Editor's note: This newspaper is launching a series looking at where we spend increasing amounts of time: Our highways. Trucks are getting safer, trucking industry voices say, but safety advocates say too many people still die in crashes involving large trucks.
Nationwide, fatal crashes involving large trucks and buses have dropped for decades. But with more trucks and more small cars on the road, the number of truck-involved crashes on Ohio roads has been rising in recent years.
Cullum Owings, 22, was returning to Washington & Lee University in Virginia with his brother when he was killed in a car-truck collision on Interstate 81.
Cullum Owings and Pierce Owings were slowing for traffic when a tractor trailer approached behind them, moving too fast to stop. On impact, their car spun, both vehicles left the road, and the brothers’ vehicle was crushed against a stone embankment in the road’s median.
Trapped inside the car when emergency workers arrived, Cullum died before he could be freed from the wreckage. Pierce Owings survived, suffering cuts and bruises.
The 2002 death of his son in that accident on the Sunday after Thanksgiving has driven Steve Owings to advocate for increased safety laws in the trucking industry to reduce the number of crashes on U.S. highways.
He makes a crucial distinction about his son’s death.
“My son did not pass away. He was killed,” Steve Owings said.
His family founded Road Safe America as a result, arguing for laws and technology that they believe will make large trucks safer, including speed limiting devices sometimes called “governors.”
“My wife and I learned the horrendous facts about the lack of truck safety in this country,” Steve Owings, of the Atlanta area, said in an interview with this news outlet.
“Our goal is to simply reduce or eliminate crashes involving big rigs.”
Sean McNally, a spokesman for a key trucking industry voice, Arlington, Va.-based American Trucking Associations, said since the 1980 deregulation of the trucking industry, the number of fatal truck-involved crashes is down 32 percent and the number of fatal crashes per 100 million miles driven has dropped 74 percent.
“I think that’s pretty definitive that the trucking industry is getting safer,” McNally said.
Over the decades, the number of fatal crashes involving large trucks or buses has fallen, federal data shows.
There were 3,649 fatal crashes involving large trucks or buses nationally in 2014, the most recent year for which that number is available, down slightly from 3,821 fatal crashes the previous year and 3,726 in 2012, according to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration.
That’s down from 4,032 such crashes in 1975, the first year for which that number was tracked. It’s also down from a high of 6,007 fatal crashes in 1979.
Since 1988 — a year that saw 5,156 fatal crashes involving large trucks or buses — the number of such crashes has stayed below 5,000 each year, federal data shows.
But the number of fatal truck-involved crashes is still far too many, advocates say.
“The more people who can be out there talking about truck safety, the better,” said Michael Leizerman, a Toledo personal injury attorney who focuses on trucking accidents, and who served as the first chairman of the American Association for Justice’s Trucking Litigation Group.
“I have just sat with too many families where people have been killed,” Leizerman said.