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July 2, 2012 2:00 AM, EDT

Research Cites ‘Driver-Related Factors’ With Third of Truckers in Fatal Crashes

By Eric Miller, Staff Reporter

This story appears in the July 2 print edition of Transport Topics.

Roughly one-third of the 3,446 truck drivers involved in fatal accidents in 2010 were cited in police accident reports for such contributing “driver-related factors” as speeding, fatigue and inattention, a senior federal transportation researcher said.

The numbers show that truck drivers generally are good drivers and statistically safer than drivers of passenger vehicles, said Ralph Craft, a senior transportation researcher with the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration.

By contrast, nearly two-thirds of passenger vehicle drivers involved in fatal crashes were cited for driver-related factors in police accident reports during 2010, Craft said.

Federal large truck fatal accident data also shows that “vehicle-related factors” such as bad brakes, unsafe tires, or broken lights were cited only 4.2% for trucks, and 3.1% for passenger vehicle fatal crashes.

“It doesn’t necessarily mean that that factor was the reason for the crash,” Craft said. “It just means that factor was present at the time of the crash.”

There are a number of other contributing factors sometimes cited in fatal crashes, ranging from bad weather to obstructed driver views, but they are not broken out by researchers who study the roughly 100,000 accidents reported annually to the Fatality Analysis Reporting System, a large crash database maintained by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, Craft said.

“We know that human behavior is the most important factor in crashes,” Craft said at a research presentation last month, analyzing trends contained in the 2010 federal large truck crash data. “But exactly why people make mistakes is tough to get to.”

David Osiecki, senior vice president of policy and regulatory affairs for American Trucking Associations agreed that the driver data presented by Craft is consistent with a number of studies.

“Truck drivers are professional, they’re better trained, and they’re overall a safer driver than other drivers on the road,” Osiecki said. “There’s no question about that.”

Craft said that while motor carriers can play a large role in how drivers perform behind the wheel, it is the drivers themselves whom insurance companies scrutinize most heavily in determining insurance rates for carriers.

“Insurers, who have got money on the line, look at everything about the driver,” Craft said. “They want to know who got hired, how were they trained, how they get paid, what are the carriers’ safety incentives and disincentives, and how are drivers disciplined?”

Although truck-related fatal crashes increased in 2010 by 8.7% — 2011 numbers won’t be available until late August or early September — the overall trend is down by 20% since 2007, Craft said.

Craft said the increase in 2010 heavy truck fatality numbers was somewhat predictable since the United States was coming out of a recession and freight volume was on the rise.

“But we were a little bit surprised it was as high as it was,” Craft said. “We would be disappointed if we see an increase in 2011.”

Despite the fact that driver errors play a role in many fatal and injury accidents, Craft said drivers in the United States are generally “very good drivers.”

“Whether we’re very good or very lucky, these are very low crash rates,” Craft said. “Large trucks have a considerably lower crash rate than passenger vehicles — only about one-fifth the rate of passenger vehicles in 2010.”

However, statistics vary as to the extent of truck driver factors in crashes.

While 2010 NHTSA data shows that fatigue is a factor in only 2% of large truck crashes, FMCSA’s 2007 Large Truck Crash Causation Study of 963 crashes that involved 1,123 large trucks and 959 other motor vehicles set the fatigue factor higher, at 13%.

Likewise, the NHTSA data cited speeding as factors in 8% of crashes, while the 2007 study said it was a factor in 23% of the crashes. The NHTSA inattention numbers were 6%, while the truck study placed them at 20%.

Craft said the numbers in the truck study were higher because researchers actually went to crash scenes and interviewed drivers and witnesses, promising that the interviews would be anonymous.

“We had truck drivers admit to the researchers they were fatigued, distracted or speeding,” Craft said. “They would not have said that to an officer of the law who codes all of the data for the police accident report.”

But ATA’s Osiecki said there is strong evidence to suggest that such contributing factors as fatigue are actually somewhere in between the NHTSA data and the truck crash causation study, closer to about 7%.

“In the large truck causation study, the people at the scene did not make the determination of fatigue,” Osiecki said. “It was two people in an office at a different location.”