Truck Driving Accidents – Causes, Fatalities, Statistics and Costs

Each year there are thousands of truck accidents, leading to injuries and fatalities, expensive insurance claims and lengthy traffic jams as wreckage is cleared. It is easy to make assumptions about truck driving accidents, and a common assumption is that the truck owner operators are almost always at fault due to the sheer size of their vehicles. However, the statistics reveal that is not the case. What is true is that large trucks are involved in fewer accidents than other types of vehicles per 100 million miles driven, but these accidents have a higher rate of fatalities.

The U.S. agencies responsible for tracking and reporting on truck driving statistics are under the U.S. Department of Transportation. They are the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration and the Federal Highway Administration. The NHTSA manages highway safety programs with the goal of preventing vehicle crashes. The FMCSA regulates interstate commercial driving safety and intrastate commercial driver's license requirements. The FHWA ensures trucks comply with regulations like limits on vehicle size and weight with the intent of preserving highway infrastructures and improving truck safety. It is the NHTSA and the FMCSA that primarily report on trucking safety issues, while the FHWA reports primarily on information like freight tonnage. In addition, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety and the Truck Safety Coalition track truck accident, injury and fatality numbers.

Going the Statistical Distance

The Department of Transportation, as the parent agency, reports that:

• There were more than 1.1 million interstate motor carriers including for-hire, owner operators and private carriers (business fleets) as of December 2010
• In 2007 (last available data), the Commodity Flow Survey reported that trucks hauled more than $8.3 trillion worth of goods
• Approximately 11 billion tons of freight is moved each year
• In 2009, 529 large truck occupants were killed in crashes
• In 2009, 20,000 large truck occupants were injured
• Annually, approximately 500,000 accidents involving trucks occur
• In 2010, there were 1.1 fatal crashes per 100 million truck miles

Though the statistics vary depending on who is issuing the report, the commonality is that truck crashes are rising and often involve a fatality. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety reports that in 2010:

• 286,585 million miles truck miles were traveled
• 3,413 people died in accidents involving large trucks
• 14 percent of the deaths were occupants in the truck
• 72 percent of the deaths were occupants in a different vehicle
• 13 percent of the deaths were people on motorcycles, walking or riding bicycles
• The number of fatalities rose by 8 percent compared to 2009
• Large trucks accounted for 4 percent of registered vehicles but 9 percent of motor vehicle crash deaths
• 75 percent of truck accidents involving fatalities were tractor-trailers and 25 percent were single large trucks

Surprisingly, 61 percent of fatalities occurred on major roads other than interstate highways. Trucks often weigh as much as 30 times more than a passenger vehicle, so the smaller vehicle passengers are more likely to die in an accident involving a large truck. Big rigs also require more stopping distance, especially when loaded, so need plenty of time to react when it is necessary to slowdown to avoid a crash. Weight and stopping distance are two issues that passenger vehicles should be aware of at all times.

Complexity of Crash Causes

The DOT did a detailed study called “The Large Truck Crash Causation Study” to analyze truck crashes occurring between 2001 and 2003. The events that led to crashes included:

• Loss of control of the truck after driving due to some event like a tire blowout
• Disabling or non-disabling vehicle failure – engine problem or hood flew up
• Another motor vehicle encroaching on the truck 's lane
• Poor road conditions due to poor road maintenance or weather
• Traveling too fast for road conditions
• Shifting cargo
• Lane drifting – either truck or passenger vehicle
• Driving off the edge of the road
• Improper truck maneuvering during events (turns and passing through intersections)
• Coming upon a stopped vehicle
• Finding objects on the highway
• Driver fatigue

The DOT which working hand in hand with trucking companies reports that in 60 percent of all truck crashes, without regard for who was at fault, there was no driver error. In 15 percent of the cases, there was a driver recognition factor, and in 16 percent of the cases it was a driver decision issue. However, in those crashes where the truck was the main cause of the accident, 87 percent were due to driver fatigue. Ten percent were due to vehicle failure, while 3 percent were due to environmental conditions. There were 239 crashes involving truck rollovers, and over half of them were due to not adjusting speed correctly for things like the type of load being carried and the maneuvering of trucks on interstate on-and-off ramps. The second major cause of rollovers was due to mental distractions or falling asleep. The third major cause was over-steering, and the fourth cause was related to load weight and balancing.

In 2010, the FMCSA reports that only 1.4 percent of fatal truck accidents were the result of truck driver fatigue. However, drivers on the road for more than 8 hours have twice the risk of crashing compared to those driving for a shorter period of time. There are many other reasons why truck owner operators could contribute to a crash. They include daydreaming, sickness, driving too fast or too slow, distractions like cell phones or texting, following too closely to the vehicle in front and driver inexperience. There are also cases where a mechanical failure leads to a crash. Common failures include brakes, steering, trailer connections, engine, transmission and tires.

These are a lot of statistics to digest, but the bottom line is that trucks are involved in thousands of accidents each year. The average cost of a fatal crash is well over $3 million. The average cost of a large truck crash that does not involve a death is approximately $62,000. There are many government agencies promoting large truck safety, but the truth is that truck drivers and passenger vehicle drivers need to be considerate of each other, follow safety rules closely and learn to better share the road.