Speakers at the International Truck & Bus Safety and Security Symposium in Alexandria, VA, last month provided decidedly different perspectives on reducing the number of truck-car collision fatalities in the U.S.

Brian O'Neill, president of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, talked about how truckers are not doing enough to help reduce accident deaths. “In 1980, there were approximately 5,780 truck-car crash fatalities; 25 years later those numbers have barely budged, dropping to only 5,079,” he pointed out.

“I know that the trucking industry will counter this by noting that vehicle miles traveled have substantially increased over that same period, reducing the death rate per million miles,” he continued. “But reducing the number of total fatalities should be our goal,”

Craig Harper, exec.-vp for J.B. Hunt, stated that truck-car accident research done by the AAA Foundation and the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) shows that blame for the fatality rate should not be placed on truckers alone. “The AAA study found that in 73% of the truck-car crashes studied, no unsafe act on the part of the truck driver caused the accident,” he said.

According to Harper, additional studies comparing non-commercial and commercial drivers have found the following:

  • Passenger-car drivers are four times more likely to rear-end a truck than truckers are to rear-end cars;

  • Non-commercial drivers are 10 times more likely to crash into a truck head-on than vice versa;

  • Passenger-car drivers are three times more likely to speed in poor road conditions (such as rain) than truck drivers;

  • Non-commercial drivers are eight times more likely to be involved in crashes involving drowsiness.

“We have to remember, too, that the miles trucks drive are not discretionary miles; they are not for recreation or done as a hobby,” added Gov. Bill Graves, president & CEO of the American Trucking Assns. “The economy demands these miles from us to deliver the freight it needs.”

O'Neill countered that such economic calculations are part of the problem. “The trucking lobby in the U.S. pays lip service to safety,” he said, pointing to the following examples:

  • ABS was proposed for trucks in 1971, yet not mandated until 1997;

  • Underride guard protection for trailers was proposed in 1967, yet not adopted until 1998;

  • Efforts to mandate “black boxes” date back to 1971, yet have only recently begun to receive acceptance.

“In each case, Europe adopted those technologies at a much faster pace than the U.S.; they are doing a decidedly better job in terms of truck safety,” said O'Neill.

He did admit, however, that Europeans do not record highway accident data to anywhere near the detail that we do in the U.S., so drawing conclusions about the effect such technology has had on reducing truck-car fatalities is nearly impossible.