Driving a heavy-duty truck remains among the nation’s deadliest occupations, with on-the-job deaths of truckers setting a record in 2017.
Last year, 840 truckers lost their lives on the job, 6.6 percent more than the 786 reported by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics for 2016. The number of heavy-duty trucking deaths has risen by 25 percent since 2011.
The labor bureau data are in line with other data that show an increase in the number of deaths involving trucking. An October report from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration found that traffic fatalities involving large trucks rose 9 percent year over year to the highest level in 29 years. Heavy-duty truck fatalities rose 3 percent in 2017 compared with 2016.
Trucking as a profession had 26.8 deaths per 10,000 workers, compared with 3.5 deaths per 10,000 for all professions.
The fishing industry had 99.8 deaths per 10,000 workers, the highest rate of any occupation. Logging workers, pilots and aircraft engineers, and roofers all had death rates higher than trucking but recorded far fewer deaths because those industries are smaller.
“All employers need to take a systematic approach to safety,” the nonprofit National Safety Council said in a statement Tuesday. “This includes having policies and training in place to address the major causes of fatalities and injuries.”
The labor bureau data also showed that for the fifth consecutive year, overdose deaths at work from nonmedical drugs and alcohol increased at least 25 percent.
“Commercial drivers must be well-trained, well-rested and drug- and alcohol-free,” said Lane Kidd, managing director of the Alliance for Driver Safety and Security, adding that more effective drug tests are needed.
About 1 in 7 applicants for trucking jobs cannot pass a drug test, according to the National Transportation Institute.
Distracted driving, excessive speed and lack of seat belt use contribute to trucking deaths, just as they do to deaths of passenger car occupants. At least 38 percent of truck drivers killed in 2017 were not wearing seat belts, said Jack Van Steenburg, chief safety officer of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration.
Drowsy driving is another factor, he said, especially in work zones, where heavy-duty trucks are responsible for 3 in 10 crashes.
“You’re driving at highway speeds, and all of the sudden it comes upon you that there’s a traffic stop ahead,” Van Steenburg said. “For a large truck, it’s not easy to stop.”
Truckers also spend long periods of time in interstate traffic bottlenecks near major cities, where distracted driving from smartphone use can lead to crashes.
“Distracted driving absolutely is rising, and it’s problematic,” Jim Mullen, FMCSA general counsel, told Trucks.com.
Some drivers admit to racing the clock to get miles in under hours-of-service rules that are digitally monitored by electronic logging devices. Enforcement of the December 2017 federal mandate began earlier this year.
The FMCSA is planning a crash-correlation study to learn why heavy-duty truck fatalities are rising, FMCSA Administrator Ray Martinez told Trucks.com in an October interview.
The agency is studying the labor bureau data, a spokesman said Tuesday, declining further comment.
Many motor carriers are adding advanced driver-assistance technology like lane-departure warning, adaptive cruise control and automatic emergency braking when they order new trucks.
The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety requires many of these technologies for passenger vehicles to get the institute’s top safety rating.
“We are intensely focused on eliminating any kind of accident, injury or fatality,” said Jon Morrison, president of truck safety system technology supplier Wabco.
The 160,000-member Owner-Operator Independent Trucking Association said it has long advocated for crash-worthiness standards for trucks.
“Common sense and inexpensive safety enhancements, such as air bags, have been overlooked for decades, while supposed safety technologies for the vehicle have been prioritized,” spokeswoman Norita Taylor told Trucks.com on Tuesday.