It didn’t have to happen. Those are the first thoughts that enter my mind any time I read about a fatal rear-end crash involving a tractor-trailer. And there have been too many of them, of late.
There are technologies available to present those types of crashes, by detecting stopped vehicles ahead and applying the brakes if the driver fails to do so. I’ve experienced these advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS) first-hand, but mostly in controlled environments such as a track.
Their reaction time is faster than a human’s and they’re generally able to bring the truck to a complete stop before even kissing the bumper of the vehicle ahead.
My experience with them on-highway has been limited to a few hundred miles. Only once – on a very early version of these systems – did I experience a false intervention. The camera or radar seemed to be fooled by a shadow or a roadside object. Either way, the brakes were briefly applied without reason.
It wasn’t enough to create a dangerous situation, but it sure was enough to give me a start. I’m told by those who have many more miles using collision mitigation that unwanted interventions continue to be a problem.
However, when these systems work, they are without doubt life-savers. Especially in the event of the type of accident I described above – with a truck plowing into stopped vehicles on the highway. There have been growing calls to make ADAS with active braking mandatory on new trucks.
Before that happens, we need to ensure the systems are reliable and perform at a high level of consistency and effectiveness. When we get there, if we’re not there already, it will be difficult to oppose such a mandate. But if the systems work as advertised, I’m hopeful we can beat a mandate; that one won’t be necessary.
Left to our own to solve the problem, we have not yet proven an ability to eliminate these types of crashes; the rear-enders that ADAS with active braking can so effectively reduce or mitigate. If we haven’t figured it out yet, will we ever?
We preach the dangers of distracted driving, staying attentive behind the wheel. We push fatigue management training on drivers. We always tell them to adjust their speed to the conditions. Yet, still, we pile into stopped traffic. And when we do, the consequences are severe, usually for the passenger car occupants who had the misfortune of simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
This is what I’d like to see: collision mitigation systems become so reliable that driver complaints become a thing of the past. And then, for industry to voluntarily adopt these technologies and for drivers to accept them knowing they are there as an added layer of protection. The vast majority of truck drivers will never need the assistance of such technology. But we all can have a bad day – or a bad moment.
Hopefully, long before the slow gears of government churn out a mandate, the technology will be perfected and will be omnipresent in new trucks. Rear-end collisions involving heavy trucks will cease to exist, because they’re the easiest form of crash to reduce or eliminate with technology and also one of the deadliest. It just can’t come soon enough.
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