NTSB finds ag drivers unsafe, under-regulated

 The November 2015 bus accident that killed six migrant workers in Florida is pictured.
The November 2015 bus accident that killed six migrant workers in Florida is pictured.

Federal investigators are pointing the finger at federal government agencies for their failure to enforce agricultural transportation safety laws, leading to the deaths of almost 40 farm workers since 2015.

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) report, released last week, looked at fatal crashes of vehicles transporting migrant farm workers. The study prompted the NTSB to castigate the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) and the Department of Labor, the two agencies tasked with overseeing safety of the workers.

The NTSB probe looked into three recent incidents as a sample for its study. The most recent one occurred in Florida and took the lives of four workers while injuring 22 others. The other two claimed six lives each and occurred in Arkansas and Virginia.

The culprit in each of the accidents was drowsy driving.

“Motor carriers and farm labor contractors often transport workers in unsafe vehicles and without properly qualified and rested drivers,” says the NTSB study. “Federal and state agencies have been ineffective in deterring unsafe operations.”

Among the recommendations that the NTSB put forth for the two oversight agencies were to develop a system to share safety data with each other and to develop new analytics-driven methods for enforcing current regulations.

The FMCSA has since suspended operations of the Florida company responsible for the most recent deaths. But as the labor market in the US continues to tighten and growers and other agricultural producers have to push their labor forces to perform at a higher level, the job of oversight of unsafe practices is more important than ever.

However, with the advent of autonomous vehicles some of the potential for human error can be ameliorated. For instance, findings from the Florida accident found that the driver missed signs at an under-construction intersection that an “alert and attentive” driver would have immediately seen. In a self-driving vehicle sensory data can direct advanced control elements to react to such information without the encumbrance of fatigue or drowsiness.

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