Safest Year Ever

by Passenger Service: State troopers ride-along with truckers in crash study

Just like the headline says. In spite of some special interest groups’ relentless campaigns to continue portraying heavy trucks as the biggest menace out on the road, 2009 saw the lowest commercial truck crash rates ever recorded in the U.S.

More significantly, perhaps, the year-over-year truck-involved fatality improvement in 2009 was disproportionately much higher than that of passenger vehicles for the first time in a decade.

In a recent webinar, Dr. Ralph Craft of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration’s (FMCSA) Analysis Division broke down the numbers: Between 2004 and 2008, large truck fatalities dropped, albeit quite modestly, between one and five percent. Then in 2008, the numbers took their first significant y-to-y dive, dropping by 12 percent.

And then last year, truck fatalities plunged again — a whopping 20.4 percent from the year before (4,245 to 3,380), the largest single-year drop since crash data records began in 1975. The last two years combined represent an extraordinary 30-percent descent from 2007.

Until now, passenger car related fatalities have been falling at a similar rate, even keeping pace with the impressive 2008 drop of trucks (10.5 percent compared to 12 percent). But in 2009 that trend came to a halt like your drivers do when that Honda Civic cuts them off 30 feet before a red light.

While truck-involved fatalities cratered by over 20 percent last year, passenger vehicles only posted an 8.5-percent improvement, a remarkable difference of nearly 12 percentage points.

"Truck and passenger vehicle numbers pretty much track at the same rate either going up or down, except when you get to 2009,"
says Craft. "[Trucks] have decoupled from passenger vehicle trends, at least for this year, and that’s a remarkable difference. Over the past decade, the largest [gap] between the two has been 5.4 points."

Canadian national motor vehicle traffic collision statistics aren’t as current — nor do they track car and truck trends together as comparatively as the U.S. does — but available provincial data (note, too, that the U.S. and Canada have nearly identical truck and driver compliance rates), points towards a possible similar correlation on this side of the border as well.  

So, then, why was there such a large gap in fatalities between cars and trucks last year, unlike any other year? "I don’t know for sure why large truck crashes went down so [drastically] and I don’t think anyone can prove scientifically why they went down, but I do believe never to trust a single factor explanation," says Craft.

Much is being made of how the Great ’09 Recession depressed freight volumes and, in turn, commercial vehicle miles traveled (VMT), which of course correlates to less crashes and fatalities.

The official tally for total 2009 VMT isn’t available yet, but there’s little doubt that it’s lower than in recent years, indicating that the economic downturn played a role, perhaps even a significant one. If one were to look back at the longest periods of consecutive quarterly declines of truck crashes, those periods do match up with the three major recessions of the last 30 years.

However, this recession would have affected miles traveled for passenger cars as well and there was little change in those fatalities.

Nor do traffic data officials expect to see VMT reduction for trucks mirror the 21-percent plunge in fatalities. And it doesn’t account for the considerable 12-point drop in fatalities in 2008 when for most of the year the economy was robust and VMT increased over the previous year.

"We have to look at other explanations rather than just VMT," says Craft.

What else, then? Well, keeping with the economic theme, but for different reasons, the downturn likely took thousands of unqualified drivers off the road and put more than a few not-so-scrupulous carriers out of business.

The economic downturn played a role in further
decreasing truck fatalities, but it’s not the only reason.

It’s a good bet that the working driver pool now consists of more experienced, safer veteran drivers than in previous years. "We thought of that," says Craft. "While there’s no way to test for it, it’s logical that you would lay off your poorest drivers and keep your best ones."

On the flip side, the same is likely true for car drivers, limiting the risk that the worst operators on the road will run into a truck. "The biggest drop in [passenger car driving] is with young people as parents cut down on expenditures, so some of the most inexperienced car drivers aren’t out on the road as much either."

(Incidentally, the 2009 data also reinforces what truckers have always known — but what much of the public and the media refuse to let sink in — that car drivers are overwhelmingly at fault when involved in a crash with a truck. As well, in the rare instances when they are at fault, trucks in 2009 showed much bigger reductions in both rear-end and head-on collisions — crashes where causation can be easily proved).

Not surprisingly, transport regulators and enforcement agencies are tripping over themselves to take credit for the explicit improvements.

The numbers, though, do back some of the claims. Whether it’s genuine concern for safety or cash-strapped states pressing for more revenue streams, truck cops took sharper aim in 2009 than in previous years.

According to Craft, compliance reviews and inspections rose only five percent in ’07 and ’08, but level-3 inspections, which focus on the truck driver at roadside, jumped 17 percent. "That’s a good thing," he says, "because all crash causation studies show that the driver is the key factor in crashes." Additionally, fines imposed went up 18 percent and out-of-service orders based on compliance reviews shot up 30 percent.

All this is not to underestimate the role the trucking industry has played. Technology has surely helped cut down on crashes, but truck drivers are seemingly improving their on-road behavior at a better rate than other drivers.

Violations like speeding and failure to keep in the proper lane dropped much more for trucks than cars in 2009. DUIs, though, continue to make up the largest disparity. And that’s nothing new.

Only 1.4 percent of truck drivers were coded as being under the influence in 2009, compared to 16.6 percent of passenger vehicle drivers.

"Truck drivers," says Craft, "and passenger vehicle drivers sort of make the same mistakes — though car drivers make them more often — except when it comes to drugs and alcohol."

FMCSA officials now eagerly await 2010 crash and fatality tallies to better understand if the 2009 results were a one-year anomaly or whether they can be matched even as freight conditions improve.

"We are not anticipating anything," says Craft, "but we are cautiously optimistic that we can keep the same level, even though we know it’ll be a tough job."

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