Government & Politics

Fatal truck crashes continue to spike even as overall highway deaths dipped in 2017

Fatal wrecks involving semis and other large trucks spiked again in 2017, even as overall traffic fatalities in the United States fell for the first time in three years.

According to a new report from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 4,761 people were killed in crashes involving trucks weighing 10,000 pounds or more last year. That was 9 percent above the 2016 number and 41 percent more than the 3,380 in 2009, which was the lowest count since the government started keeping records in the 1970s.

Highway safety advocates called the increase alarming, considering that the number of people killed in all kinds of crashes on the roadways fell 1.8 percent in 2017, to 37,133 lives lost.

“The trends are getting worse,” said Harry Adler at the Truck Safety Coalition. “It’s troubling across the board.”

The public policy group Advocates for Highway & Auto Safety was among the first to comment on the new numbers, demanding that regulators take steps to reverse the rising death toll from truck wrecks. First, by opposing trucking industry efforts to loosen current safety regulations and secondly by requiring safety technology like automatic emergency braking on all vehicles, especially large trucks.

“It is unacceptable that so many people continue to die on our roads while verified, lifesaving technologies like automatic emergency braking and lane departure warning systems are not widely included as standard equipment in vehicles,” the group based in Washington, D.C., said.

Most new passenger vehicles will have automatic emergency braking by 2022, by voluntary agreement of the automakers. But there are no minimum standards set by the government and no agreement by truck makers to have the equipment installed on all big trucks.

The National Transportation Safety Board has urged the government since the 1990s to mandate collision warning systems on large trucks, and automatic emergency braking ever since that technology came on the market a decade ago. Yet, an investigative report The Kansas City Star published last month found that regulators at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration have largely ignored the NTSB.

NHTSA continues to study the issue, The Star reported, some three years after the European Union began requiring automatic emergency braking on all large trucks based on studies that show such systems save lives.

“While NHTSA reveals these horrific new fatality figures,” Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety said, the U.S. Department of Transportation “is remiss in taking action on a number of rulemakings which would improve the level of safety for all motorists.”

Among the regulations that have stalled is one that’s been in the works for more than a decade that would require the drivers of big trucks to activate the speed-limiting equipment already installed on all semis since the 1990s. Speed is a contributing factor to the severity of most truck wrecks, yet both the George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations dragged their feet on implementing such a rule and President Donald Trump set it aside in 2017, said Steve Owings of Road Safe America.

Owings said this inaction by regulators “verged on criminality” considering all the lives lost to truck wrecks.

Yet as fatal truck wrecks have climbed every year but one this decade, some trucking industry groups have been attempting to loosen regulations limiting the number of hours truckers can be on the road, roll back mandates on electronic devices that log those hours and lobby the government to lower the minimum age for driving large trucks across state lines from the current 21 to 18.

The trucking industry is divided on a possible government mandate that would require technologies like automatic emergency braking and lane departure warning systems.

The American Trucking Associations in Washington, D.C., did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the latest fatality numbers. But the head of the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association in Grain Valley, Mo., attributed the rise to a lack of experienced truck drivers, which he blamed in part on too many government regulations and the shipping industry demands.

“Over-regulation is pushing out the safest, most experienced drivers,” OOIDA president Todd Spencer said. “We are at a time when there are more regulations, more compliance and more enforcement than ever, and yet the numbers are going the wrong way. There is also extremely high turnover of drivers along with greater demand for trucking services and pressure to meet deliveries. Unfortunately there is also a lack of focus on training of new drivers and flexibility to give drivers needed rest while doing their jobs. “

NHTSA’s breakdown of fatal truck wrecks in 2017 showed a nearly 6 percent increase in lethal wrecks involving tractor-trailer combinations and a nearly 19 percent increase in single-unit straight trucks.

While most victims of fatal truck wrecks are occupants of passenger vehicles, 2017 saw a steep, 16 percent increase in the number of truck drivers killed. Of the 4,761 people killed in truck wrecks, 841 were in the trucks.