Families of truck crash victims, convinced that weak federal oversight contributed to the deaths of their loved ones, may now have an ally in the White House, fellow survivor President Biden.
A group who collectively lost 28 people to roadway collisions has sent a letter to Biden, whose wife and daughter died in a horrific 1972 crash, asking him to take up their cause and do more to prevent truck crashes.
“We’re hopeful that . . . Biden will be the one,” said Daphne Izer, whose son Jeffrey was among four teenagers killed on the Maine Turnpike in 1993 by a Walmart truck driver who had fallen asleep at the wheel of a tractor trailer.
Izer and her husband, Steve, are among the families who signed the letter last month from the Truck Safety Coalition, which seeks increased government efforts to reduce truck crashes on the nation’s roads.
More than 5,000 people died last year in crashes involving large trucks, statistics show. The number has risen steadily in recent years.
“The public is being massacred on the highways by big trucks and it’s unnecessary,” Joan B. Claybrook, former head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and president emeritus of Public Citizen, a nonprofit consumer advocacy group, said last month.
In announcing the letter to Biden, the families and advocates noted his visit last month to the grave of his first wife, Neilia, and daughter, Naomi, who died in the 1972 crash involving a tractor trailer. The couple’s two young sons were injured, but survived. Following an investigation, no criminal charges were filed.
The advocates’ demands include requiring automatic emergency braking as standard equipment on new trucks, stronger guards to prevent smaller vehicles from sliding below large trucks during a crash, and speed limiters. The safety mandates are, for the most part, already required for new trucks in the European Union and other places outside the United States, the letter said.
“During the past four years the US Department of Transportation has not advanced a single major safety regulation. Instead, government officials have relentlessly attacked existing truck safety rules with efforts to increase the work hours of truckers and to allow teen truckers to operate in interstate commerce,” the letter said.
“We cannot wait and allow another 20,000 truck crash deaths and 600,000 injuries in the next four years when solutions are already at hand.”
The advocates ask Biden to pick leaders who are free of industry ties and corporate influence to take the helm at NHTSA and the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, the agency that regulates interstate commercial trucking and passenger buses.
Biden has tapped former Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg as his pick for transportation secretary. Buttigieg appeared last week before senators considering his nomination. If he is confirmed, one of his deputies would be Stephanie Pollack, Massachusetts’ longtime secretary of transportation, who is joining the Federal Highway Administration as a top leader.
The president has named deputy administrators for NHTSA and FMCSA, but not candidates for the top jobs.
“We need somebody who wants to be a regulator,” said Jackie Gillan, former president of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety. “What you need are standards and enforcement and both of these are missing right now.”
NHTSA and FMCSA have referred questions to Biden’s transition team, which did not respond to requests for comment.
A Globe investigative series last August revealed the government’s trucking regulation system was full of loopholes, finding that one in five of the more than 4 million commercial trucks overseen by the government is in such disrepair that if stopped by safety inspectors, it would immediately be taken out of service.
“It brought to light what a lot of people just don’t know,” Claybrook said of the series. “They don’t know and understand that they’re dealing with rolling time bombs on the highway.”
In October, Senator Edward J. Markey wrote a letter to the FMCSA citing its “dereliction of responsibility” and demanding that it address safety failures detailed in the Globe investigation. A US DOT official responded in a Dec. 30 letter, which addressed only some of Markey’s questions.
“I look forward to working with the new Biden administration to get full answers, implement proven strategies, and deploy critical safety technologies to prevent unnecessary tragedies on our roads,” Markey said earlier this month.
Representative Seth Moulton, of Salem, said a recent National Transportation Safety Board report on a 2019 truck crash in New Hampshire that killed seven motorcyclists underscored how government neglect created the conditions that contributed to the tragedy.
“Trucking companies that choose to break the law can do so without fearing consequences unless there’s a tragedy,” Moulton said in a statement.
In interviews, several advocates said mandating automatic emergency braking in large trucks — which activates when an electronic system detects a potential collision — has the potential to save many lives.
“That would cut the casualty rate by a noticeable amount,” said Russell Swift of Wales, Maine, whose son, Jasen, was killed in 1993 in a collision in Nevada with a semi-truck.
A study released in September by a research group supported by auto insurers suggested features like automatic emergency braking and forward collision warnings, which alert drivers when their vehicle gets too close to the vehicle in front of them, could improve roadway safety. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety report said these features could prevent more than 40 percent of crashes in which large trucks rear-end other vehicles.
The researchers also found that when rear crashes happened, the systems cut speeds by more than 50 percent, reducing damage and injuries.
In 2015, NHTSA granted a petition by safety advocates to require the braking systems on large trucks, but the agency has not taken action to advance the proposal.
A report released last month by the Government Accountability Office questions whether federal transportation agencies are prepared to regulate automated systems, noting that they haven’t fully taken stock of their workforce to determine whether they have the skills required to oversee the technology.