The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reported that based on preliminary figures, in 2004 1.96 large trucks were involved in fatal crashes per 100 million truck miles traveled. This rate marks the safest year in trucking since NHTSA began calculating the rates in 1975, and is a drastic year-over-year safety improvement over the 2003 rate of 2.19.

NHTSA previously announced that the absolute number of large trucks involved in fatalities had increased 3% year-over-year to 4,862 in 2004 vs. 4,721 in 2003. This had raised some concerns with safety advocates but recently the agency found that total large truck miles traveled jumped almost 15% to 248 billion, compared with 216 billion in 2003.

The rate is significant because 2004 marked an economic resurgence—hence the 15% boost in miles traveled— for the trucking industry, while the controversial new drivers’ hours-of-service rules were implemented that January.

No details on the causes of these fatal crashes were available at this time. A NHTSA spokesperson told FleetOwner a full report would be published in the coming weeks.

“A lot of work has been done to get the rates down, but there’s still more work to be done,” Bob Inderbitzen, director of safety and compliance for the National Private Truck Council told FleetOwner. “With all the increased traffic on the road and the increased vehicles, it’s gone down despite all of that.”

Although there are no numbers available yet to draw any conclusions as to the cause of the increase in safety, Inderbitzen said a variety of factors could have played a role.

“We’re making progress in encouraging more professional drivers to wear their seatbelts,” Inderbitzen noted. “Truck driver education is a part of it. And hours of service, in spite of all the controversy, is a boost as a lot of drivers were being abused under the old rules. Some were being marked as ‘off-duty’ when they couldn’t leave their vehicle with delay time not being paid for [under the 2004 rule]. Productivity has improved because shippers have worked to reduce the delay time.”

Jim York, manager of Zurich Service Corp.’s Risk Engineering Transportation Team, was cautiously optimistic about the recent NHTSA finding. He pointed out that an Oak Ridge National Laboratory report recently released to the trucking industry found that Dept. of Transportation non-fatal crash data was flawed because it could be almost a year after a crash before it is inputted.