NHTSA’s encouraging numbers

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We are very encouraged by the significant decrease last year in large truck involved fatalities. While the downturn in the economy clearly impacted freight volumes and the overall number of miles logged by truck drivers, we believe that the sustained efforts of the industry, law enforcement, government and safety groups are paying off.” –Rose McMurray, acting deputy administrator at the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration.

It’s a heck of a good glide path we’re on in terms of the yearly number of highway fatalities these days; one that I hope continues (though I sadly doubt it) when the U.S. economy recovers.

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The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) reported that the overall number of traffic fatalities in 2008 reached its lowest level since 1961, with fatalities from commercial truck-involved crashes dropping to their lowest level since 1975. Think about that for a minute – despite the massive growth of people and vehicles using our nation’s roadways over the last THREE DECADES, we’ve managed to turn the clock back (WAY back) on fatalities resulting from crashes. That’s a pretty amazing achievement, if you ask me.

Let’s look at it by the numbers:

• The overall number of people killed in motor vehicle crashes in the U.S. decreased 9.7% last year – from 41,259 in 2007 to 37,261 in 2008 – according to NHTSA’s Fatality Analysis Reporting System (FARS); a decline of 3,998 fatalities that is the largest annual reduction in terms of both number and percentage since 1982.

• In 2008, an estimated 2.35 million people were injured in motor vehicle traffic crashes, compared to 2.49 million in 2007 – with injuries from crashes now at its lowest point since NHTSA began collecting injury data in 1988. It also constitutes the ninth consecutive yearly reduction in people injured.

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• Fatalities in crashes involving large trucks dropped 12% last year, from 4,822 in 2007 down to 4,229 in 2008. This decrease of 593 fatalities is due primarily to the 469 fewer fatalities of occupants of other vehicles in these crashes.

• The fatality rate per 100 million vehicle miles traveled (VMT) in the U.S. fell to a historic low of 1.27 in 2008 – about 7% below the rate of 1.36 recorded for 2007 – with the overall injury rate also declining by 2.4%. Overall 2008 VMT decreased by 3.4 percent from 2007 VMT – from 3,029,822 million to 2,925,503 million miles, according to the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA).

Now, NHTSA pointed out that though it is important to remember that there has been a consistent decrease in VMT since December 2007, there has been an even steeper decline in the number of fatalities – as evidenced by the continued drop in the fatality rate. “While the reduction in total fatalities may be due in part to a decrease in miles traveled, there are many other additional factors that affect the outcome from motor vehicle crashes,” the agency said in its report.

NHTSA went on to say that its data shows substantial declines in virtually every major category it studies, with passenger car occupant fatalities dropping for the sixth year in a row, light truck occupant fatalities declining for the third straight year to their lowest level since 1998, and even alcohol-impaired fatalities falling by more than 9% over 2007.

The only sour note is being sounded by motorcycle operators – and it bears noting, especially in this space, as deaths among motorcycle users now exceeds those from truck-involved crashes by a very wide margin; over 1,000 lives. “Motorcyclist fatalities continued their 11-year increase, reaching 5,290 in 2008, accounting for 14% of the total fatalities,” NHTSA said. “Data from previous years has shown that while motorcycle registrations have increased, the increase in motorcyclist fatalities has increased more steeply.”

The key take-away from NHTSA’s encouraging numbers, though, should be this: trucking is doing its part to improve highway safety … and then some.

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Look at the recent results from Roadcheck 2009, a 72-hour continent-wide safety blitz headed up by the Commercial Vehicle Safety Alliance (CVSA).Over 9,700 CVSA and FMCSA-certified inspectors stationed at 2,148 locations across North America performed 72,782 truck and bus inspections between June 2 and 4 this year – 7.1% higher than in 2008.

Out of all those inspections, 95.6% of the drivers passed – the highest passage rate ever attained over Roadcheck’s 22 year history. Only 4.4% of the drivers were placed out-of-service (OOS) compared to 5.3% last year. In terms of commercial vehicles, 80.4% passed with 19.6% placed out of service – the lowest OOS rate posted since 1996 – compared to 20.8% in 2008.

“The commercial motor vehicle industry is proving the old adage that it pays to be safe,” said Darren Christle, CVSA’s president, in a statement. “If you look at the data it clearly shows when carriers prepare for safety they benefit not only by avoiding fines, but by saving lives. It can be said that Roadcheck 2009 saved 17 lives and helped to avoid 307 injuries. Over the course of an entire year that equals 2,068 lives saved and 37,352 injuries avoided. By any measure those are big numbers.”

Then look at the seat belt numbers. In 2005, the U.S. Department of Transportation – then headed up by Norman Mineta – began an industry-wide effort to increase the use of seat belts by truck drivers, as only 49% wore them while driving, as compared to 80% of the American motoring public. Guess what: four years later, that seat belt use rate among truck drivers is up to 72% and is touted as a major reason why fewer truckers are dying in crashes these days.

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“Truckers, too, are taking more responsibility for their own safety by using safety belts in greater numbers and protecting themselves from ejection or serious injury during a crash,” Rose McMurray, FMCSA’s acting deputy administrator, told me last week. “We believe that higher use rate is one reason 16% fewer truck drivers were killed in crashes in 2008 compared to 2007. We think it’s an example of how the industry is becoming much more aggressive in terms of safety.”

While saving lives and reducing injuries remain the top priorities here, it’s also important to recognize there’s a big cost savings associated when the number of vehicle crashes and fatalities drop this steeply. NHTSA has estimated that the cost of motor vehicle crashes to the U.S. economy to be about $150 billion a year, including $52.1 billion in property damage and $42.2 billion in lost productivity.

For truckers, the cost of even one accident can be enough to bankrupt a fleet. A few years ago, a study by the Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation found that truck accidents alone cost the industry roughly $24 billion a year: $8.7 billion in productivity losses, $2.5 billion in resources costs, and quality of life losses valued at $13.1 billion – averaging out to roughly $183,000 per injury and $2.7 million per fatality, which includes medical expenses, emergency services, lost driver productivity, quality of life losses, etc.

Of course, these numbers were generated back in the early 21st century; boom times for trucking, when more drivers, freight, and vehicles were on the road. Undoubtedly, those figures are probably lower now … but not by too much, I suspect. One thing is for certain: they show that truckers save the lives of others and money for themselves by reducing crashes. And based on the numbers being generated by NHTSA, the industry is doing a bang up job in both areas.

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Trucks at Work: Sean Kilcarr comments on trends affecting the many different strata of the trucking industry.

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