A 70-year-old truck driver was travelling west on I-196 near Grandville, MI, driving a semi-truck carrying pies when his truck crossed the centerline and collided with a 20078 Chevy Tahoe. The truck careened over the edge of an overpass and both vehicles caught fire.
Motorists who stopped at the scene and Grandville police officers helped pull Robert Gortner, 82, from the Tahoe. But his wife, a passenger, was trapped in the vehicle and Robert Osborne, 70, was trapped in his truck. Edna Gortner, 83, of Grand Rapids and Osborn of Macelona both were killed. An elderly passenger in the Tahoe was killed along with the truck driver. That was in September 2009.
About a year earlier in July 2008 a 71-year-old truck driver on I-75 in Michigan slammed into vehicles in the southbound lanes, causing the death of 19-year-old Kara Joan Larivee of Rochester Hills. The 71-year-old driver, already driving at a high rate of speed, failed to react quickly enough to the fact that traffic had come to a standstill because of merging traffic.
The common denominators of both tragedies is that neither accident should have occurred, no one should have been killed, and both truck drivers were 70 or older.
As a personal liability attorney who has grieved with clients over the needless deaths resulting from car-truck accidents, I have argued in the past that truck related deaths can be reduced by paying more attention to highway safety and driver fatigue. In recent months I have become convinced the effort should now involve a three-prong approach – safer roads, less driver fatigue, and a mandatory retirement age for truck drivers.
The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration reports that as many as 4,000 Americans a year are killed in collisions with trucks that have incurred thousands of safety violations, such as defective brakes, bad tires or loads dangerously beyond weight limits. Many of the truck drivers involved had little or no training, many were 65 or older, and many others had a history of alcohol and drug abuse.
Because Michigan does not allow for punitive damages against truck drivers in effect all truckers have immunity against being held accountable. For that reason truckers causing tragic accidents will continue driving even though untrained, continue to drive under the influence of drugs or alcohol, and continue to drive when age slows their reflexes and judgment.
Truck accidents occur because of fatigue, highway design faults, defective equipment, and driver error. Some causes are predictable; others are not. The result is always predictable, though — the shear volume of a truck traveling 40 m.p.h. or faster will always create havoc.
The biggest killer on our highways is fatigue. Federal transportation officials must come up with stricter guidelines to make sure that logbooks are properly kept and that commercial carriers ensure their drivers get the rest they need between trips.
State highway departments throughout the U.S must adopt an aggressive program to widen two-lane highways throughout areas to make high-speed travel safer for all. Law enforcement officials must police our highways to enforce speed limits rather than tolerating drivers traveling 80 m.p.h. or higher.
I became an advocate for reforms to reduce the number of car-truck collisions after representing the family of a 5-year-old boy who was killed when a semi-tractor truck struck from behind a vehicle being driven by his mother.
The minimum reforms I championed then were: paving construction to widen our two-lane highways or at least provide for more left-turn flare lanes increased speed enforcement on two-lane highways stricter enforcement of truck driver’s driving time limits can prevent deaths.
I now add to my call for reform the need to lower the maximum driving age for all truckers to 65. Because we cannot predict with any certainty the age when a driver’s physical and mental reactions begin to slow, then 65 becomes the best standard because at that age the driver can draw Social Security and Medicare in addition to any retirement benefits or 401k investments.
Age 65 also is the mandatory retirement age for airline pilots thanks to a bill signed in February 2007 raising the mandatory retirement age to 65. Going back to the 1960s airline pilots were forced to retire at age 60 by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).
Think about that. A pilot flies his plane in open air, without any other planes within visible sight, is aided by a co-pilot a seat away and by a controller on the ground, and often flies on auto-pilot. Yet even with this redundancy and backup help the FAA for more than half a decade said it was unsafe for a pilot over 60 to continue on the job. Now it’s considered unsafe at age 65.
So why in the world do we allow truckers to continue driving at age 65, 70, 75 even 80? Truck drivers at high speeds every day must make split-second decisions that require extra-ordinary quick reaction times. Common sense, if not physical exams, eye and hearing tests, and stress tests, tells us that a driver age 65-70 is not physically and mentally equipped for this challenge.
If a truck driver makes a mistake it is very hard to correct because of the mass and size of a truck. Most truck drivers are good drivers who drive defensively and are qualified and trained to be good drivers. But only a single driver error in a lifetime of driving can have tragic results. And as that driver nears the end of a career of driving the odds increase dramatically that a fatal mistake will occur.
I cannot rest at peace because I know with certainty that before the year ends someone else will needlessly die somewhere on a highway. I am certain of this because federal officials, state and county governments, and law enforcement won’t take any actions beyond the civil and criminal judgments recorded. None of us should be at peace until certain actions are taken. And these actions are: widening our two-lane highways; adding left-turn flare lanes as needed; stricter enforcement to ensure log books reflect actual driving time and rest time; and establishing a mandatory retirement for truck drivers at age 65.
Join me in this campaign by writing letters to the Federal Transportation Agency, to the governor of your state, and to newspaper and television editors. Increased public awareness will result in the changes that are needed to save thousands of lives. What we say does matter and will count for change.