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Troublesome increase in commercial motor vehicle fatalities; FMCSA says unbelted drivers still a major reason

Photo: Jim Allen/FreightWaves

There has been a significant increase in commercial motor vehicle fatalities over the past two years, and lack of seat belt usage was cited by a leading federal official as a continuing key reason.

Jack Van Steenburg, the assistant administrator and chief safety officer of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA), says you can look at the data and conclude that about half the occupants of commercial trucks that are killed in crashes die because they weren’t wearing seat belts.

Van Steenburg made his presentation before the annual FMCSA-led session at the Transportation Research Board in Washington.

The number of people killed in fatal crashes involving large trucks and buses was up to 5,005 in 2017, the latest year for which figures are available, Van Steenburg said. That number was 3,193 in 2009.

The vast majority of the people killed in those crashes were occupants of passenger vehicles. In 2017, the number of occupants of trucks killed was 841, up from 499 in 2009. The split among the 841 was 717 drivers and 124 passengers.

“If you look at the data further, about one-third were speeding and about half were not wearing seat belts,” Van Steenburg said. Research done by FMCSA shows that the seat belt compliance rate among drivers of commercial motor vehicles – a category that includes buses – is about 86 percent. For passenger vehicles, it is about 90 percent, he said.

Specifically, of the drivers of large trucks who were killed, 322 of them were not wearing seat belts. That accounts for 38 percent of the total. Another 17 percent was reported as unknown. But as Van Steenburg noted, when you extrapolate the figure on seat belt compliance into the number of drivers killed where no specific reason was given, and an assumption is made that the seat belt percentage is then about the same, you can get up to about a 50 percent rate of drivers killed who were not belted in.

“We need to do a better job educating our carriers about the benefits of seatbelt use,” Van Steenburg said. “We need the industry to put the policies out there and follow up and we need to do more enforcement.”

Although the lack of a seat belt is the leading factor in why a driver or occupant would die in an accident, that’s not the cause of an accident. FMCSA does not cite causes, but instead reports on what are considered “factors” in crashes. The top factor last year was speeding, accounting for 6.3 percent of all accidents. Distractions, which include cell phone usage, is next at 5.6 percent. Rounding out the top five factors are: failure to yield at 4.8 percent; impairment – whether it’s fatigue, alcohol or another reason – 3.9%; and unspecified “careless driving” at 3.9 percent.

The percentage of Class 8 trucks that were involved in fatal accidents in 2017 was 71.1 percent, with Class 8 defined as anything over 33,000 pounds. But that figure was down from 2014 when it was 77.4 percent. Class 3 vehicles (mostly pickup trucks being used for commercial uses) are rising as a percentage of fatal accidents.

Van Steenburg said he has high hopes for automation in commercial vehicles. “We support and encourage this kind of technological innovation,” he said. “There is a return on investment and a big benefit there.”

Van Steenburg expressed concern about the high percentage of accidents that occur in work zones. Of all fatal crashes occurring, 27.2 percent were in work zones in 2016.

The work zone figures are being put out there “for your awareness,” Van Steenburg said. “Is it inattention, is it fatigue, is it a speeding matter?” But he reiterated that if advanced technology systems are deployed, “you will see a little bit of decrease in fatalities in work zone areas.”

When Van Steenburg presented state-by-state figures, he conceded that they had not been adjusted for miles. Still, some of the differences were striking. Fatal accidents in Texas were up 12 percent; those in California were up 18.6 percent. Florida was up 27 percent and Georgia was up 19.7 percent. But Pennsylvania was flat, New York was down 12.2 percent and Ohio was up only 1.2 percent. Van Steenburg said the states with the highest percentage increases are able to apply for FMCSA High Priority grants to find means to respond to the surge.

Positive drug tests for drivers of large trucks in fatal crashes is increasing. They were 170 in 2012, 237 in 2016 and 252 in 2017.

John Kingston

John has an almost 40-year career covering commodities, most of the time at S&P Global Platts. He created the Dated Brent benchmark, now the world’s most important crude oil marker. He was Director of Oil, Director of News, the editor in chief of Platts Oilgram News and the “talking head” for Platts on numerous media outlets, including CNBC, Fox Business and Canada’s BNN. He covered metals before joining Platts and then spent a year running Platts’ metals business as well. He was awarded the International Association of Energy Economics Award for Excellence in Written Journalism in 2015. In 2010, he won two Corporate Achievement Awards from McGraw-Hill, an extremely rare accomplishment, one for steering coverage of the BP Deepwater Horizon disaster and the other for the launch of a public affairs television show, Platts Energy Week.