Where Stops the Buck?

This is story with no beginning or end, so let’s start it a little more than a year ago when a trash truck sat motionless on a railroad crossing between flashing warning lights, bells, and gate arms signaling a train’s approach. The collision that followed resulted in one fatality and a severe injury to the two passengers, minor injuries to the driver, and a mangled rear-loader whose contents littered more than an acre of the countryside. As for the train--a chartered passenger unit operated by Amtrak--its forward power unit was derailed leading to several minor injuries, only one of which required medical attention. 

At the time of the crash, the truck crew was en route to assist another crew in refuse collection. On examination of the driver’s work schedule, National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) investigators found no indication of time pressure. Statements from the train crew along with the position of the truck at the time of the crash indicate that the driver intentionally drove around the gates and attempted to cross the tracks after the grade-crossing warning system activated. Just what prompted the driver to try to game the system, or once in the train’s crosshairs sit there rather than smashing through the outer gate stanchion, remain mysteries because “he ain’t talking.” 

The NTSB obtained a blood sample from the driver almost five hours after the crash that identified 2.2 milligrams per liter of gabapentin, 6.6 nanograms per milliliter (ng/mL) of THC, and 59 ng/mL of THC carboxylic acid (THC-COOH), an inactive metabolite of THC, the primary psychoactive chemical in marijuana, which is classified as a Schedule I controlled substance.  

Marijuana typically results in significant decrements in perceptual and cognitive performance for 2 to 3 hours after use, with residual impairment lasting hours longer. THC on its own can have some CNS-depressant effects, and in combination with gabapentin can have additive CNS impacts, such as enhanced sedative and slower psychomotor effects.   

Following a particularly rigorous investigation—the train was transporting a Congressional body from Washington, DC, to a conference in Kentucky—the NTSB determined that the probable cause of the crash was the truck driver’s decision to enter an active grade crossing and his inaction when he encountered obstacles while attempting to cross the railroad tracks, most likely the result of his impairment from the combined effects of the drugs marijuana and gabapentin. Contributing to the severity of the injuries was the lack of seat belt use by the truck occupants. 

Because the expert witness for the prosecution could not positively assess the level of incapacitation of the driver based on the results of the delayed blood test, the circuit court judge refused to allow testimony regarding the test results that revealed the driver had THC in his system or that marijuana was found inside the truck as evidence for a DUI conviction. Accordingly, the jury dismissed the charges of involuntary manslaughter and DUI. 

The NTSB found that the company, which had been providing waste collection services to the community for 34 years, did not have regular safety meetings or written policies and procedures for hiring and training its personnel. The owner claimed that the carrier had a zero-tolerance policy on drug use but was unaware of the federal requirements for drug testing of commercial drivers, nor procedures for performing such tests. Moreover, he claimed that the driver in question was a good employee with six years’ service under his belt.  

No mention in investigation documents makes reference to actions or responsibility for the occurrence on the part of the contracting authority. 

So that’s the end of the story, right?  

Not if we’re serious about safety, and my sense of justice has nothing to do with driver’s beating the rap for lack of conclusive evidence. To me the real issue has its roots farther up the food chain, first to the hauling company and then—and most particularly so--to the agency that let the contract; in both cases for their insufficient oversight of the waste collection and hauling operations. 

The idea that a hauling company operating Class 8 trucks does not know the requirements of federal regulations at 49 CFR Parts 40 and 382 regarding the use of controlled substances as well as random testing protocols seems pretty far-fetched. While the absence of regularly established safety meetings and lack of written policies and procedures for hiring and training employees are not actionable offenses, they would seem to contravene good sense. 

But as for the contracting agency, the same cannot be said. The responsibility for public health and safety on its part is absolute and it is not enough to suggest that the ball is in someone else’s court with the mere stroke of a pen. Oversight is the mandatory first step in carrying out that responsibility and while today’s legal and employee union realities may limit truly effective actions on their part, public agencies must remain engaged in the performance of all of their own and their contractors’ activities…most especially those in which safety is a factor 

I’ve always liked the sign on President Harry Truman’s desk that read, “The Buck Stops Here,” and until there’s one like it on every waste manager’s desk, our safety record will not be one in which we can take pride.  

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