June 20, 2011 8:00 AM, EDT

Truck Cab Safety

This Editorial appears in the June 20 print edition of Transport Topics. Click here to subscribe today.

When American Trucking Associations and the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association — two groups frequently at the opposite ends of trucking industry issues — are able to agree on something, you know it’s a pretty momentous occasion.

And recently the two trucking groups agreed to take on an issue that’s close to our heart: truck driver safety.

While fatalities of people killed in crashes involving large trucks are going down steadily, they aren’t going down as rapidly for the occupants of truck cabs as they are for people in passenger autos. In its “Large Truck and Bus Crash Facts for 2008” report, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration said that about 700 truck drivers were killed in each of the previous 10 years. In 2008, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reported recently, 682 truck drivers were killed.

This is a major concern for us. These fatalities are our drivers, our friends, our family.

Protecting truck drivers is something everyone can agree on, and that’s why ATA and OOIDA asked NHTSA to look into the need for truck-cab crashworthiness standards. ATA and OOIDA, in a joint letter to the agency, said there “may be opportunities to enhance the survivability of professional truck drivers” involved in accidents.

The truck manufacturing industry has its own standards for truck-cab strength and those standards may be just fine. But can they be improved?

NHTSA, which the ATA/OOIDA letter said has “continuously developed crashworthiness standards for automobiles and light trucks,” has not applied most of its standards to trucks larger than 10,000 pounds gross vehicle weight.

For example, truck rollover accidents are the most severe crashes — accounting for 63% of truck-cab occupant fatalities. Can cab structures be improved so that they provide drivers with more survival space when the truck rolls over in a crash? NHTSA standards for rear impact, head restraints and roof crush-resistance apply only to passenger cars and light trucks.

What about restraints — seat belts and air bags? Can they be improved to better protect truck drivers in rollovers? Can windshields and doors be made stronger and more secure, to make sure drivers and passengers stay inside the cab rather than being thrown onto the ground? Can a cab’s interior surfaces be made more forgiving with padding and energy-absorbing steering columns?

Finally, are truck-cab safety regulations needed, or can the industry do the job? Let’s have NHTSA try to find some answers to these life-and-death questions, so we all can feel better when our drivers climb into their truck cabs and head out onto the nation’s highways.