The freight train derailment and explosion that caused millions of dollars in property damage in Rosedale last year spurred National Transportation Safety Board officials on Wednesday to call for new laws banning the use of hands-free cellphone devices by drivers.
John Alban Jr., who was driving a commercial waste truck that collided with the train and forced the derailment, was using such a device at the time, the NTSB found. He had received a call 18 seconds prior to the collision.
"Current laws may mislead people to believe that hands free is as safe as not using a phone at all," acting NTSB chairman Christopher A. Hart said in a statement. "Our investigation has found over and over that distraction in any form can be dangerous behind the wheel."
As part of its final report on the Rosedale incident, the NTSB called on the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration to prohibit the use of hands free devices by commercial drivers across the country. Hart also said he'd like to see all 50 states and the District of Columbia ban the use of such devices by all drivers.
"In a perfect world, we don't want anyone using hands free devices," Hart said.
As an investigative agency and not a regulator, the NTSB can only recommend the changes — and it's unclear whether its advice will be heeded.
Thirty-eight states, including Maryland, and the District of Columbia ban all forms of cellphone use by novice drivers, such as those with learner or provisional licenses, according to the Governors Highway Safety Association. All cellphone uses are banned for school drivers in 20 states and Washington, but Maryland is not one of them.
The safety agency has tried but failed to suggest ways to limit hands-free devices — including after a 2004 accident involving a bus full of high school students on a trip from Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport to Virginia.
Legislators in Maryland passed a law in 2010 banning the use of handheld devices behind the wheel, but made doing so a "secondary" offense — meaning an officer couldn't stop a driver without witnessing some other violation. In 2013, the law was tightened, allowing police to pull over drivers solely for talking on a handheld device.
But the law doesn't prevent drivers from chatting through a hands-free device such as a Bluetooth connection or a built-in communications system — add-ons that are becoming increasingly common in vehicles.
Commercial drivers were banned from talking or texting on handheld devices in 2011. The motor carrier safety administration said in a statement that it "will carefully review and respond to" the NTSB's latest recommendations.
Erin Henson, a Maryland Department of Transportation spokeswoman, said the agency is "committed to making every effort toward zero deaths on our roadways" — last year reaching the lowest number of highway fatalities since 1961, with 466. The agency is "carefully reviewing" the NTSB's recommendation.
Louis Campion, president of the Maryland Motor Truck Association, said hands-free devices are in fact becoming increasingly critical for improving safety in commercial trucking.
"There are clear times when a trucking company does need to communicate with its drivers while they are on the road," Campion said, including to share information about traffic accidents in their immediate paths or areas of congestion that, if not avoided, could produce dangerous scenarios for trucks drivers and those in the vehicles around them.
"Whenever you're using a hands-free device or any item that can cause a distraction, there is a level of personal responsibility and accountability," Campion said. "A driver has to use discretion to determine whether they are in an area where they can use a communication system safely."
Hart said there could be exceptions to the bans for emergency situations, but that distracted driving involving phone calls is an all-too-common factor in serious and deadly transportation disasters. He cited the Rosedale incident as a prime example.
The CSX Transportation freight train was carrying multiple chemicals, some of which ignited and caused a massive explosion that sent a powerful shock wave through the local community.
Several warehouses that line the tracks, as well as multiple businesses on a hill overlooking them, sustained heavy damage, with collapsed walls and roofs and shattered windows.
Homes in nearby residential areas also were affected, with homeowners reporting broken windows and cracks in their foundations. No one was killed in the incident, but several people — including Alban — were injured.
"Imagine how much worse this accident could have been if it had occurred in a more densely populated area," Hart said.
He also said the agency is "pursuing a holistic approach" to specifically address freight safety as the volume of volatile freight — including crude oil — dramatically increases. "We are looking at that issue all over the country," Hart said.
The agency's findings and recommendations were announced during a news conference at the Rosedale American Legion Post 180. The derailment occurred nearby, on tracks that pass an industrial park on the south side of Pulaski Highway.
The NTSB found that Alban's company — Alban Waste — demonstrated "a consistent and serious pattern of non-compliance" with federal motor carrier regulations, and that the motor carrier safety administration was aware of the problems but failed to adequately address them.
"Problem operators keep falling through the cracks," Hart said.
The NTSB also found that a lack of oversight of private rail crossings poses a risk to public safety.
The derailment was caused by the negligence of Alban, whose vehicle collided with the train on a street-level crossing in the area, according to the NTSB. It also found vegetation and the roadway's curvature limited visibility near the crossing.
Local police charged Alban with multiple traffic violations following the crash — for which he paid fines.
The surveillance camera of a local business caught a second collision at the same railroad crossing in August, when a waste truck again collided with a CSX train. That incident did not cause a derailment, but renewed safety concerns about the un-gated street-level crossing.
The Rosedale crossing was marked only with a stop sign and crossbucks at the time of the first incident. A gate has still not been installed at the crossing.
Officials with the NTSB said it was unclear who was responsible for the upkeep of the crossing, and that the vegetation restricting sight lines in the area was only substantially cleared after the second collision this past summer.
State law gives trains the right-of-way at a crossing, putting the responsibility on drivers to be aware of their surroundings when they approach.
Train operators also are supposed to sound their horns as they approach the crossing. Alban said he never heard the train coming, but the NTSB said the horn sounded three times prior to the collision.
"An alert driver would have heard the train horn even with the windows closed," Hart said Wednesday, blaming Alban's use of his hands-free device for distracting him.
Ragina Cooper Averella, a spokeswoman for driver advocacy group AAA Mid-Atlantic, applauded the NTSB for raising the issue of hands-free devices and the dangers they may create — an issue that AAA and other groups have been studying as well.
The National Safety Council has a running campaign under the slogan "Hands-Free is Not Risk-Free." It stresses that talking to someone on the phone — whether in your hand or from your dashboard — is not the same as talking to a passenger in the vehicle because a passenger can "spot and point out driving hazards" and "recognize when traffic is challenging and stop talking."
The group says drivers "can miss seeing up to 50 [percent] of what's around them when talking on any kind of a cell phone."
This month, the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety released a study on distracted driving that found "three out of four drivers [believe] that hands-free technology is safe to use." But, the group said, "Americans may be surprised to learn that these popular new vehicle features may actually increase distraction."
The study also found that certain hands-free technologies are "less cognitively distracting" than others.
AAA has called on manufacturers of such devices to make them less complicated.
"We recognize that this is certainly a conversation that needs to be had, as our research indicates that hands-free does not mean risk-free," Averella said. "We welcome further discussion, which this recommendation from the NTSB will likely generate."
Baltimore Sun reporter Colin Campbell contributed to this article.