Trucks at Work
crash1 File Photo

No brainer

“We need to encourage fleets to invest in safety systems. We need to make the decision to purchase this technology easier.” -Stephen Campbell, executive director, CVSA.

No doubt by now you‘ve heard of the growing push to get Congress to pass H.R. 3820, a bill known as the “Commercial Motor Vehicle Advanced Safety Technology Tax Act.” This bill offers tax credits to trucking fleets larger and small worth 50% of the purchase price for various safety systems: up to $1,500 per system, with a maximum of $3,500 per vehicle and a maximum of $350,000 per fleet per taxable year. Technologies covered by the bill include collision warning, lane departure warning, blind spot warning, vehicle stability, and brake stroke monitoring.

The “fiscal encouragement” proposed by this bill and being pushed hard by the Motor & Equipment Manufacturers Association (MEMA) and the Commercial Vehicle Safety Alliance (CVSA) really is a “no brainer” for trucking in my estimation. I mean, seriously: doesn‘t this make sense? Give fleets a tax break for installing a set of safety technologies with well-established track records - systems that‘ve proven to reduce commerical truck accidents of all sorts.

We need to do this, too, because as Stephen Campbell - a longtime highway safety advocate for this industry - noted so directly above, fleets need help getting over the “cost hump” if you will. “Unfortunately, many fleets look at safety technology just from a dollars and cents perspective,” he said during a press briefing held with reporters this week. “They don‘t invest in this technology when times get tight.” And as we all know, times are tight right now.

Crash 1

But we need to look at the larger picture here: the number of people being killed in truck crashes every year in this country. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) paints a pretty grim picture where that‘s concerned in its latest dissection of roadway crash statistics for 2006, the latest year for which details are available.

According to NHTSA, in 2006, 385,000 large trucks (with a gross vehicle weight rating greater than 10,000 pounds) were involved in traffic crashes in the U.S.: killing 4,995 people and injuring 106,000. That means one out of nine traffic fatalities in 2006 resulted from a collision involving a large truck.

Of the fatalities that resulted from crashes involving large trucks, said NHTSA, 75% were occupants of another vehicle, with 76% of the occupants in the other vehicle suffering the injuries.

NHTSA also found large trucks were much more likely to be involved in a fatal multiple-vehicle crash - as opposed to a fatal single-vehicle crash - than were passenger vehicles (82% of all large trucks involved in fatal crashes, compared with 60% of all passenger vehicles), with the truck was struck in the rear 2.7 times as often as the other vehicle (19% and 7%, respectively).

Crash 2

Now, the technologies covered under H.R. 3820‘s tax credits can definitely help reduce and probably even eliminate many of these numbers, but they‘re not an “automatic” panacea by any means. Truck drivers need to be retrained in many ways so they fully understand how these systems affect the vehicle - especially in terms of their limitations.

At one safety demonstration I attended recently, for example, I talked with some engineers about driver reaction to electronic stability control - a system that cuts the engine power and selectively applies the brakes to prevent rollovers if a driver takes a turn too fast. Many drivers at one fleet using this technology complained that their new trucks didn‘t have the power they used to have. In reality, they‘d been taking turns way too fast, activating the safety systems.

Speed management is a critical issue here. According to NHTSA, nearly one-fourth (24%) of all large truck drivers involved in fatal crashes in 2006 had at least one prior speeding conviction, compared to 19% of the passenger car drivers involved in fatal crashes.

Drivers are a critical component to getting the full benefit of this technology. They must “buy in” to all this stuff and use it properly - and frankly, they can be won over simply by applying incentives, such as bonuses for safety records. And don‘t pooh-pooh that idea out of hand - look at drunk driving rates as an example of the truck driving community‘s eye on safety. Less than 1% of commercial trucker drivers involved in fatal crashes in 2006 were legally drunk, compared to 23% of passenger car drivers, according to NHTSA‘s figures.

We also need the insurance industry to get off its duff, too. All the technologies promoted by the tax credit bill have been around for years now - lots of real-world data exists backing up their ability to reduce accidents. I mean, come on - the insurance industry gives passenger car and light truck owners a break on premiums if they install car alarms, for goodness sake - one of the truly worthless pieces of technology around. Everyone ignores them today due to their high rates of false alarms. The kind of technology we‘re talking about for trucking actively steps takes a role in preventing crashes - the kinds of accidents that cost millions of dollars, especially when someone gets killed. The insurance industry should be falling over itself to help out here.

Then there‘s the final point CVSA‘s Campbell eloquently illustrated at the briefing: if this stuff is so good, why not just mandate its use by the industry?

“It‘s perfectly legitimate to suggest a mandate for these systems,” he said. “But we‘re painfully aware that it can take from two to five years for the federal rulemaking process to put such a mandate in place. In the meantime, people will be dying. We need to do something now that will improve safety faster than the rulemaking process can.”

I can think of no stronger argument in favor of H.R. 3820 than that.