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Rise in truck crash-related fatalities sparks debate

Nov. 15, 2013
An increase in truck related highway fatalities recorded by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) in 2012 versus 2011 is firing renewed debate regarding the industry’s safety profile.

An increase in truck related highway fatalities recorded by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) in 2012 versus 2011 is firing renewed debate regarding the industry’s safety profile.

NHTSA reported a 3.7% increase in overall large-truck fatalities, which includes: an 8.9% increase in fatalities among truck occupants; a 4.8% increase in fatalities among occupants of other vehicles; and an 11% decrease in fatalities among individuals who were not in a vehicle. Overall, fatalities involving large trucks represented 4% of all highway deaths in 2012, up from 3% in 2011.

Overall highway deaths inched up 3.3% to 33,561 in 2012 – some 1,082 more fatalities versus 2011 – which is the first increase since 2005, the agency said, though it stressed that the raw number of fatalities is at the same level as 1950.

NHTSA also pointed out the majority of those increased highway-related deaths – about 72% – occurred in the first quarter of 2012, mainly involving motorcyclists and pedestrians.

Still, the upward trend in truck-related fatalities concerns safety advocates. “Obviously these are not good results and we are not happy about it,” Steve Keppler, executive director of the Commercial Vehicle Safety Alliance (CVSA), told Fleet Owner. “However, we still are experiencing historical lows in truck-related fatalities. [But] it does tell us that we need to do more and we have some work to do.”

Yet the American Trucking Associations (ATA) contends that NHTSA’s analysis of crash data is too generalized where trucking is concerned, leading to a potentially distorted picture of the industry’s safety footprint.

“Data released today lumps tractor-trailers in with millions of smaller, non-freight-hauling vehicles whose crash rates are higher than in the trucking industry,” said Bill Graves, ATA’s president and CEO, in a statement. “The federal government should not be so casual with its terminology and should provide further information and clarity to the public.”

He added that the American Transportation Research Institute (ATRI) found earlier this year “noticeable differences” in safety trends between different truck sizes, with medium-duty generally performing worse than heavy-duty trucks. “In addition, the results indicated disparities between interstate and intrastate motor carriers,” Graves said.

CVSA’s Keppler also stressed that it’s premature to draw firm conclusions yet from NHTSA’s initial fatality data report.

“It is hard to make any significant assessments without looking further into the numbers [as] the NHTSA numbers released today don’t have a significant breakdown yet,” he emphasized.

“Since the majority of truck-related crashes are multi-vehicle crashes, we can’t tell from the data whether this rise is due to truck driver or car driver error,” Keppler added. “What we can tell is most of the fatality rise is with the car drivers. To get a better sense on this we really need to delve further into the numbers to try and make sense of this.”

However, he noted that an examination of traffic enforcement data over the last few years seems to indicate a rise in drivers being cited for the more serious infractions, which could be one reason driving the increase in truck-related fatalities.

“This rise is coupled with a decrease in overall violation totals, which exacerbates the issue,” he explained. “One could interpret this to mean that drivers are operating more aggressively and/or irresponsibly, or that enforcement is concentrating more on those problem behaviors. In reality is probably is a combination of the two.”

NHTSA reported several other findings from its latest analysis of highway fatalities as well:

  • Early estimates on crash fatalities for the first half of 2013 indicate a decrease in deaths compared to the same timeframe in 2012.
  • Fatalities among pedestrians increased for the third consecutive year, some 6.4% increase over 2011. The data showed the large majority of pedestrian deaths occurred in urban areas, at non-intersections, at night and many involved alcohol.
  • Motorcycle rider fatalities increased for the third consecutive year, increasing 7.1% over 2011. The agency noted 10 times as many riders died not wearing a helmet in states without a universal helmet law than in states with such laws.
  • Deaths in crashes involving drunk drivers increased 4.6% in 2012, taking 10,322 lives compared to 9,865 in 2011. The majority of those crashes involved drivers with a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of 0.15 or higher – nearly double the legal limit.
  • The number of people killed in distraction-affected crashes decreased slightly from 3,360 in 2011 to 3,328, while an estimated 421,000 people were injured, a 9% increase from the estimated 387,000 people injured in 2011. NHTSA stressed, though, that it is just beginning to identify distraction-related accidents, and is continuing work to improve the way it captures data to better quantify and identify potential trends in this area.
  • Nighttime seat belt use continues to be a challenge. In nighttime crashes in 2012, almost two-thirds of the people that died were unrestrained.

NHTSA Administrator David Strickland did highlight what he called “progress” in several areas, noting for example that 13 states and Washington D.C. experienced reductions in overall traffic fatalities, led by Mississippi (48 fewer), New Jersey (38), Georgia (34), Alabama (30) and Utah (26).

In addition, he said 18 states and Washington D.C. showed decreases in drunk-driving deaths, with New Jersey reporting the greatest decrease (30 fewer) followed by Colorado (27), Utah (20), Oklahoma (17) and Virginia (17).

"As a public health and safety agency, any increase in the number of deaths is cause for concern,” Strickland said in a statement. “While we're seeing some unfortunate trends, we're also seeing progress in some parts of the country.”

That falls in line with what other safety experts are thinking in regards to NHTSA’s latest highway fatality figures.

"Any increase in highway fatalities is disturbing, especially for the families involved. That is why the safety community has to keep doing what they do each and every day,” David Kelly, former Acting Administrator of NHTSA and now president of safety consulting firm Storm King Strategies, told Fleet Owner. “Hopefully, this one year increase will be just that, a one year increase, and we can get back to building on the progress on the last decade."

About the Author

Sean Kilcarr | Editor in Chief

Sean previously reported and commented on trends affecting the many different strata of the trucking industry. Also be sure to visit Sean's blog Trucks at Work where he offers analysis on a variety of different topics inside the trucking industry.

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