KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) - Tractor-trailers and other large trucks aren't required to have crash-avoidance technology, despite thousands of crashes annually and repeated calls for it to be mandated.
Federal data shows more than 4,300 people were killed in accidents involving semis and other large trucks in 2016, a 28 percent increase over 2009, the Kansas City Star reported.
Despite the risk, the Star found the National Highway Traffic Safety has largely ignored repeated pleas from the National Transportation Safety Board to take action that would prevent trucks from rear-ending other vehicles. Only a small percentage of semis on the road today have collision avoidance technology, although on at least 10 occasions since the late 1990s, the safety board recommended NHTSA require forward crash avoidance and mitigation systems on all heavy trucks.
Two decades after the safety board first sounded that alarm, NHTSA has yet to publish a proposed regulation of its own, much less put one in effect.
"Many of these crashes could have been mitigated, or possibly even prevented, had rear-end collision avoidance technologies been in place," the safety board said in a scathing 2016 critique of NHTSA's failure to act. But the independent agency has limited authority. It can only investigate commercial vehicle crashes and make recommendations on preventing them.
NHTSA said in a written statement it researched early automatic emergency braking technology systems and hopes to wrap up field operating testing on next-generation versions of the technology in the next 18 to 24 months. The agency said the research "will help inform an agency decision on next steps."
Today's forward collision avoidance systems can prevent more than seven out of 10 rear-end truck collisions, according to companies that have deployed the equipment in their fleets. When wrecks do occur, injuries are generally less severe and property damages are lower, findings that NHTSA does not dispute.
"The silver bullet out there right now is automatic emergency braking," said Jeff Burns, a Kansas City attorney who specializes in truck wreck cases.
Lobbying associations for the industry generally recommend that trucking companies voluntarily adopt advanced safety technologies, but don't want it mandated.
The Owner- Operator Independent Drivers Association, a Grain Valley, Missouri-based lobbying group, said many of the smaller trucking companies it represents have a hard enough time making ends meet without having to pay more for their trucks. Plus, some are skeptical about the equipment's effectiveness.
"We don't know whether this stuff really works," OOIDA's president Todd Spencer said.
But presented with the Star's findings, some in Congress said it's time to act. U.S. Sen. Cory Booker, a New Jersey Democrat, said the rising death toll from truck accidents is proof that such safety concerns shouldn't be left to market forces.
"Safety mechanisms for the trucking industry have not kept up with the pace of technological advancement," Booker told the Star. "It's time that Congress take meaningful action to improve safety across our transportation sector."