Deaths from large truck crashes reached their highest level in 29 years in 2017, according to National Highway Traffic Safety Administration data.
Fatalities from big truck crashes rose even though the overall traffic fatality rate declined, the agency reported.
In 2017, 37,133 people died in motor vehicle crashes, a 2 percent decline from the prior year. The dip reversed two consecutive years of increases. Preliminary estimates indicate the downward trend is continuing through the first half of this year, according to NHTSA.
Large truck fatalities rose 9 percent to 4,761, an increase of 392 lives lost over the prior year. About 1,300 of the deaths were truckers. The remaining 72 percent occurred in the other vehicle involved in the collision.
About 40 percent of truck occupants killed were not wearing seat belts.
The biggest increase in fatalities occurred in trucks weighing 10,000 to 14,000 pounds, including dual rear-wheel pickup trucks.
Deaths in over-the-road tractor-trailers that haul freight rose 5.8 percent over 2016. Those trucks exceed 26,000 pounds and must follow Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration rules.
“This is not encouraging. But it does not encompass the larger percentage of large truck fatalities,” Ray Martinez, FMCSA administrator, said in a conference call.
With freight on the nation’s roadways at an all-time high, “the potential of crashes and injuries does increase,” Martinez said.
He said his agency needs to explore causes for the higher death toll and how many FMCSA-regulated trucks involved were in crashes.
Distracted driving was a growing factor in the overall traffic death toll.
It also may explain some truck crashes, even as advanced driver assistance features like automatic emergency braking, lane departure warning and cameras that see behind the truck are becoming standard on new trucks.
“We believe those new technologies add to the safety environment,” Martinez said. “But whether it’s enough to turn the tide is too soon to know.”