Long-haul trucking is a dangerous gig: Drivers traversing decaying roads in unwieldy equipment often wrestle with boredom, fatigue and the distracting temptation of their mobile devices.
But safety conditions may be improving amid increased interest in driver training and secure big rig design.
“Trucking is a safety-first and safety-conscious industry, so increasingly fleets are looking for these types of features in their trucks,” said Ted Scott, director of engineering for the trade group American Trucking Associations.
Large trucks are traveling more miles but getting into fatal accidents at a slower pace, according to a recent report from the American Trucking Associations. The rate of deadly crashes per 100 million vehicle miles traveled sank 42.2 percent between 2000 and 2013 to the fifth lowest level in history.
But large truck collisions still caused 4,067 fatalities last year — 4.1 percent more than the previous year and the highest level since 2008, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s Fatality Analysis Reporting System.
Nearly two-thirds of those victims were traveling in other vehicles. Large truck accidents contributed to 30,000 injuries in 2015, up 11 percent compared with the previous year — the largest increase of any category, including passenger vehicles and motorcycles.
In the five years since 2009, the number of truck crashes in the country surged 44 percent, while injuries from those incidents shot up 50 percent, according to NHTSA.
Heavy trucks are inherently tricky to drive. Their massive, elongated size and the enormous tonnage they haul make them prone to rollovers — responsible for nearly half of all deaths and injuries in truck-tractor crashes. Jackknifing and head-on collisions are also risks.
Big rigs weigh much more than sedans. Going 65 mph, they require 525 feet to come to a full stop, compared with 316 feet for passenger vehicles, according to calculations by the Utah Department of Transportation.
But air bags and many other basic safety features common in passenger cars aren’t legally required for big rigs. Most heavy trucks don’t use automatic emergency braking systems, which safety advocates say could prevent thousands of crashes each year.
The National Transportation Safety Board included in-vehicle collision avoidance technologies on its list of most-wanted safety improvements for trucks, buses and cars this year, urging manufacturers to incorporate adaptive cruise control, lane-departure warnings, blind-spot detection systems and advanced lighting.
Big trucks also need stronger underride guards, according to experts who met in May at an Insurance Institute for Highway Safety conference. The guards would help keep passenger vehicles that slam into trucks or trailers from jamming underneath the rigs and flattening or shearing off the passenger compartments of the smaller cars.
The government has gotten involved to some extent. Next year, a mandate requiring electronic stability control systems on heavy-duty vehicles goes into effect, which would prevent an estimated 49 deaths and 1,758 crashes each year. NHTSA expects the rule to add about $600 to the cost of new tractors.
In August, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, or FMCSA, began requiring that passengers wear seat belts while riding in large commercial trucks on public roads. And in the same month, the FMCSA and NHTSA proposed equipping new heavy-duty vehicles with speed limiter devices that set maximum speed tentatively at 60, 65 or 68 mph.
“This is basic physics,” said NHTSA Administrator Mark Rosekind in a statement. “Even small increases in speed have large effects on the force of impact. Setting the speed limit on heavy vehicles makes sense for safety and the environment.”
Regulators abroad have taken an even stricter approach. In late September, London Mayor Sadiq Khan said that trucks without a clear view of the road — some 35,000 lorries — would be banned from the city after 2020 in an effort to prevent collisions with cyclist and pedestrians.
Truck manufacturers are also making changes.
ATA is pushing for crashworthiness standards for large trucks, but Scott said there isn’t any legislation specifically targeting the issue.
Freightliner has offered steering wheel air bags since 1996 and RollTek protection technology since 2007. But the options are requested by fewer than 5 percent of clients — mostly bulk haulers such as gas and chemical tankers, said Mary Aufdemberg, product marketing director for the Daimler Trucks division.
Disc brakes, which are longer-lasting but more expensive than drum brakes, are optional on Freightliner trucks. Some 17 percent of customers use them on front axles, while 14 percent of them place them in the rear, though Aufdemberg expects demand to increase.
The company’s newest Freightliner Cascadia model features a slew of safety features, including a proprietary Detroit Assurance suite that includes options such as brake assist, a windshield-mounted camera for lane departure warnings and a radar system that can identify and rank potential threats.
Other new safety features: steering gear pushed forward to improve driving precision, ergonomic wraparound dash and noise abatement technology to limit fatigue, LED-equipped headlights and a single-sheet windshield with better visibility, wiper coverage and resistance to breakage.
Mack Trucks, meanwhile, has offered RollTek seats for two years and also takes orders for trucks with anti-lock brakes and Bendix Wingman Advanced adaptive cruise and collision mitigation capabilities. Mack’s mDRIVE automated manual transmission eliminates traditional shifting, allowing drivers to focus on the road.
Disc brakes are “widely available across our product line,” and the 2017 engines were updated to scale back exhaustion-inducing noise, said Scott Barraclough, technology product manager for the division of Volvo Trucks.
“Safety is an important consideration for Mack and our customers,” Barraclough said.
It’s also a “core value” for Volvo Trucks, which was the first commercial truck manufacturer to introduce a driver-side air bag and the only truck manufacturer to offer a standard driver-side air bag in all models, said Jason Spence, its long-haul product marketing manager. Many customers also spec additional safety systems, such as Volvo’s enhanced stability technology and lane departure warning.
The company recently launched its Active Driver Assist, which uses camera, radar and brake inputs integrated into the existing driver display to reduce front-end collisions. All Volvo cabs are built using high-strength steel that exceeds the rigorous Swedish Cab Safety Test and also include a collapsible steering column, breakaway foot pedals and an engine and transmission designed to drop down and away from the driver in the event of a crash.
Still, activists such as Rick Watts of Morristown, Tenn., say the government is not doing enough to improve safety, especially amid projected increases in freight demand.
“The lack of urgency, the delays in issuing regulations and the inadequate oversight of the motor carrier industry are just a few of the major problems plaguing the Department,” Watts wrote in a letter last month to Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx.
Watts’ wife, mother-in-law and two stepdaughters were killed in June 2015 in a truck crash near Chattanooga, Tenn. The truck driver had been driving longer than the legal limit on hours of service, was under the influence of methamphetamines and was traveling 80 mph in a 55-mph zone, according to the NTSB.
The truck struck seven vehicles, killing six people and injuring four.
Safety experts point out that the vast majority of trucking accidents are due to driver error, not potholes, weather or shoddy equipment.
To curb driver exhaustion, the government implemented a mandate to document hours of operation using electronic logging devices — a move that small carriers are resisting as a devastating blow to their profit margins. But supporters say that ELDs help prevent the use of so-called comic books — easily falsified paper logs that allow truckers to flout hours-of-service limits.
“Driving too many hours is a recognized safety problem in the trucking industry, and ELDs are a proven safety solution,” said Jackie Gillan, president of the Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety alliance.
The FMCSA also hopes to establish a national clearinghouse of truck drivers who have not passed drug and alcohol tests. The White House Office of Management and Budget has been reviewing plans for the database — which would be used by employers — since May and expects to finish sometime this month.
Alcohol was a factor in 60 fatal big-rig crashes last year, compared with 68 the previous year.
Drivers, many of whom are paid by the mile instead of the hour, also often have an economic incentive to speed. And demographic changes in the industry have resulted in an outflow of retiring drivers and an influx of younger, inexperienced replacements.
Daniel Litzner, a safety specialist at the Michigan Center for Truck Safety, said the nonprofit group gets plenty of calls about its education programs, safety audits, fatigue management training and other free services.
The organization offers a defensive driving course that lasts for several hours as well as a one-on-one driver performance review in which an instructor in the passenger seat watches the driver in a mirror affixed to the windshield and critiques driving technique.
Litzner, who was with the Michigan state police for more than three decades, said drivers couldn’t get enough of the center’s guidebook, which features state and federal regulations and safety tips.
“What we don’t seem to get enough response from are the actual carriers,” he said. “Our programs are well taken by the industry, but whether they’re implementing it themselves is up to the drivers and the companies.”
“If everything is in compliance,” he said, “they are really ahead of the game.”