Distracted Driving Cause of Train Crash, Explosion

By Roy Maurer Oct 31, 2014
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The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has recommended prohibiting commercial drivers’ use of hands-free electronic devices while operating their vehicles, in an accident report issued Oct. 22, 2014.

The report determined that the probable cause of a May 28, 2013, train/truck collision, 15-car derailment and subsequent explosion in Rosedale, Md., was the truck driver’s failure to ensure that the tracks were clear before traversing an ungated highway-railroad grade crossing. Contributing to the crash were:

  • The truck driver’s distraction due to a hands-free cellphone conversation.
  • The limited sight distance due to vegetation and roadway curvature.
  • The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration’s (FMCSA’s) inadequate oversight of the carrier, Alban Waste LLC, which allowed the company to continue operations despite a “serious and consistent pattern of safety deficiencies.”

The NTSB concluded that the federal ban on commercial drivers using handheld phones does not go far enough and criticized federal regulators for allowing the driver to continue operating after receiving multiple citations for negligence.

The Crash

The crash occurred when the truck driver and owner of the company, John Alban Jr., failed to make sure there was no train on the tracks he was crossing.

The agency investigation revealed that Alban, who crossed the tracks at that location regularly, was in the habit of relying on the sound of a train’s horn to determine if one was coming.

The CSX Transportation train engineer blew the horn three times as he approached the crossing but Alban said he didn’t hear it. Alban’s cellphone indicated that he answered a phone call using his wireless hands-free headset one second before the first train horn sounded and 18 seconds before the collision. Alban was severely injured and several of the 15 train cars that were knocked off the tracks contained hazardous chemicals that burst into flames and exploded, damaging nearby businesses and homes.


The NTSB recommended extending the limitations on commercial drivers’ use of portable electronic devices to include hands-free cellphones. Neither Maryland law nor federal regulations prohibit using a hands-free cellphone while driving.

“Current laws may mislead people to believe that hands-free is as safe as not using a phone at all,” said Acting Board Chairman Christopher Hart. “Our investigations have found over and over that distraction in any form can be dangerous behind the wheel.”

The board also recommended the FMCSA require a full compliance review of new carriers that fail their safety audits and corrective action plans, or are issued expedited action letters, and establish criteria for revoking the certification of any new carrier that demonstrates a pattern of safety deficiencies.

In 2003, the FMCSA instituted the New Entrant Safety Assurance Program subjecting new carriers to an 18-month safety monitoring period. During this period the carrier’s roadside inspections are monitored and it undergoes a safety audit to assess whether it is meeting regulatory requirements.

Alban Waste became a new entrant carrier in April 2011, failed its new entrant safety audit in November 2011, and went through several cycles of enforcement and corrective action leading up to the crash. The FMCSA revoked Alban Waste’s registration and put the company out of service July 1, 2013.

“We continue to be concerned with FMCSA’s new-entrant program,” said Hart. “Problem operators keep falling through the cracks.”

Marissa Padilla, director of communications at the FMCSA, said the agency would carefully review and respond to each of the NTSB’s recommendations.

Roy Maurer is an online editor/manager for SHRM.

Follow him @SHRMRoy

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