Debunking Trucking Industry Myths

By Jeffrey A. Burns of Dollar, Burns & Becker

(Jeff Burns is considered by many to be the leading expert on the causes of truck crashes in the country.)

 

As the preparation of a truck crash case proceeds, you may hear wide variations on the causes of truck crashes and how well the industry and the regulatory agencies are doing their jobs. The industry P.R. machine is clever and can couch statements in such a way that, if you don't know how the words are being twisted, you might just fall for a big fat dangerous lie. The following are some of the industry's favorites.

 

Myth I. Truck Safety is Improving at an Acceptable Rate 

In 1997, Secretary of Transportation Rodney Slater announced that the agency's goal would be to reduce the number of people killed in truck crashes by 50% within 10 years. The number of persons killed in truck crashes has remained at around 5,000 each year. In fact, last year the number increased by more than 160.

Rather than own up to the fact that drastic changes were necessary to save lives, the FMCSA has changed its focus from the number of persons killed in truck crashes to the number of persons killed, per million miles of truck travel. The industry and the FMCSA run a tag team congratulating each other on how much "improvement" there has been, in spite of the increase in the number of funerals caused by truck crashes. The problems with this change in focus should be obvious:

  • The family that buries their loved one(s) takes zero comfort in hearing that, although a truck driver fell asleep and killed the loved one(s), the company involved drove an extra million miles this year, so its O.K.
  • There is NO ACCURATE CALCULATION of the number of truck miles traveled each year. According to the head researchers of the FMCSA, the fluctuations in reported miles traveled in each state are so great that no confidence can be placed on any state's numbers being correct. The "hope" is that the overall number includes the drastically upwards and drastically downward reportings and that the total has "some relationship" to what is actually driven. The truth is that no one really knows the actual total number of miles traveled.
  • Reductions in fatalities are frequently the result of newer technologies such as ABS brakes, better passenger protections such as improved airbags, traction stability controls, etc. We have no good numbers on whether the number of truck injury (non-fatal) crashes is increasing.
  • All modes of transportation have experienced an increase in use over the past 20 years. No other industry attempts to justify the number of persons killed by counting fatalities as a function of miles traveled. In 1997, following the crash of TWA Flight 800, Vice-president Al Gore announced the inception of the "Safe-Skies" program to be implemented by the FAA. The original goal of this program was to reduce the rate of commercial airline crashes by 80%. The government did not try to hide behind the astronomical increase in miles flown to justify a future increase in the number of crashes to try to make the public believe the FAA was doing its job. It set the bar high enough that, even with a huge increase in air travel, the result would be a drastic decrease in the actual number of fatalities. The result has been a drastic reduction in fatalities IN SPITE OF the huge increase in the number of miles flown each year. The FMCSA, however, continues to try to convince the motoring public that killing 13 or 14 people each day (an equivalent of an airline crash on our highways each week) is an acceptable "improvement" in truck safety.

 

Myth II. Fatal Truck Crashes Caused by Car Drivers

This is pure bunk and originally stems from a dishonest stretching of findings of a data "study." In the late 1990's, Dan Blower, a researcher at the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute (UMTRI), took a look at a selectively limited collection of Fatality Analysis Reporting System (FARS) data. Out of the universe of fatal truck crash data for 1994 and 1995, Blower pulled those fatal crashes that he could determine involved A SINGLE passenger vehicle and A SINGLE large truck. The study then attempted to determine which vehicle made the last movement that preceded the crash. In that particular sub-sub-subset of data, he determined that in 71% of the crashes, the driver of the four-wheeler was reported by a police officer (who did not witness the crash), as making the last movement that preceded the crash or that was responsible for "contributing" to the crash. From this, the industry P.R. machine has developed the MYTH that 71% (or 75% or 90% depending on who the last person to repeat the rumor was) of all truck fatalities are "caused" by passenger car drivers.

There are obviously several problems with this inaccurate conclusion:

  • The study, itself, does not examine or determine causation or fault in ANY particular crash. It merely analyzes data accumulated in several databases, using primarily abstracts of police reports. The analysis simply groups crashes into types and counts reported driver related factors. For example, if a car "pulls in front" of a truck, and the truck driver could normally avoid hitting the car with no problem, but, because the truck driver hasn't slept in 28 hours (but does not mention that to the reporting office), the truck runs over the car and kills the car driver, the "study" analysis says the car movement is the primary contributing factor of the crash.
  • This kind of crash is particularly susceptible to inaccurate reporting. Remember, all of these crashes are one-car-one-truck fatal crashes. We know that in such crashes, 98% of the time the fatality is suffered by the occupant of the passenger car. Therefore, when the police are gathering information about how the crash occurred, they are overly reliant on what is told to them by the survivor … the truck driver. Without other witnesses, the story is suspect, at best. Anecdotally, we know of many such crashes in which the original police report shows a crash as occurring after the car driver reportedly "cut in front" of the truck, but in which, after full investigation, is found to have been 100% due to the fault of the truck driver falling asleep or otherwise losing control of his vehicle. Large trucks are "over involved" in fatal crashes. They make up only 3% of the vehicles operated, but are involved in over 11% of fatal crashes. It simply doesn't make sense that car drivers are "causing" the majority of these crashes. Blower's study discounted this by pointing out that the level of findings of passenger car driver "contribution" to crashes was the same when both drivers survived. The study went on to state "one explanation might be that the surviving passenger vehicle driver was so badly injured that he was unable to defend himself. That explanation was not explored." He also failed to note that the driver also might not be at the scene because the passenger (presumably someone the car driver knew) was taken from the scene either dead or dying!
  • The study did not examine "cause" at all. For example, if a car ran into the rear of a truck, the car would have been listed as having made the last critical movement. There was no examination as to whether the truck might not have been visible or might not have had adequate (now required) retro-reflective tape so as to be properly "conspicuous." The dates of the crashes studied included dates before trucks were subject to the taping requirements of 49 C.F.R. §393.13. So did the car driver "cause" the crash by not seeing an invisible truck?
  • The FARS data used is inherently incomplete. Many fatal crashes do not give rise to immediate death. If a police report is completed before a victim dies, many times there is no supplementary report to cause the report to go through FARS. Additionally, several states are believed to seriously underreport crashes through FARS.
  • Perhaps the biggest problem with this study is built into the study itself. The study, by its own terms, limited itself to only one-car-one-truck crashes. By doing this, the study EXCLUDED all of the fatal truck crashes that were most likely to have been caused by the driver of a large truck. Excluded were all single truck fatal crashes (rollovers, runs off the road, striking bridge abatements, etc.). Virtually all of these fatalities were caused by the driver of the only vehicle involved … the truck. Also excluded were all truck-on-truck crashes (as when two semis have a head-on crash). All of these crashes would be caused by the driver of one of the trucks. Finally, all crashes involving more than two vehicles were excluded. This excludes all of the too-frequent crashes in which a truck slams into the back of traffic stopped or slowing for a work zone, traffic congestion, or lane reductions. Many truck crashes are horrific events that involve multiple vehicles and multiple fatalities. Even if all of the fatalities were in a single car, Mr. Blower's "study" excluded the crash if there was any involvement of an additional vehicle. Bottom line: This "study" excluded more than 40% of truck crashes that are most likely to be the "fault" of the truck driver, but makes the sweeping conclusion: "In sum, it appears that in fatal truck-passenger vehicle collisions, the passenger vehicle does contribute more heavily to the crash than the truck."

 

Myth III. Hours Of Service (HOS) Rules Resulted in Better Driver Health and Improved Safety

After the FMCSA changed the HOS rules to include these absurd provisions, the Truck Safety Coalition joined Public Citizen in a lawsuit against the FMCSA, challenging the basis for such changes. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit found that the FMCSA had not even considered the overall effects of these rules on truck drivers. The court also strongly criticized the individual rule changes and chastised the FMCSA, stating "This one-sided and passive regulatory approach in all likelihood does not comport with Congress's direction for the agency to deal with the issue in light of the statutorily mandated factors for which it has provided." The FMCSA apparently read only the Court's holding on the driver health issue and spent the next year trying to create studies that would show that the new rules, which also allow a driver to work 88 hours in eight days (up from 70 in the prior rule) with no overtime pay, is really a healthy change for drivers. In August '05, the FMCSA reissued essentially the same rules, based on its "after the fact" health "findings."

The FMCSA now is touting its "per-million miles" statistics more than ever before. The problem with this is more fully set forth above. They are also using industry-reported, non-audited statistics and self-serving surveys to justify the rules. I am currently in the process of reviewing these surveys, but one in particular jumps out at me. The FMCSA asked motor carriers to fill out a survey on the number of crashes they had in the past couple years. The conclusion of the self-report survey was that the greatest reduction of crashes was in the area of "non-preventable" crashes (19% decrease). This means that crashes that could not be prevented by better truck driving went down by 19%, so any smaller decreases in other types of crashes can't really be called an "improvement," or show that the new H.O.S. regulations improve safety, can they?

 

Myth IV. Fatigue is a Relatively Small Problem 

The trucking industry looks at FARS data police report abstracts and points out that the abstracts indicate that less than 2% of total truck crash police reports indicate that the driver was fatigued. They then "generously" admit that this is probably an under representing of the problem, so "perhaps" it's a 5% issue.

There are lies, damn lies, and statistics … and then there are truck industry statistics. What the industry does not tell the public about this "study:"

  • Several states had no "reported" fatigue related fatal truck crashes from 1991 to 1996. This is perhaps partly due to the fact that several states do or did not even have a box labeled "fatigue" for the investigating officer to mark!
  • The inherent problems of reporting relating to fatal crashes, listed above, apply here also (dead passenger car occupants can't give their side of the crash).
  • Police most frequently have little or no experience detecting driver fatigue and there is no "blood test" to administer.
  • The crash, itself, has interrupted the driver's monotony and has caused him to become more alert.
  • While some states reported zero "fatal-to-truck driver" crashes that also involved a fatigued truck driver, in some states 40% of these crashes were coded as caused by fatigue, and several states were over 20%. This certainly indicates that something other than accurate reporting is going on.
  • The study acknowledged that wide variations indicate the difficulty in determining the prevalence of fatigue in fatal crashes, and the study acknowledged that its finding of the prevalence of fatigue "is in all likelihood too low," but contains the conclusion: "In any event, the FARS/TIFA data do not provide any evidence truck driver fatigue plays a significant role among occupants of other vehicles involved in collisions with medium and heavy trucks." This is the ONLY valid conclusion that can be made about the study, and it speaks only to the inadequacy of the data and not to the prevalence of fatigue as a factor in truck crashes.

 

These issues are illustrative of environment and culture within the trucking industry. Industry "spin-doctors" spend a lot of time trying to use statistics to convince the public, congress and the FMCSA that the industry death machine is really safe. It is up to us to stand up and to clearly articulate that the emperor has no clothes!

 

By Jeffrey A. Burns ©

Dollar, Burns & Becker, LC

1100 Main Street, Suite 2600

Kansas City, Missouri 64105

816-876-2600