When Kenneth Laymon, a commercial truck driver from Jasper, Alabama, made a phone call from his truck, it took one second for that small distraction to escalate into a brutal crash that left 11 people dead on a Kentucky highway. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) is now using the Munfordville, Ky., crash to back up its push for a nationwide ban on cell phone use for all commercial truck and bus drivers.
The NTSB doesn’t have the authority to create and impose new safety regulations, but its recommendations carry much weight in federal and state regulatory agencies as well as private industries. The ban would include the use of hands-free devices, a stipulation backed up by studies that have found hands-free communication can be just as distracting and dangerous as handheld devices.
NTSB Chairman Deborah Hersman told MSNBC that she expects there will be some outcry in response to the board’s proposal. “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 told MSNBC.
Mr. Laymon’s widow, Misty Laymon, told MSNBC that her husband was careful about driving and using the phone, and that he even bought a hands-free device to ensure more safety behind the wheel. However, investigators informed the NTSB that Mr. Laymon had been talking and texting in the hours leading up to the early morning crash.
Kentucky is one of 34 states that have banned texting for all drivers, but talking on a cell phone behind the wheel is still legal. The NTSB sent its recommendations for an extensive cell phone ban to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration and all 50 states.
Federal authorities have ruled out alcohol and drug use in the Kentucky crash, but said that fatigue may also have played a role. Mr. Laymon had been driving for 13 hours from Lansing, Michigan, when the crash occurred. One investigator told MSNBC that Mr. Laymon “panicked and hit the brakes but didn’t try to steer his tractor-trailer out of the median.”
The 38-ton truck instead plowed through a cable barrier and crashed head-on with a van carrying a Mennonite family and friends to a wedding in Iowa. Mr. Laymon and 10 passengers in the van were killed. The only survivors were two young children who were secured in safety seats.
The fiery crash prompted the FMCSA to investigate and subsequently shut down Hester, Inc., of Fayette, Alabama, which employed Mr. Laymon. According to the agency’s records, the company’s drivers were inspected 194 times in about 30 months, resulting in 21 drivers being pulled off the road for logbook violations and exceeding driving limits.
The NTSB believes that after closing down, Hester was “bought” by FTS Fleet Services of Little Rock, Arkansas, though the company uses Hester’s same trucks and drivers. FMCSA authorities fined and suspended FTS but ordered it to pay the $13,000 federal fine Hester received after the Kentucky crash.