ALEXANDRIA, VA. Representatives from the trucking industry and highway safety advocates offered very different perspectives on reducing the number of truck-car collision fatalities in the U.S. here at the International Truck & Bus Safety and Security Symposium yesterday.

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

“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. But reducing the number of total fatalities should be our goal,” O’Neill added. “Trucks have been a serious problem for a long time in terms of highway crashes and though there’s been some progress, we could do much more.”

Craig Harper, executive vp for Lowell, AR-based truckload carrier 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 shouldn’t 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.

Other crash research Harper pointed to showed that car drivers are four times more likely to rear end a truck than truckers are to rear end cars; are 10 times more likely to crash into a truck head on than vice versa; are three times more likely to speed in poor road conditions (such as rain) than truck drivers; and are eight times more likely to be involved in crashes involving drowsiness than truckers.

“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 Associations. “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; it treats safety as a nuisance as it is more concerned with economics,” he said.

O’Neill pointed to the 25 year lag time in the U.S. between when antilock braking systems (ABS) were first proposed for trucks (1971) compared to when they became mandated by law (1997); the slow adoption of new under-ride guard protection statutes for trailers, a measure first proposed in 1967 and finally mandated in 1998; and efforts to mandate automatic hours of service (HOS) recording devices that date back to 1971 and have only now 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 admitted that Europeans do not record highway accident data to anywhere near the detail as in the U.S., so drawing conclusions about the effect such technology has had on reducing truck-car fatalities is nearly impossible.

“We clearly believe our industry can and must do more to reduce highway fatalities – but we also believe such efforts must be done in the right place and at the right time,” ATA’s Graves said.

“We also clearly believe that educating non-commercial drivers to more safely share the road with commercial trucks is a key step as well,” Graves added. “For example, about 86% of the citations written during a recent pilot program in the state of Washington by law enforcement officers riding along with truck drivers were for the drivers of passenger cars – only 14% were written for other commercial vehicles. Clearly, this is an area where more education for the general public is needed.”