Driver fatigue, meth to blame in deadly 2015 Tennessee crash: safety panel

By David Shepardson

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The driver of a tractor-trailer had used methamphetamine and failed to get adequate rest before a highway crash in Tennessee that killed six people and injured 18, the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board said on Tuesday.

Truck driver Benjamin Brewer's excessive speed and failure to respond to slower moving traffic ahead were also to blame in the deadly crash near Chattanooga in June 2015 that involved seven other vehicles, NTSB chairman Christopher Hart said. The dead included two sisters, age 9 and 11, their mother and grandmother.

Brewer, 40, was driving at least 78 miles per hour in a 55-mph construction zone, had gone without sustained rest for 40 hours prior to the crash in violation of federal rules and failed to brake or to take any evasive action before the crash, the NTSB said after releasing a synopsis of the final report, expected in a few weeks. The NTSB said he had also used methamphetamine before the crash, testing showed.

Erinn O'Leary, an assistant public defender representing Brewer, declined to comment on the NTSB report.

The NTSB said trucking companies need to do a better job of screening drivers. Since 2012, the board has called on the U.S. Transportation Department to require automatic emergency braking in all commercial trucks to prevent rear-end crashes like this one.

The NTSB said while commercial trucks were involved in 11 percent of all fatal crashes they are involved in 30 percent of fatal work zone crashes. "Speed, distraction and impairment are key factors in these crashes," Hart said.

Brewer had been in seven crashes in three states over a four-year period, including four while behind the wheel of a commercial vehicle, the NTSB said.

Three days before the fatal crash, Brewer side-swiped another commercial motor vehicle in Wildwood, Florida, and was issued a citation, the NTSB said.

NTSB Vice Chair T. Bella Dinh-Zarr said the board has been raising the issue of distracted, sleepy, intoxicated and drug-impaired drivers for decades. "This is not a new issue," she said on Tuesday at a meeting where the board voted unanimously to accept the report.

The trucking company, Cool Runnings Express, told the NTSB it was unaware of all but one of the crashes Brewer had been involved in because state records did not list all incidents.

Brewer was indicted by a grand jury in Tennessee in 2015 on 13 charges including six counts of vehicular homicide, driving under the influence of narcotics, speeding and aggravated assault. He is awaiting trial in Tennessee and has a pre-trial hearing set for Oct. 17.

(Reporting by David Shepardson; Editing by Frances Kerry and Lisa Shumaker)