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NHTSA requires Electronic Stability Control in large trucks

Every year we see many reports of tractor trailers overturning in metro Atlanta and across Georgia. Usually it is just another half-comical story of traffic tie-ups because some truck rolled over in a freeway interchange, spilling a load of watermelons, beer, Christmas packages, or whatever.

But too often tractor trailer rollovers result in serious injury or death to the truck driver and sometimes others. The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration has worked for years to reduce the incidence of truck rollovers, which are a major safety concern for both truck drivers and other motorists on the highway.

The Large Truck Crash Causation Study documented over a decade ago that tractor-trailers are particularly vulnerable because of the trailer’s high center of gravity and frequently unstable loads. In that study, the great majority were driver errors, including excessive speed in curves, often misjudging sharpness, drifting off road, often counter-steering abruptly, not adjusting to the trailers high center of gravity, being impaired physically (e.g. fatigue, drowsiness) or emotionally (reckless, angry). Vehicle-related problems include top heavy and badly distributed or unsecured loads, poorly maintained brakes or suspension and under-inflated tires, many of which were the driver’s responsibility to check. Improved driver training, especially for tanker truck and concrete mixer truck drivers, is a big part of rollover prevention.

Equipment improvements are another part of the solution. This week, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration issued a new rule requiring electronic stability control (ESC) systems on truck tractors and certain buses with a gross vehicle weight rating of greater than 11,793 kilograms (26,000 pounds).

ESC systems in truck tractors and large buses are designed to reduce untripped rollovers and mitigate severe understeer or oversteer conditions that lead to loss of control by using automatic computer-controlled braking and reducing engine torque output.

It is expected that this final rule will prevent 1,424 to 1,759 crashes, 505 to 649 injuries, and 40 to 49 fatalities at $0.1 to $0.6 million net cost per equivalent life saved, while generating positive net benefits.

NHTSA does not intend that this rule preempt state tort law that would effectively impose a higher standard on motor vehicle manufacturers than that established by this rule. Establishment of a higher standard by means of State tort law would not conflict with the minimum standard announced here. Without any conflict, there could not be any implied preemption of a State common law tort cause of action

Let’s hope that over the years as ESC equipment is found in an increasing share of truck and bus fleets, we will see a steady reduction in rollover crashes.

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Ken Shigley is a past president of the State Bar of Georgia (2011-12) and will be chair of the American Association for Justice Motor Vehicle Collision, Highway & Premises Liability Section for 2015-16. He is a board certified civil trial attorney of the National Board of Trial Advocacy.