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Why trucks crash

WASHINGTON, D. C. - A study by the US Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) has shed new light on the causes of truck/car collisions, and some of the findings are startling.

WASHINGTON, D. C. –A study by the US Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) has shed new light on the causes of truck/car collisions, and some of the findings are startling.

Conventional wisdom in trucking circles is that the driver of the car is almost always to blame when there’s an accident involving both a heavy-duty truck and a passenger vehicle. According to the FMCSA’s Large Truck Crash Causation Study, however, the truck driver is to blame in 55% of all truck crashes while the trucker is at fault in 44% of two-vehicle crashes involving a truck and a passenger vehicle. The study arrived at those numbers after analyzing more than 1,000 truck/car collisions in the US between 2001 and 2003.

“There’s plenty of blame for large trucks and passenger vehicles in crashes between the two types of vehicles,” Ralph Craft, senior transportation specialist with the FMCSA said during a recent Webinar. “Trucks and passenger vehicles have plenty of mistakes to go around.”

To reach its conclusion, the FMCSA determined a ‘critical event’ in each crash – the event that made the crash unavoidable (ie. travelling too fast; other vehicle stopped in the lane; wrongfully driving through an intersection). It also assigned a ‘critical reason’ – the reason the crash took place (ie. inattention, weather, vehicle failure, medical condition). One vehicle in each crash was assigned blame for the critical reason.

Craft revealed that 87% of the time when the truck was assigned the critical reason, it was related to its driver’s actions.

The study also listed ‘associated factors’ which were coded to trucks involved in collisions with cars. In some cases, multiple associated factors were tallied for each accident. These are factors that may have been present when the crash occurred, but didn’t necessarily cause the accident. For instance, 27% of the trucks involved in accidents covered by the study had a brake problem – but that ranged from a single brake out of adjustment right through to total brake failure. Most often, the brake problem was not the cause of the accident, Craft explained. The number one factor that was present for both truck drivers and four-wheelers was the presence of legal, over-the-counter drugs, however the FMCSA did not find the presence of legal drugs to be a major issue either.

“We’re all on drugs these days,” joked Craft, adding the legal drugs were rarely to blame for the accident.

The FMCSA conducted a ‘relevant risk analysis’ to find out which factors were most often to blame for the accident.

Researchers developed a formula to determine which factors were most often directly linked to the cause of the crash. The result was a list of ‘causative factors’ – the most dangerous factors and the most likely to cause an accident.

For truckers, overweight loads proved to be the most dangerous item on the list.

“When a truck is overweight, it makes them more likely to roll over and more unstable. That shows up as the number one causative factor for trucks,” Craft said.

In addition to overweight loads, brake failure proved to be the only other equipment-related causative factor in the top 10 – all others were laid at the hands of the driver. They included: making an illegal maneuver; inadequate surveillance; travelling too fast; inattention; following too closely; misjudging speed or distance; failing to notice a required stop; and being distracted by external factors.

The FMCSA’s major finding was that most causative factors are the driver’s responsibility. Surprisingly, the study also found that truck drivers are “in better physical shape for driving than the general driving population.”

While that revelation may raise some eyebrows, Craft pointed out most professional drivers are getting more sleep than regular motorists and they are less likely to be taking illegal drugs or drinking alcohol. The study also concluded that truck drivers are more likely to make mistakes than four-wheelers, but Craft added “they are very skilled drivers but they are driving a very large vehicle which is more difficult to control and not as maneuverable.”

The most alarming finding, however, was that eight of the top 10 causative factors in truck/car collisions were driver-related. The FMCSA has set out to find solutions to the problem, but so far that is proving to be a challenge, Craft admitted.

“It’s very difficult to outlaw these (problems). Can we make it a crime if they don’t pay attention or they misjudge somebody else’s speed? A lot of these things seem to be beyond the ability of Congress to legislate or FMCSA to regulate,” he said.

“We may need more research into basic human behaviour to learn how to convince human beings how to be safe and do safe things, above and beyond what we can legislate.”

The Administration came to the conclusion that more focus must be placed on driver training. The FMCSA is likely to place a greater emphasis on driver safety during compliance reviews and may even develop a rating system for drivers.

“We have a system that rates every motor carrier in the country and gives them a score – we need to develop that kind of system to rate drivers,” Craft suggested. He also said more research into human behaviour is required.

“We don’t know a lot about the ability of the brain to concentrate for hours on end on a particular task,” said Craft.

Finally, he said the FMCSA and other enforcement agencies should focus their equipmentrelated inspection efforts on areas that pose the highest risks, such as brakes, lighting and tires.


Inside the Numbers

The following are some of the more interesting findings from the FMCSA’s Large Truck Crash Causation Study:

• Each year in the US, there are 50,000 accidents involving a truck and a single passenger vehicle that result in an injury or fatality (about 3,000 are fatal);

• Critical events (an event that makes the crash unavoidable) involved in truck crashes include: Running out of travel lane (24%); other vehicle stopped in lane (24%); crossing through an intersection (12%); travelling too fast (7%); and travelling the same direction while slowing (10%);

• The critical reason (the reason for the event, assigned to one vehicle in each collision) was the fault of the truck driver in 55% of all truck accidents included in the study and 44% of two-vehicle accidents including one truck and one passenger vehicle;

• 87% of the time a truck is assigned the critical reason, it’s driver-related;

• Truck equipment failures are to blame for just 8% of accidents in which the truck was assigned the critical reason;

• Driver fatigue was identified as a factor with the motorist 15% of the time there was a car/truck collision; the trucker was found to be fatigued in only 7% of these accidents;

• Illegal drugs were involved 7% of the time with the car driver and only 0.4% of the time among truckers involved in the collisions;

• Alcohol was a factor 9% of the time a motorist was involved in a car/truck collision; alcohol was found to be an issue with the trucker in only 0.3% of the accidents. •

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