According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, 5,316 Americans were fatally injured in large truck crashes in 1998. Each year in the two decades before that saw a similar number, with an average of 5,351 people killed annually between 1978 and 1997. This, Congress decided, was a status quo in need of change.
In 1999, Congress established the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA), a new agency dedicated to reducing the number of motor vehicle collisions involving large trucks and buses. But to tackle the problem, the new agency needed to figure out what caused truck accidents in the first place. So they did.
What Causes Large Truck Accidents?
Reviewing a nationally-representative sample of 963 large truck crashes between April 2001 and December 2003, researchers from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration found that the 963 accidents resulted in a total of 249 deaths and 1,654 injuries.
As a rule, individual truck accidents injure or kill more than one person at a time.
Critical Events & Reasons
The FMCSA distinguishes between two interrelated concepts: “critical events” and “critical reasons.”
- Critical events, like veering out of the appropriate lane, put trucks on an unavoidable collision course.
- Critical reasons explain why trucks entered that collision course in the first place.
For example, a truck driver spills hot coffee in her lap, and then loses control of the vehicle, which veers into another lane. That spilled coffee is a “critical reason” and the veer is the “critical event.”
3 Critical Events
The top three critical events are simple to explain:
- Running out of the travel lane caused 32% of crashes
- Losing control of the vehicle caused 29%.
- Rear ending a car in front caused 22%.
But for obvious reasons, finding the “critical reasons” that led to these events is a more difficult task. There are many events that can cause a truck to veer out of its lane, some of which are sudden (like spilled coffee) and others that develop over longer periods of time (like driver fatigue).
Hundreds Of Critical Reasons
To find the actual cause in any one crash, the FMCSA not only had to review vehicle damage and survivor injuries but also driver time logs, trucking company internal procedures and police interviews after the accident. Vehicle inspections were extensive, and many of the crashes involved some sort of equipment defect.
Truck Driver Error
But the vast majority, 87%, were attributed to driver error:
- Inappropriate decision-making contributed to 38% of crashes. This category includes speeding and following other vehicles too closely.
- Driver inattention contributed to 28% of large truck accidents.
- Driver non-performance, which includes falling asleep, resulted in 12% of the crashes. This category also covers heart attacks, seizures and other non-intentional forms of physical incapacity.
- Driver performance contributed to 9% of the accidents. This category includes panicking and overcompensating in the face of dangerous situations.
Other driver error factors included:
- Traveling too fast for road conditions (23% of crashes)
- Unfamiliar with roadway (22% of crashes)
- Over-the-counter drug use (17% of crashes)
- Fatigue (13% of crashes)
- Violation of driving laws (9% of crashes)
10% of the truck drivers involved in crashes reported feeling under considerable pressure from their bosses. As a result, they were more likely to rush deliveries or overwork to finish their jobs.
But surprisingly, and unlike crashes involving only passenger vehicles, alcohol and drug use were not found to be significant causes of large truck accidents.
Vehicle Malfunction & Improper Maintenance
Vehicle defects were another major cause:
- 29% of crashes involved brake failure
- 6% involved tire blowouts
- 4% involved cargo that was not properly tied down, shifted during transport and dangerously changed the vehicle’s center of gravity
While truck companies are held to rigorous vehicle maintenance standards, it’s clear that many skimp on the basic necessities, endangering thousands of American lives every day.
Has The FMCSA Reduced Truck Accidents?
The answer seems to be a resounding “yes.”
After its landmark study was published in 2006, the FMCSA immediately increased its scrutiny of the trucking industry. Punishments for regulation violators were strengthened, trucking companies were forced to perform more rigorous vehicle inspections and the hours drivers could work lawfully was decreased.
As a result, fatalities in truck accidents decreased precipitously:
Remember that this graph only represents deaths in truck-related traffic accidents, not total injuries. So while it certainly indicates a decrease in the severity of large truck crashes, it may not necessarily reflect a total decrease in personal injury accidents.
But the trend is obviously promising. Since the FMCSA’s study was published, truck accident fatalities have been cut by almost 40%.