An 8.7% spike in the number of people killed in crashes involving large trucks in 2010 compared to 2009 is igniting debate on several fronts – regulatory and otherwise – concerning the trend line where trucking safety is concerned.

While the Dept. of Transportation’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) reported that 32,885 people died in U.S. motor vehicle traf­fic crashes in 2010 – a 2.9% decline from the 33,803 killed in 2009 and the lowest number of highway fatalities since 1949 – deaths due to crashes involving large trucks increased to 3,675 in 2010, an 8.7% increase from the 3,380 recorded in 2009.

Bill Graves, president & CEO of the American Trucking Assns. (ATA) cautioned policymakers to avoid jumping to conclusions based on these figures.

“Every fatality on our highways is a tragedy, and the uptick in the 2010 preliminary report concerns us deeply. Without more information and analysis, though, it is difficult to draw conclusions about what this preliminary data means,” he said in a statement.

“We would hope that policymakers will avoid the ‘error of recency,’ by overemphasizing the newest data at the expense of the overall, long-term trend, which has been overwhelmingly positive,” Graves stressed. “We look forward to seeing further analysis from DOT on crash types as well as how many miles American motorists and truck drivers traveled last year.”

Safety groups, however, are calling for more stringent rules governing commercial vehicle operations based on DOT’s fatality data.

“This distressing news that there are more truck crash fatalities in 2010 is a clear and compelling call for stronger regulations, tougher oversight, and sustained enforcement of motor carriers across the country,” said Jacqueline Gillan, president of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety.

She pointed to the DOT’s crash statistics as the reason why the U.S. Senate must quickly pass the Commercial Motor Vehicle Safety Enhancement Act of 2011 (S.1950) or “CMV bill,” legislation introduced by Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ), chairman of the Senate’s Surface Transportation Subcommittee, Sen. John Rockefeller (D-WV), chairman of the Senate’s Commerce Committee, and Sen. Mark Pryor (D-AR), chairman of the Consumer Protection Subcommittee.

The CMV bill would, among other things, impose increased financial penalties for companies that create an imminent hazard to public health and for so-called “reincarnated carriers,” which operate illegally after being shut down for safety problems. It would also mandate the use of electronic onboard recorders (EOBRs) to reduce truck driver fatigue, establish a clearinghouse for controlled substance and alcohol testing records of CMV operators, and fund a study of the safety and infrastructure effects of increasing truck size and weight limits.

“This legislation will ensure that long overdue and frequently ignored federal actions will move forward and our roads and highways will be safer,” Gillan said. “The safety of the public depends on this bill being passed immediately.”

ATA, however, pointed to a report released by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration in October that indicates that both the number and rate for fatal truck-involved crashes nosedived significantly between 2007 and 2009 – and also indicates that perhaps more attention needs to be paid to the actions of passenger vehicle drivers as part of the debate over fatalities due to large truck crashes.

“The most compelling data on this subject showed that 78% of critical incidents – crashes, near-crashes, and crash-relevant conflicts – between large trucks and passenger vehicles were initiated by passenger vehicle operators,” Rob Abbot, ATA’s vp-safety policy, told Fleet Owner by email.

“Accordingly, any attempts to meaningfully reduce the number of truck crashes must focus attention on the role of the passenger vehicle operator,” he said.