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"Black Boxes" Could Solve Crash Mysteries

Posted By admin On September 15, 2010 @ 5:53 pm In | Comments Disabled

MUNFORDVILLE, Ky – Joel Gingerich hadn’t planned to join his fiancée and her family on a road trip to Iowa for a wedding. But at the last minute, before the sun rose on the morning of March 26, 2010, he hopped into the 15-passenger Dodge van. It was a decision that would cost him his life.

Gingerich, fiancée Rachel Esh and her family, all members of a close-knit Mennonite community, were just minutes into the journey when an 80-foot-long, 38-ton Freightliner tractor-trailer lost control on the other side of a wide, grassy median. The truck trampled over two sets of steel barrier cables, hit the Mennonites’ van, ricocheted off a rock wall and burst into flames.

Eleven died in the crash on Interstate 65 south of Louisville in southern Kentucky, including Gingerich, Esh and seven members of her family. The truck driver from Alabama was burned so badly that state troopers couldn’t make out his flesh from the metal of his rig.

The sole survivors were two children from Guatemala who recently had been adopted by the Eshes. Josiah, 5, and Johnny, 3, lost their second set of parents. The Marrowbone Christian Brotherhood lost 10 of its 70 members.

The crash was so horrific that it became one of only about a dozen highway accidents that the National Transportation Safety Board investigates each year. But the investigation was hampered from the beginning by the absence of a so-called black box in either vehicle.

For more than decade, the NTSB has unsuccessfully urged federal regulators to require black boxes – electronic data recorders inspired by those on aircraft – in cars, buses and trucks. Congress recently took up the issue in a sweeping auto reform bill. An amendment to that bill would make data recorders mandatory in all motor vehicles.

A black box could have answered crucial questions about the Kentucky accident: At what speed did the truck cross the center median? Did the driver wrestle with the steering wheel? Did the brakes fail?

The crash happened before sunrise. There was only one witness, who was more concerned with finding survivors than reckoning the speed or trajectory of the truck. And with traffic backed up for miles and news helicopters hovering, emergency personnel hauled off the wreckage with the bodies still inside, further complicating the investigation.

After a state legislative aide died on I-65 last year, Kentucky installed cable barriers to keep vehicles from crossing the highway’s median. But the Freightliner that killed the Mennonites plowed right through that barrier.

“It’s like trying to stop an elephant with a rubber band,” said Kentucky State Trooper Charles Swiney.

Peter Kotowski, who is leading the NTSB investigation of the I-65 crash, said he’ll do his best without a black box, even though a data recorder “can double-check our work and fill in the blanks.”

Years of Research

In 1997, the NTSB recommended that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration create a plan to put black boxes in all vehicles. The technology already had been proven in race cars.

The board was concerned that while some carmakers were installing black boxes that recorded such things as speed, brake use and velocity upon impact, there was no way to compare the data. Essentially, each manufacturer spoke its own language, had its own menu of crash indicators and kept the data under lock.

The technology had a cautious ally in Dr. Ricardo Martinez, the head of NHTSA at the time. Martinez put researchers to work trying to standardize the data collected by black boxes and figure out how the information should be used.

But progress was slow, and in 1999 the NTSB made the first of several recommendations urging NHTSA to stop planning and start mandating black boxes. Specifically, the safety board wanted the technology installed in school buses and in motor coaches like the ones that transport seniors on day trips to the beach or casinos.

Eight years later, NHTSA was still studying the issue when a bus carrying 33 members of the Bluffton University baseball team entered an exit ramp outside of Atlanta at high speed, broke through a chain-link fence and dropped 19 feet onto oncoming traffic. Seven people died. Without a black box to give them more data, investigators could only conclude that the driver must have mistaken an exit ramp for a highway lane.

Last year, seven Chinese tourists died in Dolan Springs, Ariz., when their charter bus flipped over. All investigators know is that the driver, who wasn’t texting or drinking, lost control of the vehicle. The NTSB once again recommended that buses be equipped with data recording systems to assist accident investigators.

Each new accident, the safety board said in a letter to NHTSA, is a “missed opportunity” to learn how crashes happen and how drivers react. The information could help officials figure out better ways to prevent future accidents.

New Standards

In 2008, NHTSA finally came up with standards for black boxes. Each box would record 35 pieces of data, ranging from speed to whether passengers were wearing seat belts, and the data would be accessible to crash investigators.

But the regulations stopped short of what the NTSB had in mind. They covered small cars only, and they weren’t mandatory. The regulatory agency insisted that the decision on whether to install the technology should be left up to car manufacturers, and it avoided the issue of regulating commercial vehicles altogether.

The strategy for small cars has largely worked: Nearly 90 percent of new small cars have black box technology, according to NHTSA. Automakers voluntarily install them because the technology tends to lower their liability in accidents and helps them design safer cars.

This year, NHTSA, major truck manufacturers and the Society of Automotive Engineers, which develops engineering criteria for all kinds of vehicles, agreed to standards for black boxes in heavy vehicles like buses and trucks. The devices would be considerably different from those in light vehicles, NHTSA said in a statement to News21. The agency will evaluate the difficulties and decide by the end of the year whether it will move forward.

John Steiner, a representative of the Society of Automotive Engineers who worked on the standards, said the process takes time because the technology for heavy vehicles is so complex. The weight of buses and trucks has to be taken into account, he said, as well as significant variations in design.

“You could have three models of a Freightliner,” he said. “If you pop the hood, they could be totally different. That’s the challenge on the commercial truck side. The systems have to be completely tailored to need, whether it’s a dump truck or oil rig truck, whereas in a passenger vehicle it’s simple.”

It also takes time to convince manufacturers that the cost is worth it, especially when they’re already hurting economically, Steiner said. A black box for a large truck can cost $600, he said.

William Messerschmidt, who runs a website on data recorders for trucks and also started a private firm that investigates accidents, said cost isn’t the only reason some manufacturers still oppose the technology.

Information from data recorders can be used in lawsuits and in criminal trials, he said. There’s a lot of concern about putting data “out there for everyone else to see.”

Proposed Legislation

While NHTSA responded slowly to calls for black boxes in motor vehicles, Congress moved swiftly after acceleration problems in some Toyotas drew intense public interest earlier this year.

The Motor Vehicle Safety Act [1] of 2010 is a sweeping piece of legislation that would give NHTSA more resources and more teeth. For example, the agency could order manufacturers to immediately recall unsafe vehicles and impose higher fines on carmakers. The act also would require small, light-duty cars sold in the U.S. to have black box data recorders rather than leaving that decision up to manufacturers.

In June, Senator Tom Udall, D-N.M., introduced an amendment that expands the black box requirement to all medium and heavy vehicles. The amendment received bipartisan support in the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation but has yet to go further.

Udall said leaving out buses and trucks is a gaping hole in the legislation. “Many of the larger vehicles have some of the more serious accidents,” he said in an interview. “If you have a concerted effort and a comprehensive program, you can bring down the numbers of fatalities.”

Tom Kowalick, an engineer who has championed black boxes for years, said the Motor Vehicle Safety Act would propel highway safety into the 21st century. Of the roughly 6 million road crashes each year in the U.S., “No two are exactly alike in real life,” he said. “But in the crash lab they’re all alike.”

Still, Kowalick is skeptical about the bill’s passage. He said he went to one Senate hearing armed with pictures of a dramatic crash. He showed them to one senator, whom he prefers not to name.

“He told me, ‘You see one, you see them all,’” Kowalick recalled. “I responded, ‘If it were your son, you’d look closer.’”

Seeking Answers

Federal regulators in June shut down Hester Inc., the company that operated the Freightliner involved in the Kentucky accident. The company was cited for ongoing violations, including truck drivers who drove shifts of 11 hours and longer.

That same month – before rain washed away the scorched rock or a new accident buried the traces of the one that killed his son – Gingerich returned to the I-65.

He pulled over on the shoulder and waited a moment, watching the traffic and absorbing the sound of tires hitting pavement. Orange flags still marked the spot where the Freightliner ran over the barrier cable. The tire tracks were still visible

Gingerich climbed out, measuring wheel in hand, and crossed to the median. He tried to estimate how many feet the truck traveled before hitting the church van, the angle at which it hit and the speed of the van on impact. “Was the driver angry at the whole world?” he said he wondered. “Did he want to die and take others with him?” “Did my son see the truck before it hit him?”

He knows that no one can say for sure whether the accident was due to human error, mechanical failure, imperfect highway design or a perfect storm of all these factors. But he had to try to figure it out for himself.

“I wanted to be a daddy to my son,” he said.

Kerry McDaniel, director of Hart County Emergency Management, also wants answers. He’s in charge of the warehouse where federal investigators have spent months reconstructing the accident that killed Gingerich’s son.

McDaniel walked through the warehouse a few months after the accident, pointing to an engine here, a transmission there and the Freightliner’s cargo of giant brake drums littering the floor.

“That’s the van,” he said, stopping in front of the wreckage. The front passenger seat is folded in like a boomerang, the roof missing.

Two car seats rest beside a mangled door.

“The toddlers survived in (them),” McDaniel explained. Another car seat is still in the van; the infant who was supposed to be in it died in his mother’s arms.

In the corner, as far as possible from the van, is the truck. The trailer is splayed, wheels up. The rig is smashed so badly it looks like a broken crane. It took more than six hours for emergency personnel to gather up the pieces, which investigators hope will help answer the questions that haunt McDaniel, Gingerich and the others.

For now, these piles of debris are the only clues they have.

Sept. 26, 2010

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[1] Motor Vehicle Safety Act: https://frwebgate.access.gpo.gov/cgi-bin/getdoc.cgi?dbname=111_cong_bills&docid=f:s3302is.txt.pdf

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