How to Reduce Fatalities From Large Truck Crashes?

Large trucks account for a disproportionately large share of traffic deaths based on miles traveled. The fatal crash rate for large trucks is 50 percent greater than the rate for all vehicles on the roads.

Large Trucks

Large Truck Crashes

Fatalities from large truck crashes have increased approximately 10 percent from 1995 through 1998, moving up from 4,918 deaths in 1995 to 5,374 deaths in 1998. Large trucks – including tractor-trailers, single-unit trucks and certain heavy cargo vans with gross weight more than 10,000 pounds – account for a disproportionately large share of traffic deaths based on miles traveled. The fatal crash rate for large trucks is 2.6 deaths per 100 million vehicle miles traveled more than 50 percent greater than the rate for all vehicles on the roads.

People in passenger vehicles are especially vulnerable in collisions with large trucks because of the great difference in weight between cars and large trucks. In 1998, ninety-eight percent of the fatalities in two-vehicle crashes involving passenger vehicles and large trucks were occupants of the passenger vehicle. Large truck safety is an important concern for all highway motorists.


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  • 5,374 people were killed in crashes involving large trucks in 1998, representing thirteen percent of all traffic fatalities. Of these, 78 percent were occupants of another vehicle, 14 percent were large truck occupants and 8 percent were non-occupants. An additional 123,000 people were injured in those crashes. (National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, or NHTSA)
  • In 1997, large trucks made up three percent of all registered vehicles and seven percent of all vehicle miles traveled. Yet, large trucks constituted nine percent of all vehicles involved in fatal crashes, and four percent of all vehicles involved in injury and property-damage-only crashes that year. (NHTSA, 1999)
  • In 1998, large trucks were more likely to be involved in a fatal multiple-vehicle crash opposed to a single-vehicle crash than were passenger vehicles (84 percent of all large trucks in fatal crashes, compared with 62 percent of all passenger vehicles). (NHTSA, 1999)
  • One out of eight traffic crash fatalities in 1998 was the result of a collision involving a large truck. (NHTSA, 1999)
  • Most of the fatal crashes involving large trucks occur in rural areas (67 percent), during the day (68 percent) and on weekdays (80 percent). (NHTSA, 1999)
  • A loaded tractor-trailer requires 20-40 percent further stopping distance than a car. With an empty trailer, the discrepancy between the truck and the car is even greater. (NHTSA, 1999)
  • Of the trucks with out-of-service violations, more than one-third of them have problems with brakes. (Federal Highway Administration, 1998)
  • All new tractors and trailers are required to have anti-lock brakes. Anti-lock braking systems are effective in preventing wheel lock and loss of steering in emergency stopping, especially on wet roads.
  • Federal regulations allow drivers of large trucks to drive up to 16 hours a day. However, drivers under the regulations can compile 60 hours in less than five days by alternating ten hours of maximum permitted continuous driving with the minimum eight hours off duty. Surveys reveal that many drivers of large trucks violate the regulations on hours of service. Studies also show that driver fatigue plays a role in large truck crashes and that drivers are more likely to crash after many long hours of driving. (IIHS) The Department of Transportation is currently considering a revision of these hours-of-service rules.
  • Almost 30 percent of large truck drivers involved in fatal crashes in 1998 had at least one prior conviction for speeding, compared to slightly less than 20 percent of the passenger vehicle drivers in fatal crashes. (NHTSA, 1999)

How to reduce Fatalities From Large Truck Crashes


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Antilock brakes have been proven to be very effective in preventing wheel lock and loss of steering control in emergency stopping, particularly on wet roads. Anti-lock brakes also help the driver keep better control of the vehicle in a skid, and may help prevent a motor vehicle from going off of the road, a key factor in rollover crashes. Advocates believe that antilock brakes should be incorporated in all passenger cars and required in all commercial vehicles, including trucks.

2. Cab Safety

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Truck cabs currently do not have to meet safety standards for passenger cars, including occupant protection standards requiring the installation of three-point belts and airbags. Advocates support standards that increase the crashworthiness of truck cabs through improvements to interior features of cabs and cab integrity, as well as requiring occupant restraints and three-point safety belt systems. (Adopted April 1992)

3. Commercial Drivers License

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Until the implementation of the Commercial Motor Vehicle Safety Act of 1986, truck drivers were able to acquire multiple drivers licenses from different states in order to avoid license suspension or other penalties as a result of numerous traffic violations. This act limits commercial drivers to no more than one license (from their home state), increases uniformity among the states’ testing and licensing programs and creates a national network allowing states to quickly check a driver’s record. Advocates support the Commercial Drivers License program and the national network that allows prompt and effective tracking of the driving records of commercial drivers and the prompt license suspension of serious offenders. Advocates strongly oppose efforts to allow any additional exemptions from the program other than those allowed under the original legislation. (Adopted April 1992)

4. Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Regulations

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Recent rulemaking proposals from the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) will weaken the stringency of motor carrier safety requirements for hours of service and driver qualifications. Some of the proposals would decrease federal oversight of both trucks and drivers by eliminating certain reporting requirements. In addition, the agency plans, in the future, to review the entire corpus of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations. Advocates oppose any weakening of current federal rules on hours of service, driver qualifications and vehicle safety measures.

Onboard recorders that track the hours of operation of heavy trucks help to enforce hours-of-service regulations and reduce crashes due to driver fatigue. Advocates support requiring onboard recorders to keep automatic records of truck operations. (Adopted April 1992)

5. Hazardous Materials Transportation

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According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, each year more than four billion tons of hazardous materials are hauled on U.S. roadways, some 500,000 daily shipments. In 1990, DOT received reports of about 8,500 mishaps in these shipments. Advocates support rigorous standards for the transportation of hazardous materials to assure adequate protection for those transporting such materials and other highway users.

Gasoline, diesel, and fuel oil shipments compromise more than 95 percent of all hazardous materials trips in the U.S. The federal government should establish standards for the transport of non-radioactive hazardous materials, especially of combustible fuels by tank trucks. (Adopted December 1992)

6. Motor Carrier Safety Assistance Program

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Since the inception of the Motor Carrier Safety Assistance Program (MCSAP) in 1982, the number of trucks inspected for conformance with Federal motor carrier safety regulations has been increased by a factor of ten. However, the percentage of carriers and drivers receiving out-of-service citations has not decreased. Almost one-third of the inspections result in citations for vehicle equipment or hours of service violations. In addition, the program inspects only a small minority of the trucks on the road. Advocates urge strengthening the MCSAP program at both the federal and state level to increase the number of vehicles and drivers inspected and to decrease the percentage of out-of-service violations.

Overweight and oversized vehicles violating federal and state restrictions continue to endanger other highway users and inflict enormous damage to our roads and bridges. Advocates support the extension of the MCSAP program to include MCSAP size and weight inspection and certification actions and support full funding and implementation of these provisions. (Adopted April 1992)

7. Truck Conspicuity and Lighting Display

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Regulations governing truck lighting requirements for both cab and cargo unit are inadequate and have not changed since the 1940s. Many drivers, especially the elderly with lower contrast sensitivity and poorer night vision, do not detect trucks in enough time to avoid crashes.

Improvements to the truck cab and trailer lighting and reflectivity will increase their visibility and prevent crashes by providing early detection and recognition of trucks by motorists. Advocates support federal rules improving truck exterior lighting and establishing an easily-visible lighting “signature” for trucks to improve motorist detection and judgment of the presence, speed, and headway of trucks. (Adopted April 1992)

8. Truck Size and Weight Limits

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Over the past four decades, the United States has increasingly relied on truck transportation to move both industrial and consumer goods. The creation of the Interstate Highway System facilitated a vast increase in truck commerce and has resulted in Congressional approval for larger, longer and heavier vehicles on the nation’s highways. At the same time, the average size and weight of passenger vehicles have declined, making the vehicle mix more disparate and contributing to the highway safety problem.

When tractor-trailers are operated in an unsafe manner, other motorists are likely to be the victims. Of the 5,031 people who died in large truck crashes in 1996, only 12% were truck occupants. In crashes involving a large truck and a passenger vehicle, 98% of the fatalities were the occupants of cars, vans, pickup trucks or sport utility vehicles.

Multi-trailer trucks are involved in much more serious crashes than single-unit trucks or typical tractor-trailer combinations because of their tendencies to jackknife, rollover, and suffer trailer separations. Advocates support the legislated “freeze” on the spread of these Longer Combination Vehicles such as Turnpike Doubles and Triple-Trailers outside the states where they currently operate. Advocates also oppose attempts at the state or federal levels to increase the maximum sizes and weights of commercial vehicles and supports efforts to control truck sizes and weights in order to enhance highway safety.
(Amended April 1994)
(Amended December 1996)

9. Truck Tires

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Adequate tires on heavy trucks are essential to assure the consistent and safe operation of heavy trucks, prevent the need for emergency handling procedures due to tire blow-outs, and to minimize damage from wear and tear on roadways. Advocates support requirements to upgrade the quality and reliability of truck tires (e.g., carcass design and tread depth) to improve skid resistance, stopping performance and fuel efficiency per payload, to mitigate damage to highway pavement and to assure the optimal performance of antilock brake systems. (Adopted April 1992)

10. Truck Underride/Override Protection

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In 1989, approximately 700 passenger car and light truck fatalities were due to the side and rear impacts with large trucks. Small vehicles involved in the side- and rear- crashes with large trucks have much higher than average frequency of serious physical injury. The front ends of passenger vehicles often slide underneath the cargo units of large trucks; in some cases, the passenger compartment is sheared off. Passenger vehicles are also subject to front underride of large trucks as well as a rear override by large trucks; both situations result in serious injuries and fatalities to occupants of the passenger vehicles.

Truck underride and override guards can substantially mitigate the severity of passenger vehicles-large truck crashes. Advocates support federal requirements that underride protection be installed on large trucks. This protection should begin with energy-absorbing rear underride guards that are adequate for preventing passenger vehicles from under-riding large trucks. These guards should be required to meet dynamic performance standards. Advocates support NHTSA research into and consideration of protective guards to prevent side underride, front underride and truck override protection. (Adopted April 1992)

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