Safety in numbers? – September 2008

In 2007, deaths involving large trucks dropped 4.4 percent to 4,808 – the lowest number since 1992, which is the best year on record. Since 2005, fatalities involving large trucks have dropped 8.2 percent. Overall highway deaths also were at their lowest since 1994, and the overall fatality rate of 1.37 per 100 million vehicle miles traveled is the best on record.

These figures – released last month by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration – certainly are good news. While there are countless ways to parse safety data, 219 fewer people died in large truck crashes in 2007 than in 2006. And 432 fewer people died in 2007 than in 2005. These numbers may not sound huge for an entire nation in a whole year, but they aren’t just numbers. They are human lives.

While we can celebrate these results – and we should – we don’t yet have enough information to truly understand and analyze them. Later this year, NHTSA will release more detailed data that will include the fatality rate for crashes involving large trucks. Since the total number of deaths depends in part on the ups and downs of highway traffic, the fatality rate offers a better insight into whether safety performance really is improving. Based on the initial figures, however, some observers have formed opinions on why highway deaths are dropping.

Discussing the reduction in overall highway fatalities, Transportation Secretary Mary Peters cited safer vehicles, aggressive law enforcement and federal safety initiatives. The American Trucking Associations cited reduced speeds to save fuel, greater use of safety technologies and efforts of law enforcement agencies to focus on the most likely causes of crashes, such as speeding and impaired driving. ATA also said that the improvement suggests that the current hours-of-service regulations are working. John Hill, head of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, suggested that a 41.5 percent increase in compliance reviews and a 12.8 percent rise in roadside inspections since 2004 were possible explanations.It’s possible, however, that a major factor is one that nobody can control or depend on.

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The Federal Highway Administration estimates that total miles traveled in 2007 dropped 0.4 percent compared to 2006. That’s not much, but it’s the first annual decline since at least 1982 when FHWA began tracking the figures. Mileage was down in 2007 for trucking as well. According to ATA figures, dry van truckload operators logged 3 percent fewer miles in 2007 than in 2006.

Fewer miles mean fewer deaths even with no improvement in the fatality rate. The number of miles Americans drive is plummeting this year. According to FHWA, total miles are down 2.8 percent through June compared to the same 2007 period. That’s an unprecedented decline, so expect to see another significant reduction in highway deaths in 2008.

If less traffic proves to be a driving force, the progress won’t last forever. The economy and consumer confidence will improve, encouraging more travel regardless of gasoline prices. And if gas prices continue to drop, we may see more four-wheelers not only driving more but also returning to their speeding ways.

Fleet owners can never become complacent about safety, but an inevitable rebound in highway travel adds just a bit more urgency. Without improvements in accident rates that flow from a combination of strategies – training and monitoring drivers, controlling speed and adopting more safety technologies, for example – the number of fatalities could surge in 2009 or 2010. If that happens, the trucking industry’s remarkable safety improvements over time and the great numbers from the past several years won’t keep legislators and regulators from overreacting with unnecessary and burdensome new mandates.