“As these new statistics show, we are making progress, but far too many of our friends, neighbors and family members are still getting killed or seriously injured.” - Transportation Secretary Mary Peters.
The statistics Madame Peters, head of the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT), are referring to are these: In 2007, the overall number of traffic fatalities fell to 41,059 - the lowest number since 1994 - pegging the fatality rate per 100 million vehicle miles traveled at 1.37, the lowest fatality rate on record, she noted.
Peters added that 2.49 million people were injured in highway crashes last year, the lowest seen since the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) began collecting injury data in 1988.
One the trucking side of the safety ledger, the news is even better. The total number of traffic fatalities in large truck involved crashes decreased 4.4% in 2007, from 5,027 in 2006 to 4,808 last year - the lowest level since 1992. Truck occupant fatalities decreased 0.4% and fatalities for occupants of other vehicles involved in the crash dropped 5.2%, while fatalities for people who were not a vehicle occupant, such as cyclists or pedestrians, decreased 4.7%.
This is all good stuff - if not great stuff - but the questions we need to look at are what‘s behind this big drop ... and is a drop of this magnitude sustainable?
Let‘s see if we can answer the second question first. One reason I think we‘ll see even lower highway fatality and injury rates for 2008 is that people are simply driving less - way, WAY less. In June this year people logged 12 billion FEWER miles on the road than they did in June 2007 - and with fewer people on the road, obviously, fewer fatalities should occur. It also seems that people are slowing down for the same reason they are driving less: sky0high fuel prices.
Though gasoline and diesel costs have been in retreat for 26 days now, they are still far higher than last year, which, hopefully, means people will continue to drive less, thus reducing their chances of being injured or killed in a highway crash. (We‘re also reducing the golden lining of OPEC‘s pockets a little bit - to the point where they are mightily worried, as oil production has jumped 24% over the last month. But that‘s for another post for another day.)
So, now, back to the first question: WHY are highway fatalities and injuries - especially those related to large trucks - in such rapid decline? Governor Bill Graves, president and CEO of the American Trucking Associations (ATA) said recently that slower speeds being enacted by trucking companies larger and small to save fuel are also tangentially helping reduce crashes. He also noted that the slumping U.S. economy is reducing mileage for many truckers, too, which is reducing their exposure to crash risks as well (though this isn‘t what we would call a ‘win-win‘ by any stretch of the imagination.)
Technology is playing a role as well. “Some of the decline in fatalities may be attributed to trucks utilizing more safety technologies such as collision avoidance, lane departure warning, stability control and brake stroke monitoring systems,” he noted - one reason ATA is supporting the Safety Technology Tax Credit Bill (S. 3428) introduced at the beginning of August that focuses on providing incentives to add such systems to trucks.
The bill - which mirrors H.R. 3820, the Commercial Motor Vehicle Advanced Safety Technology Tax Act, introduced in the House of Representatives last year - offers a tax credit equal to 50% of the cost of a qualified system up to $1,500; allowing for a total credit of up to $3,500 per vehicle; limiting the qualifying taxpayer to a maximum credit of $350,000 per taxable year; and extending credit eligibility for the purchase of school buses, intercity buses and vehicles used in commerce weighing over 26,000 lbs.
“The statistics from this most recent study also show that the efforts of law enforcement agencies to focus on the most likely causes of crashes, such as speeding and impaired driving, are making our highways safer,” ATA‘s Graves added - stressing that this continued safety improvement occurred under the new federal hours-of-service (HOS) regulations, offering to his mind more evidence that the regulations are working and should be retained.
He also noted that ATA continues to call for a national speed limit of 65 miles per hour, while asking DOT to require speed governors for heavy trucks be set at 68 mph on trucks at the time of manufacture, to both improve highway safety and reduce fuel consumption. We‘ll see how that effort fares in the months ahead.
However, it‘s not all peaches and cream, as fatalities among motorcycle riders and passengers increased significantly. DOT Secretary Peters Motorcycle fatalities now account for 13% of all fatalities and, in 2007 alone, the number of motorcycle riders or passengers killed on the nation‘s roads increased 6.6% over the previous year. No doubt this is partly due to more people trying out motorcycles as a way to cut their fuel bills and commuting costs, though that‘s a very risky way to do it.
The big takeaway from all of this is simple: the highways are getting safer, with big rigs contributing to that safety improvement in a huge way. Let‘s hope that trend line continues - and that trucking gets some props for making it happen.