Large Truck Crash Injuries and Fatalities. Not Just Another Set of Stats.
From 2009 to 2019, truck crash fatalities rose by 48%1. In 20202, nearly 5,000 people died in truck crashes, an average of 14 per day. Truck-involved crash injuries soared by 115%, averaging 4363 per day in the period, reaching 146,000 in 20202. In human terms, this means hundreds of thousands of loved ones emotionally devastated, lives disrupted, diminished, or ended every year due to truck crashes.
Why, during two decades in which truck miles driven rose by 32%4, did fatalities rise by 48% and injuries by 115%? Keep in mind that during this same period, occupant protection improved, and active safety technologies proliferated into the automobile market. Before we answer the question, let’s look at where and how crashes happen. As trucks, passenger cars, bikers, and cyclists encounter each other, knowing where crashes happen and who’s behind them can help everyone recognize dangerous situations:
- In a high percentage of crashes involving passenger cars and commercial trucks, the car was at fault. However, as professional drivers, we can and should be held to an even higher standard of defensive driving.
- Carriers often route drivers on the shortest routes rather than the safest routes. Only one in four crashes occurs on an interstate highway; 75%5 of truck crashes are on non-interstate roads.
- Four-way intersections see 27%6 of crashes.
- Rural roads endure a majority of the country’s fatal truck crashes, 57%5.
- On the trucks themselves, the initial contact points are 58% front, 19% back, and 15%6 side collisions.
A 2019 state-by-state map5 of truck-involved fatalities shows that states near the coast have the lowest truck-involved fatality rates, generally under or just above 10% (Hawaii, 2%; New Hampshire, 4%). Fatal truck crash rates are highest in the Midwest and Mountain states, with Wyoming and Nebraska at 25% and 17%, respectively. Nationally, 9%5 of fatal crashes involved trucks in 2019.
It should be noted that drivers of large trucks in fatal crashes had a much lower rate of alcohol involvement than drivers of passenger cars, light trucks, or motorcycles, which had the highest, at 29%5. On the other hand, truck drivers in fatal crashes had the highest rate of previous crashes: 23%5.
Behind the Fall and Rise of Crash Rates
From about 1999 to 2009, crashes, deaths, and injuries involving large trucks declined significantly and then began a sharp climb back up until 2020, when Covid-19 reduced road traffic, and the trendline stabilized. Three things changed that helped push the rates back up in the last ten years.
- Infrastructure: As the Great Recession that began in 2008 started to ease, the trucks of an improving economy were operating on congested, underfunded transportation infrastructure.
- Fatigue: The pressures of “just in time” inventory and the spike in fast home deliveries pushed both carriers and drivers to test the limits of endurance behind the wheel, and speed limits, too. As drivers look for more hours, they can change sleep schedules drastically from week to week, impairing situational awareness and peak function.
- Distraction: Cell phones have become a dangerous source of distracted driving for all types of vehicles. The government is doing the first study in over 15 years7, but we all know what can happen in the few seconds our eyes are on a device instead of the road. Cognitive distractions from even hands-free cell phones reduce situational awareness and increase the risk of distraction.
Speeding, either above the limit or driving too fast for conditions, ‘tailgating’, and careless lane changes create dangerous situations, for both truckers and cars alike.
Poor vehicle maintenance, tire failure, or improperly loaded freight can cause serious crashes.
Alcohol and drugs, prescribed and otherwise, also can cause crashes, but the rate of alcohol-impaired truck drivers involved among truckers was 3% in 2020, while other vehicle-type drivers ranged from 19 to 27%8. The most important thing to note is that most crashes are caused by human behaviors and decisions, which we have the means to improve.
The High Cost of Crashes
In addition to the human costs, truck crashes damage a business's brand as well. The estimated cost of police-reported large-truck crashes was $91,112 in 20059, according to the last major study on the topic ($140,000 today10). A recent American Transportation Research Institute (ATRI) study revealed that truck insurance rates increased 62% from 2009 to 202211, reflecting the concurrent rise in crashes and “nuclear verdicts” in post-crash litigation.