Is Platooning Tractor Trailers Safe?

Is it a smart idea for two 80,000 pound 18 wheelers to be tailgating each other? Many states today are debating whether to allow the platooning of tractor-trailers, as technology is emerging that is designed to make the practice safer.

The technology would allow two trucks that are digitally connected to follow one another at a closer distance than usual, as the trucks are linked electronically and accelerate and brake as one unit. The driver is effectively bypassed in this platooning tactic.

One of the reasons that platooning is being developed is that it cuts down on fuel use. When two trucks are paired in this fashion, air flows in a smoother fashion and there is less air drag. A truck riding in the slipstream of another big rig can save as much as 10% on fuel. The truck in the front also cuts about 5% in fuel use. Buying diesel fuel is about 20% of operating costs, so this could save the industry a lot of money.

However, the major question that most states are wrestling with is this: Is platooning safe? Big rig crashes account for 11% of all fatal accidents, even though they are just 14% of the vehicles on American roads. NHTSA data states that 72% of the 4317 people who died in truck crashes last year were in passenger cars. Eleven percent were pedestrians, road workers or bikers.

Platooning uses technology that is already in some big rigs but it has to be connected so that real-time data is being used. In a truck with digital connectivity, there is a camera in front of the lead truck that shows the road ahead to the driver in the second rig. Platooning affects the drivers’ ability to make driving decisions. If the digital connection is lost, there could be a serious accident.

Another safety concern is how regular drivers will react to platooning. Will they try to cut between the two trucks? Will a platoon block an exit ramp, which could lead to accidents as drivers try to get around the platoon.

There have been some truck platooning experiments conducted in Virginia in recent months. In September, there was a three-truck platoon driving closely together on I-66 and Route 28 in Northern Virginia. The trucks were connected electronically, allowing them to safely drive the highway just feet behind each other. The experiment was conducted with police escort and with the assistance of the Federal Highway Administration.

Our Virginia truck accident attorneys are concerned about the technology going awry on these platoons, leading to serious truck accidents. We also think that drivers cutting into the platoons could prove to be a major problem, leading to accidents, personal injury lawsuits, and potentially even death.