January 5, 2015 3:45 AM, EST

Truck-Crash Deaths Inch Up

NHTSA Reports 0.5% Rise in 2013; Injuries Fall
By Eric Miller, Staff Reporter

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

Highway fatalities from truck-involved crashes on U.S. roads rose by 0.5% in 2013, while injuries declined to 95,000 from 104,000, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reported.

The preliminary fatality figure of 3,964 crept up by 20 people from 2012, marking the fourth straight yearly uptick in truck-involved deaths since hitting a low point during the recession of 3,380 in 2009. In comparison, there were 5,282 fatalities in truck-involved deaths and 140,000 injuries in 2000.

Overall in 2013, deaths from vehicle crashes declined 3.1%, to 32,719. That represents a nearly 25% decrease since 2004. Likewise, the injury total declined by 2.1% for the year, the report said. That left the fatality rate matching a historic low — 1.1 deaths per 100 million vehicle-miles traveled in 2013, down from 1.14 deaths per 100 million in 2012.

“The data continue to show that this is just about the safest time to travel on America’s roads in the history of America’s roads,” Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said at a Dec. 19 telephone news conference.

Foxx also expressed concern with rising truck-involved fatalities.

“It is unfortunate that even when you’re seeing declines in the occupants [fatalities], you can see an overall increase in fatalities related to accidents that involve large trucks,” Foxx said. “The department continues to be focused here.”

He added, “That’s one of the reasons why you will expect to see a series of steps that we’re taking, including things like stability controls in trucks and underride guards that will support better safety in trucks.”

Bill Graves, president of American Trucking Associations, said that to fully understand the truck-involved crash figures, they must be put in the “context of exposure.”

There was no release of annual mileage by large trucks included in the report, which when released will produce a “meaningful understanding of highway safety trends,” he said.

Graves was referring to the future release by the Federal Highway Administration of vehicle-miles-traveled statistics for large trucks for 2013, allowing calculation of a fatalities-per-mileage ratio to compare with previous years.

“We are also hopeful that the recent suspension of the hours of service restart restrictions — which were implemented in 2013 — will result in future safety improvements,” Graves said.

The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration’s own field study showed the restart restrictions raise crash risk by putting more trucks on the road during daytime hours when crash risk is higher, Graves said.

Foxx said he is uncertain what the effects of Congress’ suspension through Sept. 30 of the restart rule will have on large truck fatalities but that DOT has “held steadfast to the view that the hours-of-service rule is a critically important rule.”

Another complicating factor of NHTSA’s report is that the agency defines large trucks as those with a gross-vehicle-weight rating of more than 10,000 pounds, or Classes 3-8, but it does not parse the numbers for just Classes 7-8 trucks.

NHTSA data showed the number of truck occupants killed decreased by 0.9%, to 691. In addition, 62% of large-truck occupants killed in 2013 died in single-vehicle crashes, and the number of non-occupants killed in a large-truck crash increased by 49 people — or 13% — from 2012.

The report also noted there were 92 truck-involved fatalities involving impaired drivers in 2013, an increase of 78 from the previous year.

NHTSA’s two main databases in this area are the Fatality Analysis Reporting System, or FARS, and the General Estimate System, or GES.

NHTSA Deputy Administrator David Friedman attributed the decline in overall fatalities to stronger laws, enhanced enforcement efforts and consumer information programs, but he was uncertain why the number of fatalities in large truck crashes increased.

“Part of the challenge with all these numbers is it’s hard to tease out each and every factor, but we do know that tired truckers are a risk on our roads,” Friedman said.

An FMCSA spokesman said the agency is analyzing the data and working on new rulemakings, including mandating electronic logging devices, speed limiters and electronic stability control, as a way to continue to improve overall highway safety.

Stephen Keppler, executive director of the Commercial Vehicle Safety Alliance, said the large-truck fatality numbers are “disappointing.”

“It’s obviously a trend we don’t like to see, particularly when we’re seeing other areas decline,” Keppler said. “Certainly, it’s something we’re going to want to take a closer look at and see what additional strategies we can employ to help move that number down.”

Keppler said truckers and enforcement personnel are challenged by the implementation of new regulations and trying to keep up with the transportation sector’s improving economy.