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FMCSA crash study raises questions

WASHINGTON, D.C. - The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMSCA) recently released the results of a first-of-its-kind study to determine the causes of, and contributing factors to, crashes i...


SAFETY MYTH?: Truckers' reputations as the safest drivers on the road may have taken a hit. A recent study show that in accidents between trucks and cars, trucks are at fault 44% of the time. Photo by Adam Ledlow

SAFETY MYTH?: Truckers' reputations as the safest drivers on the road may have taken a hit. A recent study show that in accidents between trucks and cars, trucks are at fault 44% of the time. Photo by Adam Ledlow


WASHINGTON, D.C. – The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMSCA) recently released the results of a first-of-its-kind study to determine the causes of, and contributing factors to, crashes involving commercial motor vehicles. The FMCSA’s Large Truck Crash Causation Study was mandated by the Motor Carrier Safety Act of 1999 and conducted from 2001 to 2003 at 24 sites in 17 US states. Each accident involved at least one large truck and resulted in at least one injury or fatality.

One of the study’s findings may take the wind out of many truckers’ sails, as it suggests truckers aren’t as safe as once thought. Many truck drivers boast that accidents between a truck and a passenger vehicle are almost always the four-wheeler’s fault (some put the number between 80 and 90%), but FMCSA’s study found that the car was at fault only 56% of the time in such accidents. That means trucks and cars are almost equally at fault, which poses a question: have truck drivers become less safe in recent years or have the 80 to 90% estimates always been wrong?

Ian Grossman, director of communications for the FMCSA, says it’s difficult to say either way.

“The truth is that there’s no real way of knowing,” he said. “There have truly been no studies of the nature that we just did.”

Grossman says the percentages that were thrown around in the past were the result of looking at the Fatality Analysis Reporting System (FARS), a database put together by the US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. FARS only looks at driver-related factors that caused accidents and to commit that to causation is a mistake, according to Grossman.

“We at the FMCSA have cautioned against that. This study looks in-depth at all the reasons and factors that may contribute to increasing the risk of a crash, whereas the FARS data is very one-dimensional.”

In addition to finding fault, the study also found that prescription drugs were an associated factor in 28.7% of crashes sampled, and over-the-counter drugs were an associated factor in 19.4% of the cases. Associated factors are selected from a group of about 1,000 conditions or circumstances present at the time of the crash, but are not necessarily related to the crash. That still doesn’t rule them out as a possible cause, according to Grossman.

“If the reason the crash occurred was somebody ran through a stop sign causing a collision and the reason they ran through the stop sign was because they were distracted, is it because they were taking medicine that makes their vision blurry or because they were physically popping the pill at that time?” he asks. “Those are the types of questions that come up with the associated factors. Something had to happen in between.”

While stereotypes of truckers popping pills run rampant, some may be surprised to hear prescription and over-the-counter drug use with car drivers was actually higher than truck drivers at 33.9 and 10.3% of the time, respectively.

“Maybe we’re just a very medicated society,” Grossman mused.

The real question is how great a factor those drugs really are in motor vehicle crashes. The first step, according to Grossman, is to compare prescription drugs with over-the-counter drugs, but then get into the type of drug and how that drug affects the driver. Though the raw data has not been released, the kinds of drugs that were present in each accident have been recorded by the FMCSA.

Perhaps the least shocking discovery from the report – yet likely the matter of greatest concern – was that drivers were at fault in almost 88% of car-truck crashes. The study categorized these driver errors into four types: non-performance (where the driver fell asleep, was disabled by a heart attack or seizure, or was physically impaired for another reason); recognition (where the driver did not recognize the situation by not paying proper attention, was distracted by something inside or outside the vehicle, or failed to adequately observe the situation); decision (where the driver drove too fast for conditions, misjudged the speed of other vehicles, followed other vehicles too closely, or made false assumptions about other driver’s actions); and performance (where the driver froze, overcompensated, or exercised poor directional control).

Non-performance was a factor 11.6% of the time, recognition 28.4%, decision 38% and performance 9.2%. Vehicle and environment problems were the main reasons for crashes only 10.1 and 2.3% of the time.

“The big lesson of this study is that driver behaviour more than anything else is what raises the risk of a crash. We need to spend as much time addressing driver behaviour issues as we do making sure that vehicles are fit for the road or that companies have all their safety practices in place,” Grossman said. “But driver behaviour is there more than any other reason so we have to explore how we’re going to improve driver performance.”

Further exploration and study of the data are keys to understanding all the factors behind the crashes, according to Grossman.

“The study doesn’t end here with this report and the posting of the data. The next step is not going to be only internal analysis, but also to encourage external research groups to further analyze the data.”


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