Bright Spot In A Dim Economy: Big-Rig Fatalities Way Down In 2009

November 2, 2010
Semi trailer

Semi trailer

The economy has no doubt left some casualties over the past couple of years, but it's also saving lives on the road. In an abrupt trend that can only be attributed to a downturn in freight activity, far fewer crashes involved semis and large trucks in 2009 than in 2008.

According to 2009 numbers from the federal government's Fatality Analysis Reporting System, and newly analyzed and digested by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), in 2008 there were a total of 4,017 deaths in crashes involving large trucks, while in 2009 there were 3,163—representing more than a 21-percent drop in one year.

From 1980 to 2006, traffic on our Interstates, which carry more than 40 percent of our freight, increased by 150 percent while capacity only grew 15 percent. You'd think that would be a recipe for disaster, but advances in vehicle safety have helped counter that. A more gradual trend of improvement regarding truck-related fatalities started back in 2004, but nothing of the magnitude that just happened in a single year.

Interactions between cars and semis are far more often fatal than interactions between cars—of course, most often, resulting in deaths to the car occupants. Overall, 98 percent of the vehicle occupants killed in two-vehicle crashes involving large trucks were in a passenger vehicle, and while large trucks accounted for just four percent of registered vehicles and eight percent of vehicle miles traveled, eleven percent of motor-vehicle crash fatalities involved a large truck.

Nine percent of all deaths in passenger vehicles and 20 percent of all passenger-vehicle deaths involving multiple vehicles involved a large truck.

Of truck crashes, 72 percent involved trucks of the tractor-trailer variety, and when truck drivers did perish in an accident it involved, in 60 percent of the cases, another large truck.

Despite all the safety improvements to passenger cars, you simply can't change those laws of physics altogether. The IIHS points out that in large-truck crashes, there's been more improvement (in terms of the percent decline in fatalities) for those inside the big rigs than for those outside in other vehicles.

With that added responsibility of driving a big rig, some have proposed mandatory speed limiters for large trucks—primarily to save fuel, but also for traffic safety.

Admittedly, we can't point blame entirely to truck drivers. How passenger-car drivers respond around trucks is a big part of the problem, with impatient car drivers sometimes cutting too closely, without thinking about the reduced braking ability of a fully loaded semi.

Let's just hope that when the economy perks back up we can continue this safer trend.


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