Trucker fatalities increased slightly in 2019, and early 2020 data shows an uptick in risky behavior among all drivers.
Trucking is subject to a number of industry regulations, and for good reason—in 2018, the trucking industry reported 28 deaths per 100,000 workers. This makes it the most lethal of the major industries for which the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports workplace fatality rates.
Although trucking is less dangerous than industries like fishing, hunting, and logging, these professions employ a relatively small number of workers. According to US Census data published in 2019, an estimated 3.5 million Americans work in the trucking industry, making trucking one of the most commonly held occupations in the United States.
Thankfully, many industry groups are at work on increasing regulation and analyzing traffic data yearly in order to make highways safer.
A Concerning Trend
Although trucking has always been a dangerous profession, safety trends over the last decade show additional cause for concern—since 2009, truck occupant deaths have been on the rise in the United States.
According to data released by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), 2019 saw overall highway fatalities rates decline from 36,835 in 2018 to 36,096. This represents a 2% decrease in overall highway fatality rates.
Despite this, the year saw a slight increase in fatalities among large-truck occupants. 2019 NHTSA data showed trucker fatalities rise .2% in 2019, from 890 fatalities in 2018 to 892 in 2019.
2020: Pandemic and the Road
Although a comprehensive analysis of 2020 traffic data won’t be available for months, early traffic-safety data shows that fatalities are likely to increase again, and two NHTSA studies conducted during the early months of year suggest that the COVID-related lockdown may have coincided with some troubling changes in highway safety trends. A comparison of second-quarter fatality rates in 2020 with those of 2019 showed a 3.3% drop in total fatalities in 2020. When that figure is adjusted to account for the 16% decrease in traffic volume that occurred in early 2020, however, the traffic fatality rate is actually higher over that same period.
Additionally, the NHTSA released two studies suggesting that drivers on the road during lockdown appeared to be engaging in riskier behavior. The first study found increased traffic speeds, a failure to wear seatbelts, and an increase of drivers operating under the influence of drugs.
The second study, which looked specifically at toxicology screens on seriously or fatally injured drivers, found two-third of these drivers were positive for at least one substance between mid-March and Mid-July of 2020. The same time period saw the number of drivers who tested positive for opioids nearly double.
Safety Measures for Professionals
It is important to note that the truck-involved data cited here doesn’t distinguish between commercially owned trucks and privately owned trucks—and many trucking companies and trucking advocacy groups are actively at work on keeping the roads safe.
For example, safety groups including the Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety and the International Brotherhood of Teamsters recently filed a petition with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit to combat changes to federal House of Service guidelines which they say will make trucking more dangerous.
These changes, which were recommended by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Association, extend the permissible length of driving shifts and shorten required breaks. Advocacy groups argue that driver fatigue is one of the primary contributors to accidents and fatalities and seek a modification to the guidelines that they say will increase safety by ensuring that drivers receive adequate rest.