Truckers occupy one of the nation’s deadliest jobs. Last year, 786 drivers were killed while working.
Since 2011, the annual number of driver fatalities has jumped 17.3 percent.
Opinions differ on what makes trucking so deadly.
“The underlying theme is two-fold for commercial vehicle drivers, fatigue and inattentiveness such as distracted driving,” said Collin Mooney, executive director of the Commercial Vehicle Safety Alliance, a nonprofit coalition of North American government agencies.
“It’s hard to pinpoint it to one thing,” said Norita Taylor, a spokeswoman for the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association, which represents more than 160,000 independent truckers.
Regulators focus on rules that aren’t safety related, Taylor said.
“We still don’t have enough training or crashworthiness testing,” she said.
As could be expected for an occupation that puts people on the road for days or weeks at a time, the vast majority — 80 percent — of heavy-duty truckers’ work-related deaths involved transportation incidents, according to the BLS.
The job is one of the 10 deadliest for the year.
In 2016, truck drivers had a fatal injury rate of 24.7 per 100,000 full-time employees. Other dangerous occupations include logging, with a fatality rate of 135.9 per 100,000; fishermen, at 86 deaths; and aircraft pilots and flight engineers, at 55.5, according to the bureau.
The agency’s data underscores other recent federal transportation safety agency findings of increased trucking-related crashes and deaths.
The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration reported 722 truckers killed in traffic crashes in 2016. That’s up 8.6 percent from the prior year, according to the agency’s Fatality Analysis Reporting System annual census published in October.
The number of truckers who died in 2016 was 47 percent higher than in 2009, which registered the lowest number of fatalities since federal agencies began collecting fatal crash data in 1975, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety’s Highway Loss Data Institute.
All are possible outcomes of a booming economy that’s resulted in increased highway miles for vehicles of all types and surging demand for e-commerce that’s seen a steady rise in freight volumes.
In addition to work-related deaths, truckers are more likely than the average U.S. worker to get injured or sick on the job.
Workers across all U.S. private- and public-sector industries in 2016 sustained work-related injuries or illnesses at the rate of 3.2 per 100 full-time employees, according to separate BLS data on nonfatal occupational injuries and illnesses published last month.
By contrast, long-haul truckers sustained work-related injuries or illnesses at the rate of 4.4 per 100 full-time employees. In 2016, regional drivers were injured or got sick at the rate of 3.7 per 100, and moving van drivers at the highest rate: 7.6.
Work-related injuries and illnesses led long-haul truckers to take off a cumulative 47,560 days from work in 2016, according to the BLS.
Drivers Feel Slightly Less Safe Than in the Past
The uptick in work-related deaths, injuries and illnesses could be one reason drivers feel slightly less safe on the job than they did six years ago, according to StayMetrics, a South Bend, Ind., driver-retention technology company that polls truckers on issues such as job safety.
On a scale of 1 to 5, with 1 being “strongly disagree” and 5 being “strongly agree,” drivers’ average response to the statement “I feel safe on the job” was 3.88 in 2017, compared with 4.12 in 2012, StayMetrics found. The company’s 2017 data are based on responses from 9,575 drivers.
“There is erosion on how safe drivers feel about the profession,” said StayMetrics Chief Executive Tim Hindes. “I can only surmise that increased traffic congestion and lack of access to safe, predictable parking would be leading causes.”
Within the industry, there’s widespread disagreement over how effective electronic logging devices will be in combating driver fatigue. Some believe fatigue contributes to unsafe conditions and leads to crash-related injuries and deaths.
A federal mandate requiring carriers and independent drivers to install ELDs in trucks to track driving time went into effect Monday. Regulators believe the devices will help enforce a federal hours-of-service rule limiting truckers to 11 hours of driving within a 14-hour workday.
Differing Opinions on ELDs’ Potential to Curb Crash-Related Deaths, Injuries
ELDs are “one approach to address the fatigue issue,” said Mooney.
Fatality rates should drop as a result of the new mandate, he said.
In addition to keeping truckers out of harm’s way, Mooney said ELDs will reduce non-trucker fatalities caused by truck-involved crashes.
In 2016, two-thirds of people who died in truck-related collisions were occupants of passenger vehicles hit by trucks, according to the IIHS’ Highway Loss Data Institute.
Truckers accounted for 17 percent of truck-related fatalities, and 16 percent were pedestrians, bicyclists or motorcyclists, according to IIHS.
A smartphone-obsessed society that’s led to more distracted driving-based crashes could be a contributing factor, Mooney said.
“Distracted driving is an issue for all drivers,” he said. “You see it every day; people are on their phones, they’re not watching the road.”
Better driver training and crashworthiness testing will do more to curb driver deaths and injuries than ELDs, said Taylor.
“I don’t think they’ll make a difference in terms of safety,” said Taylor, whose organization actively battled ELD implementation in the months leading up to the mandate’s start date.
ELDs track a truck’s movement and location and do nothing to address fatigue or ensure compliance with hours-of-work regulations, she said.