to the front of a vehicle, the driver or on-scene investigator must physically “lock out” the data in the Vorad.

The next step is to physically remove the black box and send it to Eaton to produce accident reconstruction reports. Lowe says it costs between $800 and $1,500 for Eaton to read a box, and it takes between two and four weeks to get the reports back.

Starting 10 minutes prior to the accident, the reports show what happened through a series of graphs that proceed in one-second intervals. The information includes the speed of the host vehicle, the angle and speed of objects ahead, the yaw of the tractor, the level of alarm sounding and the rate of braking.

“You can retrace a driver’s entire steps – when he exited off a highway, his turns, acceleration and deceleration,” Lowe says. “You can put yourself exactly where the driver was at each point in time.”

Because the Vorad is an electronic system that relies on other sensors in the tractor, you may end up with no data in the accident reconstruction portion of the unit’s memory, Lowe says. There have been instances where units have been sent to Eaton that stopped recording data several months before the incident occurred, usually due to an inoperative sensor, he says.

Seeing is believing
Vision systems with cameras and in-cab monitors are a powerful technology fleets can use to document the events outside the vehicle.

Safety Vision has a Route Recorder product that continuously records video from one to four cameras placed around the vehicle. The device also records sensor inputs from the turn signal, warning lights and GPS.

About half of the customers that use Safety Vision’s cameras use the Route Recorder, says Sam Hartsfield, the company’s national accounts manager. The Route Recorder is about the size of a car stereo and comes with a key and password-protected lockbox. The information is stored on a compact flash card or a removable hard drive. Safety Vision also offers a windshield-mounted Digital Video Recorder (DVR).

To review incidents, users remove a flash card adaptor or hard-drive reader from the system and view the recorded video events on a PC.

DriveCam offers a full-scale driver risk management and analysis system that includes audio/visual recordings of critical events and accidents. The company uses a palm-sized recording device in the cab that captures the driver and forward view. The recorder is triggered by events such as hard braking and swerving.

The video clips are downloaded from the vehicle into DriveCam’s data center through wireless networks. Certified behavior analysts note any driver behaviors – such as eating or smoking – and conditions such as the weather that may have contributed to high-risk events. Fleet managers can go to a website and view the clips each day to see how DriveCam scored the clip, as well as any coaching comments.

With the technologies available today, data will be there if you need it. Reconstructing an accident is the easy part; pinpointing and correcting risky driver behaviors before they cause accidents is the pathway of the future.

Eyewitnesses in your trucks
Legal worries require careful data management

No good deed goes unpunished. Adopt more information systems to help you determine the cause of an accident and adjust to it, and you potentially create more information that can be used against you in litigation. The safest course might seem to be not collecting data at all, but many managers and executives believe that the carrier and public benefits of using data to improve safety outweigh the legal risks. Besides, defense attorneys frequently want that information to help assess whether it’s a case that should be settled rather than litigated.

You don’t have to keep data forever, but discarding it in situations where you have a reason to believe that litigation is likely – following a major crash, for example – could mean big trouble. If a judge determines your company has engaged in spoliation – basically intentionally destroying evidence – he could impose sanctions and even tell a jury that it is free to assume that the evidence was damaging to your case.

“Several recent directives from the FMCSA on supervising hours of service along with an increased awareness of the issue among litigants and the new disclosure rules in federal cases has made record retention a primary focus of the trucking industry,” says attorney Clay Porter, a partner in the firm Dennis, Corry, Porter & Smith. “Companies that do not have comprehensive record retention programs that include full retention of onboard electronic data are at risk.”

One important development is a Dec. 1, 2006, change in the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, notes attorney Angela Cash, a partner in the firm Scopelitis, Garvin, Light, Hanson & Feary. The change puts the burden on the parties in a lawsuit to discuss early in litigation what electronically stored information could be available for discovery. The principal target of the rules change was e-mail and other types of electronic documents, but it arguably covers electronically stored event data as well.

The new federal rules make it clear that carriers should place “litigation holds” on electronic information that might be relevant in a lawsuit, Cash says. A critical question is whether the carrier should have known that litigation was likely, she says. That’s a judgment call, although certainly any crash that involves death or injury would qualify.

Or the would-be plaintiff might just tell you. Increasingly, aggressive plaintiffs attorneys are sending post-accident letters demanding that motor carriers implement litigation holds on their electronic data. “Definitely pay attention,” Cash says. “If you get a letter from plaintiffs counsel, that needs to be a red-hot document.”

Ultimately, you might object that a request for data is overreaching or irrelevant, but you certainly can’t produce data you don’t have. Ensure that every person who handles relevant data – mechanics, safety personnel, insurance adjusters, etc. – understands the urgency of preserving the data, Cash advises. Carriers should adopt standing procedures for how it will handle data when an accident occurs, she says.

Porter has developed for his clients guidelines for a post-accident record retention program, including specific records to be preserved, by whom and for how long. Like Cash, he advises preserving even records that might not be relevant to the case. “The idea is to avoid having to figure out in advance what may become relevant – a time-intensive and imprecise task – and to err on the side of avoiding spoliation claims.”
– Avery Vise