More than 100 people a week are killed in large-truck crashes in this country, according to safety groups that called Monday for reducing how long big-rig drivers can work without rest.
Wyoming, Arkansas and Oklahoma are the deadliest states for big truck crashes; Rhode Island, Massachusetts and Connecticut are the safest, according to The Truck Safety Coalition. It released state rankings, based on the number of fatalities per 100,000 residents during 2005, the most recent year with complete federal government figures.
Created by Congress in 1999, the federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration “has failed miserably,” said Joan Claybrook, chair of Citizens for Reliable and Safe Highways. “It is shortchanging safety for the productivity and economic interests of the trucking industry.”
In 1999, when the agency was created, 5,380 people died in crashes with big trucks. “That figure has barely budged,” Claybrook said at a news conference by the coalition of truck safety groups.
Deaths in crashes of large trucks numbered 5,212 in 2005, plus 114,000 injured. Large trucks account for 3 percent of registered vehicles but 12 percent to 13 percent of traffic fatalities.
The group said that in 2005 Wyoming had 6.09 deaths in big-truck crashes per 100,000 residents, followed by Arkansas at 4.17, Oklahoma at 3.41, New Mexico at 3.27, Mississippi at 3.12, and West Virginia at 3.03.
The safest state, Rhode Island, had 0.09 fatalities per 100,000 residents, followed by Massachusetts at 0.38, Connecticut at 0.48, District of Columbia at 0.54, Hawaii at 0.71, Alaska at 0.75, New York at 0.76, New Hampshire at 0.84 and Delaware at 0.95.
The largest increases in truck fatality rates between 2004 and 2005 came in Oklahoma, South Carolina and Louisiana. The greatest drops were in Alabama, Indiana and South Dakota.
Agency sees positive trend
Over a longer time frame, the motor carrier agency cited more favorable results.
“The truck fatality rate is 16 percent lower today than it was 10 years ago largely because we have invested millions of dollars working with the state and local law enforcement community to do more safety reviews and roadside inspections of trucks and buses than ever before,” Administrator John Hill said.
He noted traffic on U.S. highways had grown by more than 24 percent over the same period.
Jacqueline Gillan, vice president of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, told the news conference that the truck safety effort pales by comparison with federal food safety regulation.
“Nearly 61 people die from E.coli (infections) each year, which is equivalent to the four-day death toll from truck crashes,” Gillan said.
“Anytime there is an E.coli outbreak, the federal government uses every resource available to stop this public health threat,” she said. “Yet, unsafe big rigs kill and maim tens of thousands each year because truckers are pushed to drive long hours under unsafe conditions while the federal response has been silence and indifference.”
Gillan and Claybrook criticized the motor carrier administration for increasing the number of hours a driver can operate a truck by 28 percent since 2003, up to as much as 88 hours over eight days.
Motor carrier administration spokesman Ian Grossman said the agency did increase the permissible number of consecutive driving hours from 10 to 11, but it also increased the time off between shifts from 8 to 10 hours in the first revision to the rules since the 1930s.
Relatives of victims have their say
But critics say this matters little.
“Many (trucking companies) are already blatantly breaking the already too lenient hours-of-service laws,” said Nikki Hensley, of Fostoria, Ohio, whose husband was killed in 1997 when a semitrailer ran a stop sign and broadsided his car. The driver said he had been working 19 hours at the time.
Jane Mathis of St. Augustine, Fla., complained that the motor carrier agency is proposing to require on-board electronic recorders that monitor hours of service on only about 465 of the more than 702,000 registered interstate motor carriers.
“This absurd proposal shows that the administration is not really interested in reducing hours-of-service violations and stopping truck drivers from regularly falsifying their paper logbooks,” said Mathis, whose son David, 23, and his bride of five days were killed in 2004 when a Winn-Dixie tractor trailer driver fell asleep at the wheel and rear-ended their car.
Grossman said the agency concluded the cost of putting monitors in all trucks would outweigh the safety benefit. “But we found benefit if we targeted those who have violated the hours of service rules before,” he added.
“No load of freight is worth a human life,” said Daphne Izer, of Lisbon, Maine. She founded Parents Against Tired Truckers after her 17-year-old son, Jeff, and three friends were killed on the Maine Turnpike in 1993 when a Wal-Mart truck driver fell asleep at the wheel of his big rig and ran over their car.
Speakers at the event also called on the agency to increase safety inspections of big trucks, require trucks to have governors that limit top speeds to 68 mph. and train drivers better.