The trucking industry is one of the main drivers of the nation’s economic well-being – it carried almost 69% of all domestic freight last year. To keep the industry growing the American Trucking Association insists on bigger trucks and longer working hours. Furthermore, ATA states this would decrease the number of big rigs on the road. Even though the logic may be right, its application is utterly inappropriate. And it seems the situation is a lot worse than solely the number of trucks on the roads.
The length and weight of trucks are what appear to be the primary reasons for the occurrence and magnitude of traffic accidents involving big rigs. The sight of an approaching 18-wheeler scares even the most experienced drivers on the road. But what is even worse is that Congress has expressed its willingness to allow longer and heavier trucks on highways despite citizens’ disapproval. Trucking groups have been pushing Congress to increase the length limit. Some proposed increase in the length of twin-trailer trucks – from 28-feet long trucks, carrying two loads, to trucks with two 33-feet long trailers. As of now, 19 states allow the longer trucks. The increase in length allows for higher amounts of cargo in each trip which, in turn, would mean normal working hours for the drivers. However, the length constitutes a threat to all other vehicles on the road, inspiring the objection of many safety advocates. In the arguments to the proposal, many turn to the incident involving the comedian Tracy Morgan, which was one of the main triggers for the opposition of the trucking industry in the past years.
The accident involving Mr.Morgan raised the concern for adequate rest and normal working hours for drivers, too. Many of the reasons for the fatalities involving large trucks occur not because of the vehicle’s size, but due to the inappropriate working conditions of truck drivers. Despite the professionalism of the people behind the wheel, the body needs its rest. Especially when you add up the stress caused by the realization that you are driving an 18 wheel behemoth that could put everyone on the road at risk at any minute. According to federal law, truck drivers can spend 11 hours a day behind the wheel, with a maximum of 60 hours over a period of seven days. The rule that drivers must take a 34-hour rest break over two nights in order to restart their work week was suspended by Congress last year.
Fatigue has become the primary cause of accidents on the road, rivaling with the effects of alcohol and speeding. Estimates suggest fatigue is a factor in up to 30% of fatal crashes and 15% of severe injury crashes. It leads to low attention and lack of focus on the road, which results in lost vehicle control and inability to react quickly to situations. Collision with another vehicle is the type of crash that happens most often – 80% of fatal crashes involving large trucks are multiple-vehicle crashes.
Truck drivers’ fatigue has become a widely acknowledged problem in the industry because the effect of fatigue on the body builds up over time. If drivers don’t rest properly on a regular basis, their bodies get tired more quickly with every additional working week, and at some point, this could lead to permanent fatigue. Data on road safety shows that large-truck drivers have the highest percentage (15%) of previously recorded crashes compared to drivers of other vehicle types (motorcycles, 12.9%; passenger cars, 12.8%; and light trucks, 12.4%). Unlike speeding or alcohol consumption, fatigue is an unconscious factor for accidents and drivers might not even be fully aware of it. They may not realize that their ongoing fatigue is the reason they are continuously involved in accidents on the road.
The data from the past years show that unlike five years ago when truck accidents occurred mostly during the night, now most crashes involving trucks happen during daytime hours on weekdays in rural areas. While the explanation of the night inadequacy before was the fatigue during nighttime driving and the disrupted body clock, now the data shows something even worse. Drivers are becoming more inadequate on the road during the daytime when most other people are also on the roads.
Lack of New Technology
The trucking industry in Europe has been long familiar with anti-lock brakes, electronic stability control, airbags and collision-avoidance devices – technology that works to benefit the safety of truck drivers and all other people on the road. The US, however, is not very welcoming to such technology. Features for accident prevention are manufactured by truck producers and are widely available all over North America. According to Congress, however, the cost of adding crash prevention technology is too high. As of 2013, only 3% of the heaviest trucks in the US were equipped with collision-avoidance technology.
Last year Congress discouraged the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration from investing in wireless technology designed to improve the monitoring of drivers and their vehicles. Despite its failed attempt, the FMCSA is trying once again to craft a legally-sustainable electronic logging device (ELD). New trailer safety technology is now being developed by both Ford and GM. The rivals aim to solve the problem of trucks making turns and not hitting anything on their way or jackknifing the truck and the trailer. Even though the tool is planned for pickup trucks, maybe similar technology would soon be available for heavier commercial trucks, too. We should only hope that Congress approves it.
People who have been in the trucking industry for decades are not afraid to state their dissatisfaction with the lack of effort that has been put in promoting traffic safety in the industry. From 2009 to 2013 the death toll in truck-related accidents rose by 17 percent. This steady increase over the course of four years has resulted in 3,964 deaths in 2013 alone. According to the New York Times, “more people will be killed in traffic accidents involving large trucks this year than have died in all of the domestic commercial airline crashes over the past 45 years if past trends hold true”. So will people finally be heard?
It is true that highway safety is everyone´s responsibility, whether they are driving a truck or a passenger vehicle. But it seems like Congress is continuously avoiding any activity to secure the roads and make large trucks more people-friendly. The bills that allow longer and heavier trucks, the long working hours which cause drivers’ fatigue, the rejection of modern traffic safety technology are all moves that fall under the same logic. But unfortunately, it is not focused on the people and their safety on the roads, but solely on the economic benefits of the trucking industry. Too bad Congress is thinking only of the short-term effects. It is true that higher safety standards and shorter work weeks may increase freight costs, but some of those standards are likely to save carriers much more money in the long run through lower insurance rates and damage claims. Wouldn’t it be best if everyone took a step back and looked at the bigger picture in which both the business and the common people drive happily on their way to the future?