More than 100,000 people were injured in large truck and bus crashes in 2011, and, unfortunately, that number has been going up. Between 2009 and 2011, the number of fatalities increased more than 11% and the number of injuries increased more than 20%.  Death and injury, however, are not the only costs to society. The U.S. Department of Transportation estimates that the annual cost of commercial motor vehicle crashes is $87 Billion. This astronomical number is growing too: it grew 10% from 2009 to 2011.

Large truck crashes also carry a disproportionate risk of death. In 2011, although large trucks and buses were involved in only 6% of all crashes, they represented 13% of all fatalities in crashes.  And this risk falls more heavily on the drivers and passengers in the smaller passenger vehicle. The occupants of the smaller vehicle are more than four times more likely to be killed than the occupant of the large truck.  In fact, the U.S. Department of Transportation has concluded “that when a large truck and an ‘other vehicle’ are involved in a crash, the passengers in the other vehicle are far more likely to be killed or seriously injured.”

What Causes Large Truck Crashes?

Like crashes not involving large trucks, there are many factors that can cause a large truck crash. In 2006, the U.S. Department of Transportation published the “Large-Truck Crash Causation Study,” which found a wide range of events that led to large truck crashes.  A few of the most common factors included:

  • Loss of vehicle control – traveling too fast for the road conditions (58%), which is most often attributable to the large truck (65%); other significant events included vehicle-related failures like tire blow-outs and shifting cargo (roughly 19% in total);
  • Straying from lane of travel or driving off the edge of the road – attributable fairly equally to either the large truck or the other vehicle; and
  • Driver Errors – for example, failing to keep a proper lookout or following too closely, both of which were more often attributable to the large truck.

But this study leaves many questions unanswered. Why would a driver lose control, stray from the lane of travel, or fail to keep a proper lookout? Certainly not all heavy truck crashes are caused by the truck or the people who drive them. Even so, large trucks are different. They are big, heavy vehicles that do not behave like the cars, pickups, and SUVs most of us are used to driving. And drivers of large trucks are often on the road for very long periods of time, sometimes longer than the law allows. This can lead to a deadly combination of fatigued drivers operating trucks that can easily kill or seriously injure others on the road. Furthermore, many drivers admit to using their mobile devices while driving, significantly increasing driver distraction and impairing driver performance.

Large trucks are different than passenger cars. They can weigh as much as 40 times more than an average passenger car. They are defined as trucks that weigh more than 10,000 pounds and as much as 80,000 pounds. These heavy trucks, unfortunately, are not always in perfect working order. A study conducted in Washington State found that heavy trucks with defective equipment are twice as likely to be involved in crashes as trucks without any defect. Of the ones involved in crashes, more than half (56%) of these trucks had defects in their brakes; more than one in five (21%) had defects in steering equipment. A more recent study using a national sample of large truck crashes found that more than half of the trucks (55%) had at least one mechanical violation and nearly a third (30%) had a condition so serious, the truck should have been taken completely out of service. The most frequent mechanical problem was in the braking system (36%) and when a truck had faulty brakes, it was nearly twice as likely to be the vehicle that caused the crash. Even when a truck’s equipment is working perfectly, large trucks can take more than twice as long to stop in an emergency, even though they operate on the same roads. All of this suggests that large trucks may present a greater risk than smaller passenger vehicles.

Although most truck drivers are hardworking, responsible, and skilled drivers, they often drive too much and sleep too little. Truck drivers are subject to “hours-of-service” rules that strictly govern how long they may drive. Drivers can spend up to 11 hours a day and up to 60 hours in a week or 70 hours in an 8-day period on the road. But the regulations also permit drivers to “restart” the clock under certain conditions and get back behind the wheel. And although the federal government recently tightened those conditions, drivers can still log up to 81 hours of driving in a week using this provision.
The hours-of-service regulations already permit long hours, but drivers commonly violate these rules. Although the law requires drivers to accurately log their driving time, as many as one-third of drivers openly admitted in a survey that they omit or otherwise falsify their log books. Whether employers pressure drivers to drive more to get the job done more quickly, or drivers drive more to earn more money, drivers often have a financial incentive to drive more than the law allows.

After the federal government changed the hours-of-service rules in 2004 to allow longer periods of driving, truck drivers are spending more and more time behind the wheel these days. It is unclear just how often fatigued truck drivers cause or contribute to crashes, but truck drivers do often work long, odd hours that disrupt normal sleep schedules, resulting in sleep deprivation and fatigue. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety conducted surveys of truck drivers in two states and the results were alarming. Under the old rules, 12-13% of drivers admitted they fell asleep at the wheel at least once in the past month. After the rule change, however, that number rose to nearly 20% – or 1 in every 5 truck drivers – who admitted they fell asleep at the wheel at least once in the past month. These long hours matter; truck drivers are more than twice as likely to crash after they have been at the wheel for more than 8 hours.

What Can We Do?

We can all advocate for measures to make trucks and truck driving safer. Technology, for example, could make a big difference. Electronic stability control could eliminate tens of thousands of crashes, and as much as 20% of serious injuries and more than 10% of fatalities. Other technological advances like side view assist (to help eliminate blind spots), collision and lane departure warnings, and stability control combined could prevent or mitigate 100,000 – or nearly one in four – large truck crashes every year, saving hundreds of lives. Electronic recorders could replace handwritten and easily-falsifiable logbooks to monitor compliance with hours of service rules. Technology that blocks calls, texts and internet use by disabling cell phones and tablets while the truck is in motion would eliminate distractions, improving the attentiveness of the drivers. And the rules themselves could be tightened in an effort to keep fatigued and distracted drivers off the road. Most importantly, we should all drive defensively and be aware that the heavy trucks around us take longer to stop and react in an emergency. The life you save may be your own.

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