When an 80,000-pound tractor-trailer rig meets a 4,000-pound passenger car, the result can be brutal — and deadly — especially in a construction zone, and particularly when fire is involved.
That has been happening all too frequently in the Kansas City area, prompting officials and everyone else to look for answers and commonalities.
Truckers, lawyers and advocacy groups are calling for the revival of old technologies and the implementation of new ones to help prevent wrecks. Some point to a technology intended to reduce diesel emissions as a possible cause of some truck fires. Others are calling for changes to safety regulations.
And there’s a common-sense approach: People need to pay more attention.
The onslaught of dramatic truck crashes and fires in this area this month “should open people’s eyes,” said Jeff Burns, a Kansas City lawyer who has represented victims of truck crashes. “Every one of these could be a fatal crash.”
In fact, five people have died and one other is hospitalized in critical condition as a result of tractor-trailer wrecks in the Kansas City area since July 11. Three wrecks involved four flaming tractor-trailers, and two more trucks have caught fire apparently unrelated to any collision.
▪ July 11, on Interstate 435 in Overland Park, a tractor-trailer hit a concrete barrier and caught fire.
▪ Also July 11, a pileup in a work zone on Interstate 70 resulted in two burnt tractor-trailers and five dead.
▪ July 17, a five-vehicle wreck in a work zone on I-435 ignited a tractor-trailer and sent two people to the hospital.
▪ July 18, a tractor-trailer caught fire and closed Interstate 470.
▪ Also July 18, a tractor-trailer caught fire near the entrance of a General Motors assembly plant in Kansas City, Kan.
Such a rash of events so close together in time naturally draws attention. But Burns said truck fires are more common than people may realize.
“This is happening all over the place,” he said. “You only notice it when it gets on the front page.”
It is not yet clear if there is any connection among the flaming trucks. The investigations are continuing. A spokesman for the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration said he was unaware of any investigation looking into truck fires as part of a larger pattern.
National Highway Traffic Safety Administration data show that at least one large truck is involved in 11.2 percent of the fatal crashes nationwide, but that percentage grows to 26.9 percent in work zones.
Todd Spencer, executive vice president of the Owner Operator Independent Drivers Association based in Grain Valley, said federal data show that cars — not the trucks — are more often at fault in truck-car crashes.
“There is so much distracted driving,” Spencer said. “People have to pay attention.”
Jason Rhodes, spokesman for the Overland Park Fire Department, hypothesized that a trend of increases in work zone crashes might be attributed to distracted driving.
“Ten years ago, there weren’t really smartphones,” Rhodes said. “Now you drive down the street, and everyone’s got something in their hand.”
Technology could help
The Truck Safety Coalition, a national advocacy group, is pushing for technological measures to reduce the threat of crashes on highways.
Technology exists to equip trucks with automatic emergency braking sensors, said Harry Adler, spokesman for the coalition.
The sensors have been available in passenger cars for more than a decade. They detect when a vehicle is at risk of rear-ending another and applies the brakes automatically. The coalition submitted a petition in 2015 calling for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to require the sensors on large trucks.
NHTSA agreed to the petition but has not issued a final rule determining when such a requirement would go into effect or what specific guidelines it would consist of.
The agency did estimate that all vehicles under 10,000 pounds would have such devices installed by 2025, largely as the result of a voluntary agreement with car manufacturers.
“We don’t know why the agency has not moved forward with this important, lifesaving rulemaking,” Adler said.
Trucks can also more often use speed-limitation devices, Adler said.
Bob Walker, a truck driver for Associated Wholesale Grocers, said he thought the I-70 crash could have been avoided with the use of an old technology.
In that wreck, a trucker rear-ended a line of stopped and slowing cars, precipitating a blaze. Walker, who was not involved in the wreck, said he lets other truckers know via radio when he sees stopped or slowing traffic, but that is becoming less common.
“No one is talking on the CB radio anymore,” Walker said.
Spencer said the frequency of truck fires seems to be escalating. Truckers say one culprit may be a device intended improve air quality called a diesel particulate filter. Many say they can grow hot enough to ignite diesel fuel if tanks are ruptured in a crash.
The filters were designed to capture soot that comes along with diesel combustion. The filters are attached to truck exhaust systems and catch the soot before it can be released into the air.
Once filters fill with soot, they undergo a process known as “regeneration,” in which the filter is heated to burn the soot to ash. Regeneration temperatures can climb over 1,000 degrees.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency doesn’t require the filters directly, but the EPA established more intense standards in 2001 requiring diesel trucks to reduce the release of harmful particulate emissions into the environment. The new standards went into effect in 2007.
“Manufacturers have chosen to comply with these standards by installing” the filters, the EPA spokeswoman said. They have been used on “virtually all heavy-duty engines for the past 10 years.”
“No one wants to raise this as a possibility,” Spencer said, referring to the fire risks such filters are said to pose.
At least one of the flaming trucks locally, a 2017 Volvo involved in the July 11 wreck, was factory-equipped with a diesel particulate filter.
The indications that the diesel particulate filters may be factors in many truck fires are mostly anecdotal, Spencer said. But coalitions of businesses and truck owners have filed lawsuits in California blaming the filters for dozens of fires.
One approach would require the federal government’s help — changing or adding regulations to make the roads safer.
In August, federal regulators had proposed using speed-limiting devices on new vehicles of more than 26,000 pounds, a plan that had been in the works for more than a decade. The government had said speed limiters set between 60 and 68 mph would reduce fatal crashes and fuel use. But President Donald Trump’s promise to scrap regulations has since left the plan in flux.
The Department of Transportation published monthly schedules until January explaining progress on new rules and regulations. In January, the agency quit posting reports. The most recent rulemaking schedule from the department was dated December and stated that public comment on the potential regulation had been closed.
The department also noted that the cost to implement the speed limiting rule would be “minimal” because trucks already have the hardware required to limit speeds.
One federal regulation aimed at truckers has drawn criticism and is now being rethought. Truckers now are limited to 11 hours of consecutive driving. Even if a trucker breaks up his or her driving with rest stops, he or she is limited to a maximum of 14 hours a day on the road.
Walker said the 14-hour provision is dangerous because truckers, typically paid by the mile, are forced to pack as much mileage as possible into a short span of time and might not be as safety conscious.
The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration began a pilot program in 2015 to test a more flexible sleep schedule in which drivers can sleep twice a day rather than being limited to a single 10-hour rest block. Studies have shown that sleeping in the daytime is less restful than nighttime sleep.
The study was scheduled to run through December 2018.
The Star’s Matt Campbell contributed to this report.
Shane Sanderson: 816-234-4440, @shanersanderson
Joe Robertson: 816-234-4789, @robertsonkcstar