Safety regulators and advocates are rightly sounding the alarm about a sudden rise in traffic fatalities, and the trucking industry should take notice.
Earlier this month, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimated 17,775 people died in motor vehicle traffic crashes during the first half of this year, a 10 percent increase from the first half of 2015. There have been seven consecutive quarters of year-over-year increases.
It would be easy to dismiss more fatalities as a consequence of people driving more miles. But there’s something else going on. The data show that the U.S. is now experiencing about 1.12 deaths per 100 million vehicle miles traveled, up from 1.05 during the first half of last year.
Trucking remains a big component of fatal crashes. The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration said that 3,903 people died in large-truck crashes in 2014, the latest year for which the government has provided data. That amounted to 12 percent of the 32,675 people who died in all types of automotive crashes that year.
For crashes involving large trucks, there are about 1.4 deaths for every 100 million miles traveled. Although that is a slight decrease from the 1.45 rate of 2013 — and is half the rate of 20 years ago — it is still substantially higher than the overall rate
The costs of deadly crashes are weighing heavily on the trucking industry. Because of unusually high jury awards to survivors and large settlements, insurers are backing out of the trucking business, according to the Wall St. Journal.
That has made it harder for the industry — especially independent truckers and small carriers —to find coverage. And the coverage they can get is more expensive.
Between now and 2027, the amount of freight moved by trucks will grow by almost 27 percent, according to the latest estimates from the American Trucking Associations. That means trucks will be covering a lot more miles, with the potential for many more crash deaths.
The trucking industry needs to embrace life-saving technology — and quickly. In the light vehicle market, autos equipped with features such as adaptive cruise control, blind-spot warnings, better headlights and especially forward-collision alert with automatic breaking have fewer crashes as well as fewer injury and property claims, according to insurance industry data.
Adam Jonas, an analyst who follows the automotive industry for Morgan Stanley Research, broached an interesting idea earlier this month — provide incentives for vehicle owners to adopt crash prevention technology.
“Currently, the U.S. government offers a $7,500 tax credit for the purchase of an electric vehicle but currently offers no incentives for the purchase of cars equipped with life-saving technologies,” Jonas wrote in an Oct. 12 report to investors.
Although Jonas is thinking passenger cars, if we are going to drive down the technology incentive road — as we have with electric vehicles — starting with trucks makes strategic sense because they have a higher fatality rate in crashes.
The trucking industry also has a cohort of small companies and owner-operator haulers that are slow to adopt new technology. They already face the burden of moving to electronic logging devices to document their hours of operation. Regulations forcing them to equip their vehicles with digital devices that limit speed are coming. Many of these same drivers and small trucking firms don’t have the cash flow to upgrade their big rigs and small fleets with the latest digital crash prevention technology. Might giving them a boost to voluntarily start using crash prevention technology save lives and reduce insurance claims and expenses?
Truck manufacturers are just starting to catch on to the need for automated safety systems.
When Navistar introduced its line of International LT over-the-road trucks last month, the company said standard equipment would include advanced safety features such as adaptive cruise control and collision alert with automatic braking to reduce rear-end crashes.
And although air bags are credited with saving the lives of thousands of passenger-vehicle occupants annually, traffic safety regulators don’t require the basic safety equipment in medium- and heavy-duty trucks. Just one manufacturer, Volvo Trucks North America, is moving forward with making them standard equipment in the U.S.
Because of driver distraction and other issues, Jonas believes the overall fatal crash rate “may get worse before it gets better.”
“The proliferation of wireless computing devices is affecting significant behavioral change on the driving population, particularly younger cohorts,” Jonas said.
Yet existing affordable technology can make a significant improvement in road safety, Jonas said.
A basic safety package will add about $350 to $700 to the cost of a new light vehicle. It’s going to be more for big rigs, but not a lot. Remember — a lot of this technology is being developed and refined by automakers and suppliers in the light vehicle market and then being adopted for trucks.
The radar, cameras and sensors used to paint a digital picture of a truck’s surroundings are already out there. Daimler Trucks is pulling equipment developed for its sibling Mercedes-Benz car company to add safety features such as adaptive cruise control to its new Freightliner Cascadia big rig. The software is going to be different because you are talking about controlling an 80,000-pound truck as opposed to a 3,000-pound car. But the engineers developing the latest generation of trucks say writing code to make all of this work in a semi-truck is well within the industry’s skill set.
Concerned about the rise in traffic deaths, the U.S. Department of Transportation and traffic safety advocates earlier this month launched the Road to Zero coalition with the goal of ending fatalities on the nation’s roads within the next 30 years.
They said the rapid introduction of automated vehicles and advanced technologies can make that goal a reality. Let’s make getting this technology in trucks a priority.