Recent data showing a substantial increase in the number of fatal crashes involving large trucks during 2010 probably eliminates the remote chance that the White House might rollback a Department of Transportation proposal that seeks to reduce the daily hours commercial drivers can work, John Larkin, managing director of transportation market research for Stifel Nicolas, said Thursday.
The number of people killed in large-truck crashes increased 8.7 percent to 3,675 last year while overall vehicular deaths on the nation's roadways declined 2.9 percent to 32,885 - the lowest level on record since 1949, according to statistics released by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
Fatalities increased in all truck categories -- including large-truck occupants (6 percent) and pedestrians/cyclists (10 percent). The number of deaths for truck occupants involved in multi-vehicle crashes jumped 16 percent to 192 compared to a 9.1 percent increase in deaths for occupants of other vehicles. However, occupants of other vehicles constitute the majority of those killed in large-truck crashes with 2,790 total fatalities in 2010.
The number of people injured in large-truck crashes increased 12 percent last year, NHTSA said.
The figures break a string of annual decreases in truck-related fatalities that collectively have resulted in a 35 percent drop in the fatal-accident rate during the past decade.
The American Trucking Associations said the latest figures don't negate the safety trend taking place within the motor carrier industry, noting that 2010 was among the safest years on record.
ATA President Bill Graves urged policymakers not to jump to conclusions based on the latest highway fatality figures.
“We would hope that policymakers will avoid the ‘error of recency,’ by overemphasizing the newest data at the expense of the overall, long-term trend, which has been overwhelmingly positive. We look forward to seeing further analysis from DOT on crash types as well as how many miles American motorists and truck drivers traveled last year," he said.
The DOT's Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration is expected to issue within the next couple of weeks final rules governing driver hours-of-service. The agency has proposed reducing the driver's workday by an hour to 13 hours by introducing an hour of mandatory breaks and setting limits on the use of the 34-hour rest period that restarts the weekly duty clock. Most observers expect it to also reduce by an hour, to 10 hours, the cap on daily driving time.
Industry officials say the rules, taken together, will increase the amount of trucks and drivers required to move the same amount of freight, increasing their capital and operating costs and the rates they charge to shippers.
"In light of the fact that the crash data for 2010 went the wrong way relative to 2009 it seems unlikely that the Obama administration would rollback rules that they believe will make our highways safer," Larkin said during an American Shipper
webinar on the outlook for freight transportation in 2012.
Graves complained last week that the DOT, at the urging of safety advocates, is focusing too much time on a rule to address fatigue at the expense of other issues that have a more direct impact on safety.
"Report after report, from the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration’s own Large Truck Crash Causation Study to the most recent annual report on truck and bus safety facts shows that fatigue is not a leading cause of crashes,” Graves said in a statement. “By putting an incredibly resource-intensive focus on this rule, FMCSA and these advocacy groups have foregone progress on areas ranging from speed to safety technologies to driver training that would have a much larger impact on highway safety.”
The majority of accidents involving trucks tend to be caused by passenger vehicles, but when trucks are at fault the reason typically has to do with driver error, Graves noted.
"Put most simply, these crashes are caused by unsafe driver behaviors such as speeding, driving too fast for conditions or distracted and inattentive driving; or unfortunate mistakes related to unfamiliarity with his or her surroundings or driving conditions,” Graves said. “We have long advocated that FMCSA do more to address aggressive and unsafe driving and for the increased use of advanced safety technologies, but to date those pleas have been largely overlooked."
Between 87 percent and 98 percent of all serious crashes will be unaffected by hours-of-service regulations, Graves said, citing FMCSA studies.
"When looking at highway safety, regulators have an obligation to spend the public’s resources to implement programs and countermeasures that will do the most good, and it seems clear that the leadership at DOT and FMCSA are failing to address larger crash causes in order to placate special interests fixated on a relatively small part of the crash problem,” he added.
Graves made a similar argument in a Nov. 15 letter to the Office of Information and Regulatory affairs, which is responsible for reviewing all rulemakings to make sure they coincide with White House policy and have properly accounted for possible economic impact. - Eric Kulisch