Deaths in truck crashes jumped 13% as feds continued to ignore recommended safety steps

More than 5,600 people were killed last year in crashes involving large trucks, a 13% increase over 2020 and the largest number in almost four decades, according to preliminary figures released by the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration.

The 5,601 deaths from crashes involving trucks weighing more than 10,000 pounds was the most since the 5,613 recorded in 1985, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. Last year, 4,965 fatalities were recorded.

“What more is needed to take safety seriously?” said Dawn King, board president of the Truck Safety Coalition, an advocacy group comprised of Citizens for Reliable and Safe Highways and Parents Against Tired Truckers.

It came as federal transportation officials, with some prodding from Congress, finally moved ahead on long-sought improvements to improve truck safety and reduce crashes.

President Joe Biden’s $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure law would require automated braking systems for trucks heavier than 26,000 pounds, as well as new standards for rear underguards and a study to see whether side guards were needed as well. The guards are designed to prevent cars from being wedged underneath trucks.

The U.S. Transportation Department’s new safety strategy included those improvements, while Biden’s proposed budget for the 12 months beginning Oct. 1 increased funding for NHTSA, including adding 72 positions.

And the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration announced in May that it would look at requiring speed limiting systems in trucks weighing more than 26,000 pounds

“We face a crisis on America’s roadways that we must address together,” U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said. “With our National Roadway Safety Strategy and the president’s bipartisan infrastructure law, we are taking critical steps to help reverse this devastating trend and save lives on our roadways.”

NJ Advance Media reported in January 2021 that recommended safety improvements were ignored even as deaths in crashes involving large trucks rose over a decade.

Indeed, even the safety steps being taken fell short of recommendations by the National Transportation Safety Board and safety advocates.

“More Americans are seriously injured and killed on U.S. roads than in all other modes of transportation combined – by a long shot,” safety board chair Jennifer Homendy said in response to the report. “That’s why the NTSB has put so much effort into attacking this colossal safety challenge, and why five of the 10 issues on our Most Wanted List are on roadway safety.”

Despite the board’s recommendations and its most wanted safety improvements, Congress required braking systems only for trucks weighing more than 26,000 pounds, and did not require lane-warning devices or collision avoidance systems.

Plus both the infrastructure law and the safety strategy are silent on driver fatigue, including addressing sleep apnea and reviewing how long truckers should be allowed to be on duty.

“In light of this increase — some of the highest number we’ve seen — it would indicate to the Department of Transportation that they should be prioritizing some of these rules for truck safety,” said Harry Adler, co-chair and principal of the Institute for Safer Trucking, an safety advocacy group.

“Congress, when they appropriate money to the Department of Transportation, they should be making this a priority and indicating they need to put more of a focus on trucking,” he said.

The increase in truck crashes mirrored the rise in overall highway fatalities. They increased 10.5% to 42,915 in 2021 from 38,824 in 2020.

Cathy Chase, president of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, an alliance of consumer, health, law enforcement and insurance industry groups, blamed the increase in fatalities on behaviors such as speeding and reckless driving that began during the coronavirus pandemic, when fewer vehicles were on the road.

“Advocates had strong concerns that these behaviors would continue as traffic volumes increased from peak pandemic lows,” she said. “These fears appear to be coming to fruition.”

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Jonathan D. Salant may be reached at [email protected]. Follow him at @JDSalant.

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