Big rig crash deaths rise, group asks Congress to require use of speed limiters, automatic braking

by Jeff Della Rosa ([email protected]) 1,609 views 

Truck safety organization Road Safe America recently released an analysis of federal crash data showing semitrailer crash fatalities rose between 2009 and 2017, and a coalition led by the organization has asked Congress to require all big rigs to use speed limiters set at 65 mph and automatic emergency braking technology.

The number of people who died in a fatal crash involving a big rig rose 42% from 2,983 to 4,237, between 2009 and 2017, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Steve Owings, co-founder of Road Safe America, said this has happened as truck miles driven has remained flat over the same period. Owings and his wife founded the organization 16 years ago after their son was killed in a crash involving a big rig. He said his son was in a vehicle stopped in traffic when the truck struck the rear of the vehicle.

Between 2009 and 2017, 35,882 people died in large truck crashes, and over the same period, the number of deaths rose in all but six states, according to the organization’s analysis. Washington, Idaho, Colorado, Texas and Nevada had the largest percentage increase in truck crash deaths, over the same period. States with the most truck crash deaths in 2017 were Texas, California, Florida, Georgia and Pennsylvania.

In Arkansas, the number who died rose 6.3% to 84, according to the data. Arkansas had the 41st largest rise in the deaths and the 24th highest number of fatalities.

Since the 1990s, truck manufacturers have installed speed limiters on trucks, and no capital expense would be required to use them, according to Road Safe America. Owings explained manufacturers have been installing them for over the past 30 years because of the number of countries worldwide that have required their use. Japan, Australia, Germany, France and the United Kingdom require their use, according to the coalition’s letter to Congress. The European Union has required the use of speed limiters since 1992 and the use of automatic emergency braking since 2012, and between 2009 and 2016, the number of truck crash deaths has fallen 20% in the European Union, while rising 29% over the same period in the United States.

“It’s really kind of insane that our country for whatever reason has not implemented the speed limiter rule,” Owings said. “There’s some low hanging fruit if you’ve ever seen some.”

More than 70% of class 7 and class 8 trucks, the largest truck class, voluntarily use them, and many trucking companies have set them at 65 mph because the technology reduces the number of crashes, the costs associated with crashes and litigation and the savings on fuel and maintenance, according to the organization. Requiring the use of speed limiters set at 65 mph would prevent about 100 deaths per month, based on data from an Ontario study, Owings said. The study showed that fatalities in all crashes involving big rigs declined 24% after the speed limiter rule went into effect.

“Additionally, the Ontario study directly debunked the claim that speed differentials would lead to an increase in overall crashes involving big rigs, finding no evidence of such an increase at all,” according to the coalition’s letter. Trade group Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association has cited studies showing that speed limiters cause safety issues by limiting the speeds of trucks to a speed lower than the speeds of other vehicles, leading to unsafe conditions among trucks and cars.

David O’Neal, vice president of safety programs and industry engagement for trade group Arkansas Trucking Association (ATA), said the ATA has supported the use of speed limiters so long as all other vehicles were equipped with the devices set at the same speed limit. He explained the concern, which was similar to the one expressed by Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association, is the unsafe conditions caused by differentiation in speeds if big rigs were required to use the speed limiters but not all the other vehicles on the road.

O’Neal said the trucking industry invests $9 billion annually into safety training, technologies and programs to prevent or mitigate the severity of an accident. He also noted the cause of fatal truck crashes are not reflected in the numbers, and based on federal studies, motorist actions were the cause of up to 75% of crashes involving big rigs, especially rear-end collisions. He said the latter might result when a car cuts in front of a big rig and stops quickly, but the truck cannot stop as fast as the car, leading to a crash. Distracted driving plays a role in such crashes, and in 2017, distraction-related driving accounted for 8.5% of all fatalities.

O’Neal explained the timeline in the increase of fatalities between 2009 and 2017 might be aligned with the rise in use of smartphones, and how they’ve caused drivers to become more distracted. Also, lack of seatbelt use could be a factor in the increase. Seatbelt usage has risen to nearly 90%, but in about half of fatal crashes, one or more of the occupants didn’t use seatbelts, he said.

“Any fatality is one too many,” O’Neal said. Education has a role to play to decrease the number of crashes, he said. The industry has been working to educate drivers and the public on safety issues, such as proper following distances and the ability to see the driver’s face in the mirror or rear view mirror. ATA has a program in Arkansas addressing distracted driving called Focus, Drive, Stay Alive, and it’s also supported increasing the fine for texting while driving. Technology also is expected to play a role in improving safety.

“Today’s trucks are more likely than not to come standard equipped with an anti-collision technology or rollover prevention that is as new trucks are manufactured that’s becoming increasingly a standard feature,” O’Neal said. He was uncertain how many carriers in Arkansas use speed limiters or automatic emergency braking technology.

Road Safe America also didn’t have data on the number of trucks that use automatic emergency braking but noted that the cost for a manufacturer to install one is about $500, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Owings cited a report from the federal agency showing if trucks were equipped with automatic emergency braking, it would prevent 166 fatalities, 8,000 injuries and 2,500 crashes.

Road Safe America is part of a group of truck safety organizations and friends and families of those who died in truck crashes that sent letters to U.S. senators and representatives encouraging them to require all big rigs use speed limiters and automatic emergency braking technology. It’s the first time the organization has petitioned Congress for legislation on the issue.

“I feel like, hopefully, we are in the home stretch,” Owings said. “(U.S. Sen.) Johnny Isakson, (R-Georgia), has agreed to lead the charge in the Senate, and we’re grateful for that. With the new House getting everything organized, they haven’t named all the members of the subcommittees yet, but we’re getting ready to identify who our lead folks are going to be over there.”

The organization in 2006 was among a group of trucking companies that asked agencies of the U.S. Department of Transportation to require the use of speed limiters. The agency released a notice in 2016 that if the rule was implemented, it would only apply to new trucks. No action has been taken on the topic since then. Also, about three years ago, the organization filed a petition with the federal agencies for a rule on the automatic emergency braking technology. The agencies agreed to work on it six months after the filing, but nothing has happened since then.

When asked about the impact of the electronic logging device (ELD) mandate on the rising number of truck crash fatalities, Owings said that ELDs and speed limiters must go hand-in-hand. Before the mandate went into effect, truck drivers used paper logs to track hours of service. He said ELDs give a digital log of how long drivers have been working and emphasized that drivers should be paid by the hour. Most drivers are paid by the mile, and he was concerned drivers might be speeding in order to achieve the same number of miles before the mandate went into effect.

“Adding the speed limiters just makes sure that people who are tempted to make up for the loss of the ability to drive too long don’t make up for it with egregious speeds,” Owings said. “But the real solution is to get both of these things in place, and we believe that’s going to force payment by the hour for truck drivers, which is what all truck drivers want.”

The ELD mandate was projected to reduce capacity across the industry in the mid-single digits as it was expected to improve the tracking of a driver’s hours of service and duty status along with helping to prevent falsifying of driver logs, according to report from analyst Brad Delco of Little Rock-based Stephens Inc. Some carriers were running over their hours limit by as much as 50%, said analysts Benjamin Hartford and Zax Rosenberg, both of Baird.

O’Neal explained the value related to ELDs as it tracks a driver’s available hours of service, but the device itself cannot require drivers to rest. “It’s still the responsibility of the driver and of the motor carrier to make sure the drivers are well rested before they get behind the wheel,” he said.