According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, total fatalities in crashes involving large trucks (>10,000 pounds GVW) increased slightly in 2013 to 3,964, representing a 0.5% increase and 20 fatalities over 2012. Total fatalities had declined to a 40-year low of 3,380 in 2009, but have risen slightly in each of the last 4 years. Large truck fatalities per 100 million vehicle miles traveled (VMT) fell slightly to 1.44, after rising in each of the 3 previous years. That is a remarkable 30% lower than the 2000-2009 decade average of 2.07. It is critical to view these recent statistics over the long-run, as the numbers from the last few years in no way diminish the tremendous improvements in safety made by the trucking industry in the post-deregulation years. Despite a sharp increase in the number of VMT across this period, the absolute number of fatalities has significantly declined over the years. Fatalities per 100 million VMT have fallen from a 1979 peak of 6.15 to 1.44 in 2013, a stunning 77% decrease. We congratulate and thank the trucking industry for this remarkable achievement. Still, the increase in both fatalities and the fatality rate since the recessionary low of 2009 are concerning.
Despite a historical trend that exhibits a consistently higher fatal crash rate for large trucks than passenger vehicles, truck safety gains had erased this safety gap by 2009. We have seen that gap open back up since then. In 1979, the last year before trucking deregulation, the safety gap peaked at 2.4 fatal crashes per 100 million VMT. In 2009, the gap decreased to 0, but has since ticked back up to 0.5. Over the longer run, the prevalence of crashes has dramatically decreased for both types of vehicles, despite significant increases in total VMT for both large trucks and passenger vehicles.
Every highway fatality is a tragedy and all participants in the transportation industry should seek to reduce the frequency of fatal crashes. The current and historical data paints a picture of a trucking industry that has made great strides towards ensuring that America’s highways are continually made safer.
The uptick in fatalities and the rate of fatalities per 100 million miles since 2009 is concerning, but unfortunately the DOT report does not explain the increase. I can think of a few plausible reasons, but do not have enough data to definitively explain the increase.
1. Congestion: With the economic recovery since 2009 it seems like we may have greater highway congestion that would lead to more accidents. But, passenger miles traveled were only up 44 billion (1.7%) and truck miles were actually down 13 billion between 2009 and 2013, so that is not a likely explanation.
2. Distracted Driving: In 2013, for 62.8% of fatal accidents involving large trucks, the “Critical Precrash Event” was “Other Vehicles” either encroaching in the trucker’s lane or their actions within the trucker’s lane, while only 22.6% were due to the actions of the trucker, with the remaining 14.6% being due to some other reason such as pedestrian actions. There is no question that we have a distracted driving problem in America and with over three-fourths of all fatal truck crashes being caused by something other than the truck driver’s actions, we need to look beyond the trucking industry to find solutions.
3, Hours of Service: The restart provisions of the the 2013 Hours of Service rules change pushed more trucks out on the road in the morning hours. In 2013, 65.5% of large truck-related fatalities occurred during the 6 AM to 6 PM time frame. While, given the timing, it is obvious that the HOS change did not cause the increase in fatalities between 2009 and 2013, the FMCSA admits it did not study the consequences of pushing trucks onto the highways in morning rush hour and an American Transportation Research Institute study showed that truck accidents are more frequent during congested daylight hours. The roll-back of the restart provisions should improve safety.
4. CSA: Is it concerning that fatal accident frequency has increased since CSA/SMS was made public. The FMCSA has cut back on the number of carrier Compliance Reviews it conducts while increasing roadside inspections. Given that CSA scores bear no relationship to individual carrier accident frequency, perhaps the FMCSA should reconsider whether this highly flawed and much criticized system may be more of a problem than a solution for improving highway safety.
One thing that is clear is that the American Trucking Associations and nearly all truckers are incredibly focused on safety and are leading the way on issues and initiatives such as electronic logging devices, speed limiters, hair follicle drug tests, collision avoidance systems, America’s Road Team, Share the Road, and many other actions and programs that are designed to make our highways safer for everyone.