Deaths in truck-related accidents were higher in 2017, bucking broader trends: NHTSA

  Photo: Shutterstock

Photo: Shutterstock

Last year was not a good one for staying alive in a crash involving a truck.

The annual compilation by the National Highway Traffic Safety showed that the number of people killed in 2017 from crashes that involved large trucks climbed 116, a 16% increase, to 841 from 725. The sharp increase was in contrast to virtually every other trend recorded by NHTSA. In fact, for every other category of type of fatal accidents, the number of people killed dropped: passenger car, light trucks, motorcycles, pedestrians, pedalcyclists and “other/unknown.”

Breaking out the numbers, the NHTSA said fatal incidents involving tractor trailers rose 5.8% to 2017 from 2016. Accidents involving “straight trucks,” those not part of a tractor-trailer, were up by 18.7%.

The short form summary of the NHTSA report does not provide analysis or interpretation of the numbers and why they may have occurred. Duane DeBruyne, FMCSA spokesman, asked for the agency’s views on the causes behind the increase, would say only that “Because of the continuing strengthening of the economy, more vehicles, particularly commercial trucks – are traveling on the nation’s roadways.”

But he did say that 40% of the large truck fatalities recorded by the agency were for people not wearing seat belts. That figure for all vehicles is 47%.

Large trucks are defined as “any medium or heavy truck, excluding buses and motor homes, with a gross vehicle weight rating greater than 10,000 pounds.” That includes commercial and non-commercial vehicles.

The breakdown on fatal truck crashes by type does not reveal any particular trends. The category involving people killed in multiple vehicle crashes who are occupants of the truck was up 28.5%, higher than the 9% overall total increase. But that is the only outlier.

It would be easy to blame distracted driving as a cause for the increase in truck fatalities—either by the truck driver or somebody else on the road—but the overall decline in total vehicle deaths comes as the assumption that distracted driving is on the rise. The overall number of fatalities in 2017 was 673 less than in 2016, with every single category other than large trucks showing a drop: passenger car occupants, van occupants, pickup truck occupants, motorcyclists, pedestrians, “pedalcyclists,” alcohol-impaired fatalities and speeding fatalities. And it happened as vehicle miles traveled rose 1.2% from the prior year.

Besides the truck data, the other significant increase in fatalities was not a one-year phenomenon but rather a trend that has been going on for years: people getting killed who aren’t in a vehicle. The proportion of all motor vehicle deaths that are for people not in a vehicle is now about 33% after a low level of 20% in 1996. These includes pedestrians, motorcyclists and pedalcyclists.

The overall numbers on restraints is eye-opening. It boils down to the fact that while non-users of restraints were no more than 11% or 12% of all persons involved in fatal accidents, they accounted for about 40% of all fatalities.

DeBruyne said the NHTSA and FMCSA were not offering theories as to relative increases and decreases and their possible cause.