When South Strabane Township fire Chief Scott Reese pulls up at the scene of a crash involving a tractor-trailer, he is no longer surprised when he is unable to understand what the rig driver is saying.
Last weekend, a Russian national was at the wheel of a tractor-trailer that barreled across the median of Interstate 70 near the south junction and crashed into a car, killing a Maryland mother and daughter. A sport utility vehicle driven by a Washington woman was unable to stop in time to avoid the overturned trailer, crashing into it. She, another adult and two children also were injured.
That driver, Yevgeniy Burgreyev, 44, of West Sacramento, Calif., told state police in broken English that he was not sure what happened to cause the crash. He told police he had been driving for more than 10 years and did have a valid commercial driver’s license.
“You come on the scene and can’t understand what they are trying to say,” Reese said. “You are trying to get information about what they are hauling and if there are any hazards we have to worry about. And it is obvious they are not from this country.”
In addition to the fatal crash, South Strabane firefighters have been called to two wrecks involving drivers less than fluent in English.
“We had one crash at the north junction from I-70 west to I-79 north that I couldn’t even tell you what country he was from,” Reese said of the Nov. 8 incident. “His load was unsecured and unblocked. When he came around the ramp, it shifted and caused his rig to roll over.”
In 2005, a Bosnian trucker who spoke only limited English but had a valid CDL was sentenced to prison for a 2003 Butler County crash that killed a family of five. The judge in that case faulted the driver for failing to acknowledge that he should not operate a rig in Pennsylvania because of the state’s requirement that drivers know English.
Commercial driver qualifications require that drivers be able to read and speak sufficiently to be able to converse with the general public, understand highway signs and signals, as well as respond to inquiries by police, said Dean Riland, safety director for the Pennsylvania Motor Truck Association. Drivers also have to be able to fill out paperwork, such as log books, in English.
“It has been an ongoing problem for years, especially across Interstate 80,” Riland said. “There has been some issue with drivers being able to communicate in English, particularly coming back and forth from Chicago to New York and New Jersey.”
In addition to federal motor carrier safety regulations, the North America Out of Service Criteria state it is the responsibility of the driver and motor carrier to be able to communicate in the country in which they are operating so that safety is not compromised, said state police Lt. Ray Cook, director of the commercial vehicle division in Harrisburg.
“If the driver is unable to communicate sufficiently to understand and respond to official inquiries and directions, it is an out-of-service violation,” Cook said. “They need to understand directions given during inspections and have to be able to tell the trooper where they are coming from and where they are going so documents like the log book can be adequately reviewed.
“They don’t have to speak the language as well as you and I,” he added. “But there are certain questions that need to be answered to determine things like hours of service. You can’t do that if there is no communication.”
In Pennsylvania this year, state police conducted 230 inspections in which commercial drivers were unable to communicate sufficiently to understand and respond to official inquiries and directions, Cook said. Those drivers were placed out of service.
Failure to understand instructions given to a driver not fluent in English nearly cost a trooper stationed at Troop N in Hazelton, Luzerne County, his life a few weeks ago.
“The trooper was about to start inspection of the air brakes, but the driver couldn’t speak fluent English,” Cook said. “There was some breakdown in communication about the brakes. The truck lunged forward, but the trooper was able to quickly get out from under with just some minor injuries.”
While federal guidelines require those with commercial driver’s licenses to read and speak English, Cook said it is his understanding that some states actually give the CDL tests in other languages.
Trooper Frank Lewis, who is assigned to the patrol unit at Troop B in Washington as well as the motor carrier enforcement team, said he is also seeing an increase in foreign drivers.
“Sometimes, they don’t act like they can speak English until you start writing the ticket,” Lewis said. “Then it is too late.”
Lt. Douglas Bartoe, patrol section supervisor for Troop B, said many of these drivers seem to be coming from former Eastern Bloc countries.
“The driver in the fatal crash was a Russian national with a California driver’s license,” Bartoe said. “I don’t know if companies are recruiting drivers or what. But they need to be better qualified.”
Lewis said some of these drivers can start their own company with a valid Department of Transportation number of insurance.
“Some of these drivers are getting along by the skin of their teeth because they are paying for everything,” he said of costs such as fuel, insurance and tolls.
Lewis said it is also the driver’s responsibility to make sure the tire pressure is correct, lights are working, hoses are fitted properly and loads are correctly secured.
Riland said there is a shortage of good truck drivers.
“Truck companies are always looking for good drivers,” Riland said. “Insurance companies advise carriers not to hire drivers with bad records or who are short on experience. Carriers want to hire drivers with safe records. It makes for better business.”
Bartoe said the troop is committed to making the highways safer, not only through inspections but also with beefed-up enforcement of moving violations such as speeding and aggressive driving.
“Travel from Eighty Four to West Chestnut Street, if you are going 55 mph, you almost get run over,” Bartoe said. “We are serving notice that we are going to be looking for moving violations and cracking down on speeders and aggressive drivers. Drivers are going to have to start slowing down.”