Commercial Trucking Accident Trends in the Past Decade
Authored by Ed Rebenack, Esq.
Commercial trucking is pivotal to the American way of life. Despite most professional truckers being skilled, experienced professionals, trucking accident attorneys warn that accidents involving these vehicles lead to many deaths and injuries each year. In the following article, we look at data spanning 2009 to 2019 and identify positive trends, in addition to negative trends that continue despite FMCSA efforts to prevent them.
Hours of Service Violations Decreased
Driver fatigue is among the leading causes of trucking accidents. This has been the case for as long as the government has tracked commercial trucking data, and it has been a focal point of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration since it was established on January 1, 2000.
Truck drivers are often under a great deal of pressure to travel significant distances in a short time span. The first Hours of Service rules were established in 1930, and these HOS rules are designed to ensure that drivers get adequate sleep and take necessary breaks. The problem was that handwritten logs were easy to manipulate, but that changed with the congressionally mandated electronic logging device rule in 2015. The ELD rule required that hours of service and other data be tracked by an electronic unit.
When the new rule was first introduced, some argued that it would actually cause HOS violations to go up rather than down, but this has not been the case. Even prior to the ELD mandate, revisions to HOS rules in 2013 led to a 17% drop in violations the following year, and they have continued to drop every year since. Furthermore, record of duty status—or RODS—violations, which have historically been the most common type of HOS abuse, dropped 62% in the first year in which all commercial truckers had to adhere to the ELD rule.
Incidents Involving Fatigue Have Decreased
Perhaps the ELD rule and other HOS changes are having the desired effect. At the earlier end of our data range, fatigue is estimated as being a factor in as much as 20% of all accidents where the truck driver was at fault. That number has continued to drop and is at least as low as 13%. There is evidence to suggest that the number is even lower but not all relevant data had been accumulated as of this writing.
Accidents Involving Illegal Substances Decreased
A third positive trend is that trucking accidents involving illicit substances where the truck operator was at fault continue to drop. In fact, this is a trend that actually extends back decades with just a few blips here and there. The year-to-year changes may seem rather small. In some cases, they are just tenths of a percentage point. But it is important to consider that within context. At the beginning of our data period, the percentage is about 8% whereas it is closer to 5% toward the end.
This data may seem contrary to public perception. Cases involving fatalities and either alcohol or drugs are often high profile. They receive a great deal of media attention and can be sensationalized. However, the data shows that this issue is improving. It is also important to touch on some other data that is available, such as that almost 70% of truck drivers who die in an accident were either drinking or using drugs. That being said, it is imperative not to conflate this data since most people who die in accidents involving semi-trucks are not the truckers, but rather the drivers and passengers of the other vehicles involved.
Accidents Increased Overall
Despite all of the positive trends discussed thus far, one of the most unfortunate trends is that the number of commercial trucking accidents overall has been on the rise throughout the past decade. There is a caveat for context, which is that the current accident count is lower than 20 years ago and far lower if you go back further than that. Nevertheless, the frequency of trucking accidents nationwide has increased about 20% over the last decade, and in some states, the increase is 40% or higher. The exact reason for this increase is not known. However, there is a correlation between the rise in accidents and the rise in the sheer number of commercial trucks on the road, and the FCMSA is currently investigating a potential connection.
Accidents Became Deadlier
Not only are the number of accidents on the rise, but the rate at which those accidents lead to fatalities has increased as well. In fact, the rate of accidents involving deaths increased by at least 52% over a ten-year period. That is quite concerning and also the subject of an FMCSA investigation. Regarding more accidents overall, we noted that there are more trucks on the road. According to the industry, there is actually a trucker shortage, and some speculate it is perhaps the influx of inexperienced drivers leading to the increase. But other data, such as the rate at which truckers are at fault, do not necessarily support this theory.
Passenger Vehicle Operators at Fault More Often
If additional inexperienced truckers were leading to more accidents, then you would expect the rise in cases in which the trucker are at fault to increase. It has not. In fact, this rate is decreasing. An operator of a passenger vehicle is at fault in 81% of all accidents involving a commercial truck. This may suggest that the influx of additional trucks is creating a more challenging driving environment that is testing the skill and the experience of the average person operating a vehicle for personal purposes.
Mechanical Issues Are a Primary Cause
In incidents where the passenger vehicle operator was not at fault, mechanical issues are the main culprit. Note that in these scenarios, the truck driver may also not be at fault. The fault may belong to the fleet company, a mechanic, a vehicle manufacturer, a parts manufacturer and so forth. This was not always the case. Fatigue was once the leading culprit. That has not been the case in any of the previous ten years, and that trend has continued throughout the period.
More Accidents Occurring Between 12pm and 3pm
From an analytical standpoint, one of the more interesting trends is that more accidents are occurring between noon and 3 p.m. The increase has been great enough that these three hours rank among the most dangerous and even the deadliest. Most accidents involving commercial trucks now happen during this time period, and the rate over the last 10 years has increased by 19% overall. It is currently unclear why this period in particular is experiencing an increase in accidents and deaths.
Local Representation in New Jersey
Even with all the efforts to avoid them, commercial trucking accidents do happen and can lead to substantial property damage, serious injuries and even death. If you or a loved one has been involved in an accident involving a semi-truck, it is essential that you meet with a trucking accident attorney as soon as possible. RAM Law has handled many personal injury cases in New Jersey involving commercial trucks, including both litigation and trial. Our law firm will provide you a free case review, and you can contact us online or call our New Brunswick or Somerville office at (732) 394-1549.