As large truck traffic increases on US roadways, is safety taking a hit?

While tractor-trailer truck traffic has been on the rise in recent years, trucks were involved in fewer fatal crashes than in 2007, according to federal data through 2016.

Large trucks traveled nearly 288 billion vehicle miles in 2016, according to data from the Federal  Highway Administration. That’s less than the pre-recession 304 billion miles in 2007 but up from the post-recession low of about 268 billion miles in 2011.

The data shows that they are less likely to be involved in a fatal accident, despite the increase in registered trucks and growing number of miles traveled. More than 3,800 fatal crashes involving large trucks occurred in 2016, a decline of 8 percent since 2007.

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The fatal crash rate per 100 million miles traveled by trucks dropped 2.7 percent to 1.34  during that period.

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Fatal crashes involving passenger vehicles have declined as well — 9 percent for total fatal crashes and 14 percent in the rate per 100 million miles traveled — between 2007 and 2016.

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Industry officials are quick to point to the safety record of the trucking industry, and note that when there is a fatal accident, it’s typically not the truck’s fault.

In 2016, 73 percent of fatal crashes involving a large truck were caused by another vehicle, person, animal or object in the truck’s lane or encroaching into it, according to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, a U.S. Department of Transportation division that regulates the industry. Eighty-three percent of fatalities were not occupants of the large truck.

The modern tractor-trailer truck increasingly comes equipped with technology that helps drivers avoid accidents, said Kevin Burch, president of Jet Express Trucking in Dayton and the former chairman of the American Trucking Associations.

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Much of that technology has been developed as part of research into autonomous vehicles. Burch and others said they believe self-driving trucks are a decade or more down the road. But the immediate benefit of that research is that new trucks now have anti-rollover systems, lane departure technology, stability control, equipment on the front end to detect other cars and automatically slow the truck, and cameras to track what is happening in and around the truck.

“Trucks are safer than they were 20 years ago,” Burch said.

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