Pennsylvania crash shows the battle against speed must evolve

Speed kills. There is no secret about that. Head too fast into a curve and a vehicle will lose control. Drive into anything at a high rate of speed and there’s a higher likelihood of injury and death.

After reviewing a multi-vehicle crash near Mt. Pleasant Township, Pennsylvania, the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) is calling on regulators to do something about it. Specifically, it’s recommending the wider use of variable speed limit signs, video recorders for buses and trucks, advanced speed-limiting technologies, and better-protected networks to support vehicle-to-everything communications.

Pennsylvania motor coach and truck crash
The NTSB says there are lessons to be learned from this Pennsylvania crash. (Illustration: NTSB)

Regulators and fleets will ultimately decide whether to follow the individual recommendations, but the findings illustrate that the fight against speeding doesn’t need to be limited to painted metal signs and radar guns.

It all began at about 3:30 am on Jan. 5, 2020, when a motorcoach with 59 passengers ran off a wet curve on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, hit an embankment, overturned, and blocked the westbound lanes. Seconds later it was hit by a FedEx truck and then a UPS truck. The motorcoach driver, two passengers, and both occupants in the second truck died. Forty-nine motorcoach passengers and co-driver of the first truck were injured.

The turnpike has a posted limit of 70 mph, and a limit of 55 mph is advised for the curve. The motor coach entered the curve at 77 mph and was traveling around 60 mph when it hit the embankment. While the first truck hit the wreckage at 21 mph, causing minor damage, the second truck that crashed into the pileup was going 56 mph. The end result, according to the board, was catastrophic.

“The forward- and inward-facing video event recorder system on the FedEx truck provided valuable information.”

– NTSB

Variable speed limit signs that can be adjusted to reflect road conditions could have led the drivers to travel at lower speeds, the NTSB says, adding that it’s also time to stop adopting 85th percentile speeds – the prevailing speed that most people are expected to travel.

But it also saw opportunities within the trucks themselves.

When it comes to investigating the aftermath of any crash, the board sees a benefit in mounting onboard video event recorders on any vehicle with a gross vehicle weight above 10,000 lb.

“The forward- and inward-facing video event recorder system on the FedEx truck provided valuable information on the speed and operation of the motorcoach as it passed the FedEx truck, the hazard presented by the overturned motorcoach blocking all travel lanes, the FedEx driver’s response to the overturned motorcoach, and the severity of the initial collision and the subsequent collision by the [UPS] truck,” it noted.

As for controlling speeds, the NTSB sees a benefit in setting standards for advanced speed-limiting technologies like variable speed limiters and intelligent speed adaptation devices, and ultimately mandating the technology in new trucks.

There are limits to any technologies, of course. The NTSB itself determined that collision avoidance systems wouldn’t have been able to react quickly enough in the Pennsylvania crash. But the system available in the UPS truck hadn’t been working since June 2019. That’s why the board says such faults should be added to inspection reports.

Looking further into the future, the NTSB said connected vehicle systems could have alerted drivers about threats like the overturned coach. That’s why it wants the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to introduce safeguards to protect vehicle-to-everything communications from the interference connected to unlicensed devices such as those that use wifi.

The fight against deadly speeds continues.

John G. Smith is the editorial director of Newcom Media's trucking and supply chain publications -- including Today's Trucking, trucknews.com, TruckTech, Transport Routier, and Road Today. The award-winning journalist has covered the trucking industry since 1995.


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  • I like variable speed signs I was hit from behind in a snow storm over 5 years ago by a semi at 65 mph when stopped for car that was blocking the road in a snow storm. This changed my life and because certain actions by the certain companies left me homeless. I would like to see a plan to bring the injured and sick people back to become more productive instead of leaving this for non-profit to look after people like myself.