Motorists generally don’t like driving on the same highway with trucks, and it appears that this fear of heavy trucks is well founded. The New York Times recently reported on once-in-a-decade calculations from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), specifically how much vehicle crashes cost Americans every year. The total is a staggering $871 billion as of 2010 (the most recent year for which data is available), which includes 32,999 deaths, 3.9 million injuries, and 24 million damaged vehicles. The breakdown of this staggering dollar amount is $277 billion in economic costs and $594 billion for harm from loss of life, pain or decreased quality of life because of injuries.” What the NHTSA does not report on, however, is truck crashes, which some claim have been on the rise as of 2011 for the first time in many years.
The American Association for Justice (AAJ) published a study surveying the damage that has come about from truck crashes, and they are nearly as frightening as the NHTSA figures. According to the document, truck accidents kill nearly three times as many people as boat, train, and plane accidents combined every year.
These researchers estimate that in 2011, 3,757 people died in about 13,000 truck-related accidents, which marks an 11.2 percent uptick from 2009. While these numbers are not at first glance as troubling as the 32,999 total deaths in all vehicle crashes, it is worth noting that trucks comprise only 4.7 percent of all passenger vehicles on the road at any given time. Despite this relative scarcity compared with cars and vans, trucks, according to the AAJ report, “are involved in 12.4 percent of all fatal crashes. Fatalities (per miles driven) are 17 percent higher for trucks than for passenger vehicles.”
Though of course there is no way to prove causation from such statistical correlation, the authors of the AAJ document propose that perhaps this relative frequency might be blamed on the economic breakdown of the trucking industry. Simply, drivers are paid for the distance they drive, not for the time they spend driving, which may cause them to “ignore safety measures, delay repairs, and drive in a fatigued state.” Unsurprisingly, when truck accidents do occur, truck drivers are rarely the ones killed. While 17 percent of fatalities are truck drivers, 72 percent are other motorists with pedestrians representing about 11 percent.
The authors of this AAJ report claim that while all of these thousands of deaths and millions of dollars in avoidable costs are indeed terrible, they are merely the “tip of the iceberg.” In 2011 alone, regulators and inspectors working for the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) found over 7 million violations during routine roadside inspections. Out of these 7 million, nearly one million were serious enough for trucks or drivers to be placed out of service. This is itself a problem, as many small and dangerous companies simply change their names and places of business when they rack up too many violations: “According to the FMCSA, 38 percent of carriers are responsible for 90 percent of all fatal crashes.”
Another terrible injustice is the insurance market surrounding trucks. The FMCSA only requires carriers to hold insurance policies covering up to $750,000 per incident, a number that has not changed since the 1980s, even to keep up with inflation. In 2013 dollars, this amount totals about $2.2 million, which is itself inadequate in a lot of serious crashes due to the fact that “a fatal truck crash costs about $4.3 million in direct costs.”
As with many of the unregulated fields this blog has reported on, the situation has gotten so bad that now the civil justice system has become the last line of defense when it comes to making victims whole when they are harmed through no fault of their own.