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Analyzing Data From a 10-Year Truck Safety Study

Trucking companies face challenges from all sides, especially in 2023. Truck drivers face even more challenges. Whether it be rising collision rates, fluctuating fuel costs, or poor transportation infrastructure maintenance – modern-day fleets have a lot to deal with. The ongoing shortage of skilled, experienced truck drivers and an aging workforce creates a complex series of challenges for modern trucking companies.

E-commerce has also changed the game for today’s trucking companies. Today’s eCommerce environment also puts pressure on proven business practices. Next-day and same-day deliveries disrupt common practices. The fact is companies like Amazon have changed the game. Normal shipping is no longer acceptable to most consumers.

Trucking companies have also got to deal with unreasonable verdicts. Extreme payouts for collision-related verdicts routinely cripple trucking companies of all sizes. Technology can help fleets, drivers, and businesses improve safety, control costs, and respond to litigation. And yet one of the biggest problems trucking companies deal with today lies in trucking safety. Let’s take a closer look at how safe the nation’s roads are from a truck accident perspective.

A Closer Look at Truck Fatality Data

We’ve been talking about truck crashes for a long time because the trucking industry is often judged based on truck fatality statistics. So, where are we today? Well, from 2009 to 2019, truck crash fatalities rose by 48%. In 2020, nearly 5,000 people died in truck crashes. At the time, that represented an average of 14 fatalities per day. That is a large and quite unacceptable number. In 2020, the numbers were even worse. Truck-involved crash injuries soared by 115%, averaging 4,363 per day in the period, reaching 146,000 in 2020.

Yet, why is the reason for this? For a long time, trucking fatalities had fallen. Why, during the two decades in which truck miles driven rose by 32%, did fatalities rise by 48% and injuries by 115%? This is a question that keeps fleet managers up at night. This is a vexing question because during this same period, occupant protection improved, and active safety technologies proliferated into the automobile market. It seems paradoxical that crashes would increase over this time. To properly answer the question, it is important to evaluate why crashes happen in the first place.

It is important for everyone on the road, from truck drivers to bicyclists and passenger car drivers, to know where crashes happen and do what they can to prevent them. So, what’s the reason? Well, in a high percentage of crashes involving passenger cars and commercial trucks, the car was at fault. Yet, because of litigation and the power of attorneys, many trucking companies still find themselves on the hook, even if it wasn’t their truck driver’s fault.

Still, let’s reexamine that miles-driven statistic. Over the reporting period, miles driven rose by 32%. If nothing else changed, then that would be an increase of 32% in crash fatalities. The problem is that fatalities rose by 48%. In a time when safety enhancements only got better, a 16% rise seems excessive.

What Types of Crashes Occur?

Professional truck drivers should be held to an even higher standard of defensive driving. It is up to fleet managers to make sure this is the case. By creating effective training and development programs, fleet managers can ensure their drivers are always ready for the road. Yet, crashes happen. They cannot be prevented and are a simple fact that comes from trucks and passenger cars being on the road. Insight is gained when you look at the causes.

First, it is important that motor carriers not route their truck drivers on the shortest routes rather than the safest routes. Why? Because only one in four crashes occur on an interstate highway; 75.5% of truck crashes are on non-interstate roads. That’s largely because most passenger and truck travel happens on interstate highways.

Still, four-way intersections represented over a quarter percent of all crashes. And yet it is rural roads where most of the country’s fatal truck crashes occur. More than half of all big truck-related fatalities happen on rural roads.

Another important point to consider is where crashes happen on trucks. The breakdown is as follows:

  • Front: 58% front
  • Back: 19%
  • Side Collisions: 15%

Where Are Truck Crashes Happening?

Now, let’s examine where truck crashes occur, as this also provides insight into why they happen. A 2019 state-by-state map of truck-involved fatalities shows that states near the coast have the lowest truck-involved fatality rates, generally under or just above 10%. Two examples of this are Hawaii (2%) and New Hampshire (4%), with have some of the lowest fatalities.

Fatal truck crash rates are highest in the Midwest and Mountain states, with Wyoming and Nebraska at 25% and 17%, respectively. Nationally, 9% of fatal crashes involved big rig commercial motor vehicles in 2019. What could be the reason why there is such a disparity? While there is no specific research to explain it, there are more rural roads in Midwest and Mountain states. And since most crashes happen on rural roads, the correlation is there.

How do drugs and alcohol factor into the crash statistics? It should be noted that truck drivers in fatal crashes had a much lower rate of alcohol involvement than drivers of passenger cars, light trucks, or motorcycles, which had the highest, at 29%. Interestingly, truck drivers who had previous crashes were more likely to be involved in another, at 23%.

What Has Caused the Fluctuations in Truck Crash Data?

Large truck crash rates fluctuate. It is the nature of the industry. Still, there are some historical trends in the data. For instance, from about 1999 to 2009, crashes, deaths, and injuries involving large trucks declined significantly and then began a big climb back up until 2020, when Covid-19 reduced road traffic, and the trendline fell back to normal.

Three things changed that helped push the rates back up in the last ten years. Let’s examine them all individually. First, let’s examine it from an infrastructure perspective. As the Great Recession that began in 2008 started to ease, the trucks of an improving economy were operating on congested, underfunded transportation infrastructure. It was this underfunded transportation infrastructure that last year’s infrastructure bill was meant to address.

Another big factor was truck driver fatigue. The pressures of “just in time” inventory and the spike in fast home deliveries pushed both trucking companies and their truck drivers to test the limits of endurance behind the wheel. In some cases, the speed limit was also a victim to getting the freight there as quickly as possible. And as truck drivers look for more hours, they can change sleep schedules drastically from week to week, impairing their driving abilities and peak performance on the road.  

Cell phones also became a dangerous source of distracted driving for all types of vehicles. The government is doing the first study in over 15 years, but we all know what can happen in the few seconds our eyes are on a device instead of the road. Cognitive distractions from even hands-free cell phones reduce situational awareness and increase the risk of distraction and perhaps an accident.

A Closer Look at Driving Errors and Impairment

Driving mistakes happen. But what mistakes occur the most among big rig truck drivers? First, speeding either above the limit or driving too fast for the conditions. That is followed by ‘tailgating’, which seems obvious considering the area of the truck that is involved in the most crashes is the front of the truck.

Next on the error list was careless lane changes that create dangerous situations, for both truckers and cars alike. Other factors include poor vehicle maintenance, tire failure, or improperly loaded freight. It remains up to trucking companies themselves to ensure these kinds of situations do not occur in their fleets.

How about alcohol and drugs? Well, alcohol and drugs, prescribed and otherwise, do cause crashes, but the rate of alcohol-impaired truck drivers involved among truckers was 3% in 2020, while other vehicle-type drivers ranged from 27%. This demonstrates that by and large truck drivers were less impaired over the reporting period. Could this be a result of the alcohol and drug clearinghouse? It’s unknown, but there are correlations there.

What is the most important takeaway from this information? The fact that most crashes are caused by human behaviors and decisions, means there is room to improve. Trucking companies must put a renewed focus on trucking safety to ensure the nation’s roads are safer.

Trucking Litigation Remains Largely Unchanged

In addition to the human costs, truck crashes damage a business’s brand as well. Small to midsized companies can be consumed by the costs of responding to litigation record requests and other requirements. And in smaller fleets, the loss of just one vehicle due to a crash can inflict high costs on daily business operations. Many companies go out of business because of the costs incurred in a truck crash.

We’ve talked about nuclear verdicts before. It can overwhelm a trucking company. Just consider that nuclear verdicts include punitive damages, the paperwork of lawsuits, a loss of client confidence, and even a shuttering of the doors. But what constitutes a nuclear verdict?

Any verdict over $10 million is considered nuclear. It is important to remember that in nuclear verdicts, the defendant may not even be at fault. For example, in 2018, a jury in Texas issued a $90 million verdict against a trucking company when, in fact, it was the driver of the passenger car that lost control, crossed a median, and crashed into the truck.

While the trucking crash data shows that there was a rise in crashes, we believe that the number will drop as more safety technologies become adopted. Better road conditions will also help the situation. It will take effort on the part of private industry and the government to get it done. But we believe it can be done. 

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