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The Virginia Tech Transportation Institute — the second largest university-level transportation institute in the U.S. — has been awarded two federal contracts for studies to enhance commercial truck driver safety, as Virginia Tech writes in a press release. The awards, which total $55 million, include one from the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA), with a ceiling of $30 million for a five-year period; and a maximum of $25 million from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), also during a five-year period. The combined award is the largest of its kind the Institute has received in its 25-year history.

The FMCSA award is for studying driver performance, including fatigue and distraction, writes Transport TopicsTruck driver fatigue has been in the news recently, in the case of a Walmart truck driver who crashed the tractor trailer he was driving into a minivan taxi in front of him, killing one passenger and critically injuring three others, among them comedian Tracy Morgan.

As this blog has written, Morgan is suing Walmart, alleging that the company knew, or should have known, that the driver, Kevin Roper, was not in compliance with federal laws mandating sufficient rest. In June, Roper was charged with vehicular homicide and assault-by-auto following the crash. He pleaded not guilty to those charges. In another post, this blog wrote that court documents revealed that Roper hadn’t slept for more than 24 hours at the time of the crash.

The FMCSA award builds on a previous $10 million contract, also covering five years, that “led to several of Virginia Tech’s largest-impact transportation results from the past decade,” Virginia Tech writes. Among that previous study’s conclusions was that texting while driving increases the risk of a crash or near-crash by 23 times for truck and bus drivers.

That research, which was led by Richard Hanowski, director of the Institute’s Center for Truck and Bus Safety, helped shape the federal government’s current “hours-of-service” rules, Virginia Tech writes. As this blog wrote, the Walmart truck accident took place “only days after a U.S. Senate committee voted to weaken a law that bans truck drivers from driving on too-little sleep.”

This new FMCSA-funded study, which will also be led by Hanowski, is expected to take several years, Virginia Tech writes. It will employ “naturalistic driving video capture” technology, in which multiple cameras are placed inside and outside a vehicle, to “unobtrusively” record the driver as he or she interacts with the vehicle and road while driving. Video capture has been used to analyze more than 40 million miles of travel, Virginia Tech writes.

The $25 million contract from NHTSA is for researching automated vehicle technology that is coming in the next decade, and this includes safety protocols, Virginia Tech writes. This study will be headed by Myra Blanco, who leads the Institute’s new Center for Automated Vehicle Systems, and will encompass vehicle electronic systems, ways to block potential hacking of vehicles, and the identification of potential safety issues, including fail-safe systems. The study will build on work Blanco has done involving how drivers interact with automated vehicles, a study that was carried out on the Virginia Smart Road in Blacksburg.

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