Sure, there are a lot of dangerous occupations, (i.e., logging, roofing, and construction). However, the transportation industry remains one of the most common and deadliest occupations according to a 2019 study by the Bureau of Labor and the latest federal data on workplace deaths.
With increased reliance on the trucking industry to meet heightened demands due to the rise of online shopping and meeting COVID-19 needs, more truckers on the road could contribute to higher incident rates and driver deaths. For example, more than one out of every five on-the-job deaths occur in driver/sales and trucking, according to the National Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries.
In 2019, The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (“FMCSA”) reported a total of 4,501 fatal crashes involving large trucks and buses in the United States. The FMCSA reported 5,046 deaths as a result of those crashes. According to the preliminary report released in 2020, there were a total of 2,533 fatal crashes involving large trucks and buses from January 1, 2020 to August 31, 2020. The FMCSA reported 2,819 deaths as a result of those crashes. Although the 2020 data snapshot includes crash records only up to August 31, 2020, it is likely 2020 fatalities could supersede previous numbers because of the industry’s increased challenges due to supply chain disruptions and nationwide emergency delivery needs.
One chief executive of an Arkansas motor carrier and president of The Alliance for Driver Safety & Security stated that the company would “like to support the idea to have zero fatalities,” also stating that zero fatalities was “a realistic goal.” Is this a realistic goal for the industry? We’d like to think so. There are numerous factors that contribute to the high rate of trucker deaths, but there are many steps transportation companies can take to improve safety measures to avoid fatalities.
First, trucking companies should ensure drivers impaired by drugs and alcohol are kept off the road.
Maybe easier said than done. As recently as January 2, 2021, the FMCSA declared a Mexico-licensed commercial driver an imminent hazard to public safety, prohibiting him from operating a commercial motor vehicle in the United States. The driver failed to stop at a red traffic light causing a multi-vehicle, chain-reaction crash and fire resulting in several severe injuries. An investigation revealed that three weeks prior to the accident (while employed for another company) the driver tested positive for a cocaine metabolite, and benzoylecgonine. https://www.fmcsa.dot.gov/newsroom/truck-driver-mexico-prohibited-operating-commercial-vehicles-us.
In addition to that, on December 23, 2020, the FMCSA declared an Arizona driver an imminent hazard to public safety and ordered the driver not to operate a commercial motor vehicle in interstate commerce. Here, the driver struck seven bicyclists and the riders' escort vehicle from the rear and five bicyclists were pronounced dead at the scene. The driver subsequently tested positive for amphetamine, and methamphetamine. https://www.fmcsa.dot.gov/newsroom/fmcsa-declares-arizona-truck-driver-be-imminent-hazard.
Driver alcohol and drug use present challenges to the industry. Although many companies require urine testing as part of hiring practices, companies could move to make hair follicle testing a safety requirement. Hair follicle testing is more accurate than urine tests according to a University of Central Arkansas study.
Hours of service and driver shortage also remain a top concern for truck drivers. With long hours and the potential of risking personal wellbeing to keep up with coronavirus demands, it is not surprising that an “industry shorthand for the demand for trucks on the road sharply rose above 2019 levels in mid-February.”
Improving trust between carriers and drivers, allowing drivers to spend more time at home, and expanding recruitment to women and minorities could be promising for companies looking to decrease driver shortages. Improvements in driver retention is likely related to driver compensation and companies could see better retention rates by increasing driver pay.
Companies should also ensure drivers are adequately trained. Proper training has the potential of reducing distracted driving. According to the FMCSA, driver inattention is the leading factor in motor vehicle crashes, with 80% of wrecks involving inattention in the 3 seconds before the crash or near-crash. When the vehicle weighs up to 80,000 pounds, any inattention on the part of the driver poses an enormous hazard.
To curb distracted driving, companies could implement technology systems that restrict cell phone usage while the truck is in motion, cab video that tracks driver behavior, systems for communicating wirelessly, and systems that detect hard braking, veering, and other behaviors associated with distracted driving.
The growth of the trucking industry is on the rise; however, that doesn’t mean that fatalities have to be.