Truck driver remains one of the deadliest occupations in the country, with 745 drivers killed on the job last year.
Work-related fatalities for trucking jobs dropped slightly in 2015 from 2014, when 761 drivers were killed on the nation’s streets and highways. Despite the drop, trucking transportation occupations accounted for slightly more than a quarter of all work-related fatalities last year, more than any other U.S. job, according to an annual workplace fatality report released Friday from the U.S. Labor Department’s Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Over the past five years, truck driver fatalities have risen 11.2 percent. Increased reliance on trucking to transport goods, including demand for rapid delivery created by the rise of online shopping, is putting more truck drivers on the road. This has contributed to higher incident rates for accidents and driver deaths, according to trucking industry experts.
Unlike many occupations, drivers don’t have total control of their work environment – public roads and highways – so there’s always danger, said Steve Viscelli, an economics sociologist at the University of Pennsylvania and author of “The Big Rig: Trucking and the Decline of the American Dream.”
“Nobody wants to be safer than truck drivers,” Viscelli said.
But because of the way drivers’ compensation is structured, they’re often asked to choose between productivity and safety, a tug of war that leads some to keep driving when they should be taking a rest break, Viscelli said.
Long hours, low pay and tough working conditions contribute to annual turnover that hovers around 100 percent and puts inexperienced drivers on the road.
“People come into the industry and drop out, causing a perpetual experience problem” that’s reflected in fatality rates, said Michael Belzer, a transportation economist and associate professor at Wayne State University.
Belzer said he blames carriers, which operate on thin margins, for helping promulgate pay issues that lead to chronic turnover and labor shortages.
The lack of National Highway Transportation Safety Administration standards for crashworthiness of heavy-duty trucks plays a role in fatality rates, said Norita Taylor, director of marketing and public relations for the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association, which represents 157,000 drivers.
“They aren’t even required to have air bags,” Taylor said.
But that doesn’t mean the trucking industry isn’t addressing safety issues.
Manufacturers and suppliers are developing better, smarter safety systems to help truck drivers survive accidents or avoid them all together, said John Blodgett of MacKay & Co., a transportation industry researcher and management consultant.
“Similar technology is being added to automobiles to help four-wheelers cause less accidents,” Blodgett said.
While traffic-related fatalities have risen over the past five years, the American Trucking Association estimates the number of fatal truck-involved crashes has fallen 32 percent since 1980 and the accident rate per 100 million miles driven has dropped 74 percent, due in part to trucking industry investments in safety technology and training.
“As our roads become busier, it is incumbent on all drivers to do their part to improve safety,” said Sean McNally, ATA’s vice president of public affairs. “One of the primary risks to truck driver safety, unfortunately, is the behavior of other drivers. ”
He said studies by the Department of Transportation and AAA found that roughly two-thirds of all fatal truck crashes are caused by a vehicle other than the truck.
“The best way we can make our workplace – the open road – safer is to make driving safer for everyone, and the best way we can do that is through education like ATA’s Share the Road Program and enforcement of traffic laws aimed at reducing dangerous behaviors,” McNally said.
White Men Comprise Most Trucking Driver Deaths
The sheer number of truck drivers in the industry means that even though more were killed in work-related injuries in 2015 than any other profession, a handful of less populous occupations had higher injury rates based on total number of workers. In 2015, the trucking industry had a fatal injury rate of 25.2 per 100,000 full-time equivalent workers, lower than loggers (132.7), fishery workers (54.8), airplane pilots (40.4), roofers (39.7), garbage collectors (38.8) and steel workers (29.8).
In 2015, most work-related truck driver deaths were caused by traffic collisions. In most instances, the cause of death was multiple traumatic injuries or disorders.
The vast majority of drivers killed on the job were men: 699 of 745, according to the BLS. Female drivers accounted for 1 percent of trucking industry deaths, a disproportionately small percentage given women make up 5 percent to 6 percent of all U.S. drivers, according to industry estimates.
Middle-aged drivers were slightly most likely to be killed in work-related accidents. This statistic mirrors the “trucking generation,” drivers who are 45 to 54-year-olds and represent the largest age group in the industry. That age group accounted for 196 deaths, or 26.3 percent of all truck driver fatalities, according to the BLS. Drivers ages 55 to 64, the second largest group, accounted for 25 percent of all fatalities (184), followed by drivers 35 to 44 (18.5 percent), 25 to 34 (12 percent), 65 and older (11 percent) and 20 to 24 (2 percent).
In 2015, the majority of drivers killed on the job were white: 500, or about 67 percent, followed by African Americans (12.6 percent), Hispanic or Latino (11.1 percent), Asian (2 percent) and Native Americans or other races (1 percent).
Truck driver deaths in 2015 included 17 suicides and five homicides.
In addition to being the deadliest profession, truck drivers take off 22 days of work a year for job-related injuries and illness, also more than any other U.S. occupation, according to a separate BLS report released earlier this month.