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September 5, 2016 2:45 AM, EDT
Truck-Involved Crash Deaths Rise; Highest Total Since ’08, DOT Says

This story appears in the Sept. 5 print edition of Transport Topics.

Fatalities in crashes involving large trucks rose 4.1% from 2014 to 2015, the U.S. Department of Transportation reported Aug. 29.

The 4,067 fatalities in the truck-involved crashes were the most since 2008, according to the agency’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Of those deaths, 667, or 16.4%, were occupants of the trucks, 73.5% were occupants of other vehicles and 10.1% were bicyclists, pedestrians and other nonoccupants.

There were 11 more truck- occupant deaths in 2015, a 1.7% increase.

There also were more injuries to occupants of large trucks in crashes, 30,000 in 2015, an 11.1% increase from 27,000 in 2014. The injury rate per 100 million vehicle miles traveled in all crashes rose just 1.3% in 2015.

Overall fatalities were up 7.2%, marking the largest single-year jump in a half-century, according to NHTSA.

“Despite decades of safety improvements, far too many people are killed on our nation’s roads every year,” Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said. “Solving this problem will take teamwork, so we’re issuing a call to action and asking researchers, safety experts, data scientists and the public to analyze the fatality data and help find ways to prevent these tragedies.”

“Obviously, any fatality on our highways is a tragedy,” said Bill Sullivan, executive vice president of advocacy for American Trucking Associations. “However, 2015 was also a record year for vehicle miles traveled, increasing the potential risk for crashes.”

Steve Owings, Road Safe America’s co-founder, wasn’t so sanguine about the jump in truck- involved deaths.

“There are over 400,000 large truck crashes annually in the U.S., each one causing a multihour traffic jam,” Owings said. “The overall effect on our economy is terribly, wastefully negative. It is especially negative for the trucking industry, since trucks are, of course, seriously delayed in these all-too-frequent events.”

Henry Jasny, general counsel for the Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, also was alarmed about the increase in fatalities.

“During the recession when the numbers went down and NHTSA was claiming victory, we were concerned about the bounce back,” Jasny said. “Some of it is expected because we’re driving more, but there’s still a discrepancy.”

Sullivan focused on the long-term trend.

“Our industry invests $9.5 billion annually in safety programs, and our professional drivers invest their time and dedication,” he said. “This has paid off in a positive long-term trend of safety improvements, as the pace of passenger vehicle-involved fatalities appears to be outpacing truck- involved fatalities.”

NHTSA’s data showed traffic deaths rising across nearly every segment of the population, ending a five-decade trend of declines.

The 35,092 fatalities in all crashes, a 7.2% increase, represented the largest single-year jump of such magnitude since 1966, when fatalities rose 8.1% from the previous year. The alarming rise of fatalities in 2015 prompted the White House, DOT and NHTSA to issue a joint call to action.

NHTSA will share its Fatality Analysis Reporting System with safety partners, state and local officials, data scientists and policy experts. Also, private sector partners using new data collection technologies will offer access to unprecedented amounts of data and new visualization tools.

According to NHTSA, job growth and low fuel prices also were factors that led to increased driving, including increased leisure driving and driving by young people. Vehicle miles traveled rose 3.5% to 3.13 billion, the largest increase in nearly 25 years. Pedestrian and bicyclist fatalities increased to a level not seen in 20 years, and motorcyclist deaths increased more than 8%.

Chuck Farmer, vice president of research for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, attributed the rise in fatalities primarily to a healthier economy as well as increases in speed limits in many states.

“One big thing that always shows an increase in fatalities is when the economy gets good,” Farmer said. “People not only travel more, but they start to travel more for pleasure and unnecessary trips, which are the more dangerous ones — the ones at night on unfamiliar roads.”

Despite last year’s jump in fatalities, the number of traffic deaths was nearly 25% lower than a decade earlier, with 42,708 reported in 2005.

Since then, safety measures such as higher seat belt use and reduced impaired driving have helped lower the number of deaths, DOT said. Vehicle improvements, including air bags and electronic stability control, also have contributed to reducing traffic fatalities.

Nearly half of passenger vehicle occupants killed were not wearing seat belts, according to NHTSA. Almost one in three traffic fatalities involved drunken driving or speeding and one in 10 involved distraction.

“The data tell us that people die when they drive drunk, distracted or drowsy, or if they are speeding or unbuckled,” NHTSA Administrator Mark Rosekind said. “While there have been enormous improvements in many of these areas, we need to find new solutions to end traffic fatalities.”