A 14% drop in the truck-involved highway crash fatality rate between 2008 and 2009 – the latest years for which finalized data is available – is being viewed both as proof the current regulatory framework for truck-safety procedures is working and validation of trucking’s own internal safety efforts.

In 2009, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) recorded 3,380 fatalities from 2,987 truck-involved crashes. That is down sharply from the 4,245 fatalities and 3,754 truck-involved crashes reported in 2008.

Furthermore, the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) has stated that trucks traveled more than 288-billion miles in 2009 compared to 310.7 billion in 2008. That indicates the rate of truck-involved fatalities on U.S. highways fell to 1.17 per 100-million miles-- down from a rate of 1.37 in 2008 equaling a 14% drop.

“This is not a small decline; it’s a significant amount of movement,” said Gov. Bill Graves, president & CEO of the American Trucking Assns. (ATA) in a conference call with reporters. “[Those numbers] make 2009 the safest year for our industry.”

In addition to the lower overall truck-related fatality rate, the truck-occupant fatality rate fell more than 17% to 0.17 per 100 million miles traveled, according to NHTSA figures.

“This is really good news for all of us in this industry,” added Barbara Windsor, president & CEO of Hahn Transportation and ATA chair. “It shows that the industry’s daily focus on safety is working.”

Yet ATA’s Graves was noncommittal about using this improvement in trucking’s safety record to intensify opposition to proposed regulatory changes, such as the proposed rulemaking to alter hours of service (HOS) regs.

“I think we need to give ourselves a minute to really absorb the positive story these numbers tell,” he explained. “Clearly, these improved numbers are taking place in a period of very aggressive regulatory change and economic difficulties. We think these numbers make for an even stronger case that current HOS rules are working. But policy-wise, we’re just going to focus on the good news these numbers offer.”

Graves also stressed there’s no one single reason for this drop in truck-involved highway fatalities – a decline that’s been ongoing over the last five years. Rather, he said a mix of factors are responsible, including improved driver-training procedures, a largely self-imposed decline in truck highway speeds, and especially an increase in the spec’ing of various safety systems on trucks.

Dan England, chairman & president of C.R. England, who is due to begin his term as the next ATA chair the fall, highlighted the safety and monetary benefits fleets are gaining from safety technologies such as roll –stability, lane-departure warning and collision-avoidance systems, among others.

“One technology we’ve really proved out in terms of effectiveness in our fleet is roll stability,” he said. “We’re a refrigerated fleet so our trailers typically carry heavier loads and have a higher center of gravity than the average dry van unit. Since we started installing roll stability systems on our trailers, we’ve cut the occurrence of rollovers in our fleet by 30% to 40%. That prevents accidents, saves lives, and saves us money on our bottom line, too. That technology provides a great return on investment for us.”

Dave Osiecki, ATA senior vp of policy & regulatory affairs, noted that C.R.England’s experience shows why offering fleets incentives to voluntarily install safety technologies on their equipment vs. mandating it is a better way to continue the ongoing lessening of truck-involved crashes and fatalities.

“One of the problems with mandating technology is that is takes a long time to do so through the regulatory process,” he explained. “It takes years to finalize any regulation, with the consequence that in the interim such safety technology isn’t deployed. Incentives, however, such as tax credits, encourage more immediate adoption of technology – systems that go to work right away to help prevent crashes and save lives.”