Fatalities from truck crashes fell sharply last year to 4,995-- a 4.7% drop from the 5,240 deaths recorded in 2005, according to figures compiled by the Department of Transportation (DOT).

Though David Hugel, deputy administrator for the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) told FleetOwner there’s no single factor behind the rapid decline in large truck crash fatalities, he strongly believes it’s not a fluke and highlights a positive shift in the industry’s safety mindset.

“We’re very pleased with these numbers and, though we realize more needs to be done, it exemplifies a long-term effort on the part of law enforcement and carriers to improve highway safety,” he said. “The key factors are an increased number of roadside inspections and compliance reviews, tighter CDL [Commercial Driver’s License] regulations that went into effect in 2005, plus wider use of safety technologies by forward-thinking carriers, such as anti-rollover systems.”

While deaths among truck occupants climbed to 805 in 2006, up 0.1% from 2005, Bob Inderbitzen, president of REI Safety Services, said increased seat belt use by truck drivers may have actually helped keep the overall number of truck-crash fatalities down.

“Yes, technology has helped. Yes, enforcement has helped. But let’s not forget about the increase in safety belt usage, particularly by truck drivers,” he told FleetOwner. “I think this does two things. First and foremost, safety belt usage keeps the truck driver from being killed or injured. But it also allows the driver to remain in control of the vehicle, which may account for part of the reduction in passenger vehicle fatalities.”

Fewer truck crash fatalities reflected an overall drop in highway deaths and, more importantly, a steep decline in the highway fatalities rate. In 2006, DOT said 42,642 people died in traffic crashes, a 2% decline in deaths compared to 2005, contributing to a historic low fatality rate of 1.42 per 100 million vehicle miles traveled (VMT) – the lowest recorded fatality rate in 15 years, said Transportation Secretary Mary Peters.

“Tough safety requirements and new technologies are helping make our vehicles safer and our roads less deadly,” she stated in a news release announcing the drop in highway fatalities. “But we all must do more when so many are killed or seriously hurt on our roads every day.”

Occupant fatalities in passenger vehicles—cars, SUVs, vans and pickups—continued a steady decline to 30,521, the lowest annual total since 1993, Secretary Peters said. Injuries were also down in 2006, with passenger car injuries declining by 6.2% and large truck injuries falling by 15%.

Also in the DOT spotlight is drunk driving. DUI enforcement will “continue to be a top priority for the Department,” said NHTSA Administrator Nicole Nason, who noted there was no improvement in last year’s alcohol-related fatalities numbers. In 2006, 15,121 fatalities involved a driver or motorcycle operator, pedestrian or cyclist who had a .08 or above BAC (blood alcohol concentration) compared to 15,102 in 2005, she said. “There is a personal story behind these statistics and for every alcohol-related fatality, the family left behind is shattered forever,” added Administrator Nason.