Truckers and other commercial drivers should be banned from talking on the phone and texting when they are behind the wheel, a federal safety agency recommended Tuesday.
The National Transportation Safety Board endorsed the ban during a hearing in Washington after ruling that a truck driver on his phone caused a crash that killed 11 people on a Kentucky interstate in 2010. The board said the ban should include use of hands-free devices.
Kenneth Laymon, 45, of Jasper had just made a one-second call at the time of the March 26, 2010, crash on Interstate 65 near Munfordville, Ky., the board said.
'This is not going to be popular'
NTSB Chairman Deborah Hersman said similar recommendations about phone use have already been made in aviation and for ship operators.
"It may not be something that's widely embraced. This is not going to be popular. But, we're not here to be popular. We're here to do what needs to be done," Hersman said.
Investigator David Rayburn said Laymon panicked and hit the brakes but didn't try to steer his tractor-trailer out of the median. The 38-ton truck drove into the oncoming lanes and smashed head-on into a van carrying a Mennonite family and friends to a wedding in Iowa.
Laymon and 10 people in the van were killed in the fiery crash. Two young children in safety seats were the only survivors.
The NTSB was told that Laymon had been talking and texting in the hours leading up to the early morning crash.
The NTSB doesn't have the power to ban cell calls and texting. It sent its recommendation to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration and all 50 states for action. Kentucky is among 34 states that have barred texting for all drivers but it doesn't outlaw cellphone calls behind the wheel.
The proposed ban would cover commercial driver's license holders while they operate vehicles such as tractor-trailers, buses or tanker trucks. The federal Bureau of Labor Statistics estimated in 2008 that there were about 2.8 million commercial truckers.
Driver fatigue also cited
The NTSB voted to accept its investigators' conclusion that Laymon, distracted by his phone, caused the deadly wreck.
In an interview before the hearing, Misty Laymon said her husband was careful about using his phone while driving, even buying a hands-free device to ensure safety.
"I don't want him perceived to be another incompetent driver who killed people," she said.
She could not immediately be reached for comment after the hearing.
The NTSB also found that driver fatigue and the failure of cable barriers along the median contributed to the fatalities.
"We believe the ban on cellular telephones, hand held and hands free, are appropriate in this case," said NTSB Director of Highway Safety Don Karol.
Getting a cell ban in all 50 states is unlikely in the near term, said Jonathan Adkins, a spokesman for the Governors Highway Safety Association in Washington, D.C. The group has recommended employer-based policies instead.
"We're not there yet," Adkins said. "You shouldn't use your phone while you drive. The question is what do you do about it?"
Federal authorities said Laymon left Lansing, Mich., at about 4 p.m. on March 25, 2010. The wreck happened roughly 13 hours and 437 miles after he left. Autopsy tests on Laymon came back negative for alcohol or drug use.
The victims were 22-year-old Joel Gingerich, 22, and his 20-year-old fiancee, Rachel Esh, who were riding in the van. Also killed were John Esh, 64, owner of a vinyl-building business in Marrowbone; his 62-year-old wife, Sadie; their daughters, Rose, 40, and Anna, 33; their son and daughter-in-law, Leroy Esh, 41, and Naomi Esh, 33, and their adopted infant son; and family friend Ashlie Michelle Kramer, 22.
Several relatives of the Mennonite victims attended Tuesday's hearing. At one point they were advised to step outside before some graphic evidence was shown.
Company shut down
Investigator Rayburn said that the stretch of highway where the crash happened had a cable barrier along the median but it wasn't designed to stop a vehicle that weighed so much and was going so fast. Laymon was traveling about 70 mph, the speed limit for that stretch of highway, the NTSB said.
"When it struck the first post, it pulled the system down before it could engage the truck," Rayburn said.
After the wreck, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration shut down Laymon's employer, Hester Inc., of Fayette, Ala.
Federal records show the agency conducted 194 driver inspections on drivers for Hester Inc. over 30 months. They resulted in 21 drivers being taken out of service for log book violations, exceeding the 11-hour driving limit or the 14-hour on duty limit.
Hester has since been bought by FTS Fleet Services of Little Rock, Ark. The NTSB ruled that Hester essentially kept functioning under the guise of FTS, using the same trucks and employees. Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration fined FTS $35,000, which was suspended, and required FTS to pay Hester's $13,000 fine stemming from the fatal wreck.