Trucking can be, and needs to be, safer

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The master artist and sculptor Michelangelo once said: “The greatest danger to most of us is not that our aim is too high and we miss it, but that it is too low and we reach it." While this statement can apply to many areas of life and business, it is an interesting exercise to apply this statement to highway safety. 

There were 5,788 fatal accidents involving large trucks in the United States in 2021. While most of these accidents were not the fault of the large truck, some of them certainly were. So, what can the industry do to reduce these accidents? How many accidents can we eliminate? The FMCSA has set a goal of zero fatal accidents. Is that a realistic goal? In addressing these complex questions, we have to consider the trade-offs we are faced with on a daily basis. 

If a safety manager’s top goal was to be the safest fleet in the world, that could easily be done. That safety manager would just need to permanently park all the trucks in the yard and nothing would ever happen. Obviously, that is not a realistic option. The nation depends on the trucking industry to move the economy. So how can we continue to effectively move the nation’s freight but, at the same time, reduce accidents? Now is a perfect time to aim higher and see exactly how much progress we can make.

Here are a couple of suggestions selected from a much larger list that we might consider:

Embrace technologies that make sense  

We are fortunate to live in a time when amazing technologies are being developed for our industry. Tractors can stop without driver input to avoid or reduce the impact of rear-end accidents. Cameras can capture video in front of a tractor during an accident, or event that can be used to teach and train our drivers. Drivers can be alerted to vehicles in their blind spot to prevent sideswipe accidents. Tractor-trailer combinations can stop much faster with the use of disc brakes. Computers can limit vehicle road speed and adapt to posted speed limits. Tractors can steer themselves and stay centered in a lane as well as a human in many cases. The list goes on and on.  

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While all of this sounds ideal, there is a catch.  

Many of these technologies are relatively expensive, and they are not perfect. Over time, costs will come down and these technologies will improve in their functional effectiveness. As an industry, each fleet can contribute by encouraging their use through testing and constructive feedback. By supporting the technologies that are most effective (and that work within our budgets), we will unquestionably make meaningful gains in highway safety. Government mandates of these technologies may eventually force acceptance, but we can be much more proactive in supporting the right technologies without being compelled. When the industry is actively driving effective innovation, bad ideas from policymakers are easier to deflect.

Remove drug impairment from the highways

A recent study suggests that in large samples of pre-employment drug tests, hair follicle testing is up to nine times more effective in identifying drug use than the standard urinalysis test.  Nine times! 

But since the FMCSA does not currently recognize a hair test result in the Drug & Alcohol Clearinghouse, fleets that identify a driver who uses drugs through this method can’t report the positive test. The driver is free to move on to another company without anyone knowing, which effectively defeats the concept of the Drug & Alcohol Clearinghouse.  

If – as a nation and as an industry – we are serious about highway safety, we need to be bold enough to close loopholes that allow operators of heavy trucks to drive while impaired. Unfortunately, this issue has been caught up in Washington D.C. labor politics. Congress has directed federal agencies to move forward with hair testing as an option for fleets. TCA has challenged the Department of Health and Human Services and FMCSA to finalize the testing protocols and recognize the tests. This will move the needle on highway safety and is simply the right thing to do. We are not even asking for a mandate, just an option. We cannot rest until this gets done.

Safety and profitability are not mutually exclusive. In today’s “big truck lawyer on every billboard” world, being safe is not optional. Being safe is required in order to stay in business. It is essential to long-term profitability. 

The ideas listed above are just a few of many. If you want to be a part of the solution in advancing highway safety, join us June 11-13 in San Antonio at the TCA Safety and Security Council Meeting.  You can sign up at Help us to shape policy and let your voice be heard.

Dave Williams the Senior Vice President of Equipment and Government Relations at Knight-Swift Transportation and the 2023-2024 chairman of the the Truckload Carriers Association (TCA).