Weighing in at up to 80,000 pounds, and stretching up to 75 feet in length, a fully loaded tractor trailer is an intimidating sight for many motorists. The Department of Transportation’s Bureau of Transportation Statistics estimates that the nation’s 2.4 million large commercial trucks carry 11 billion tons of freight each year, and they travel a distance of over 286 million miles. While most of these miles are covered by trucks in excellent mechanical condition, operated by safe and experienced drivers, accidents involving tractor trailers are still a frequent, and often deadly, occurrence.
The most comprehensive statistics concerning truck accidents are released by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, or FMCSA, and their most recent figures make for grim reading. While the numbers of accidents is relatively low, just 3,197 in 2009, the fatality rate is very high. More concerning, is the vulnerability of passenger vehicle occupants in this type of collision. Statistics show that 85% of the 3,619 fatalities resulting from large commercial vehicle accidents were other road users. The FMCSA also released a detailed report in 2007 called the Large Truck Crash Causation Study, which detailed the most frequent causes of truck accidents.
Driver error is ten times more likely to cause an accident than any other factor according to the agency. These errors often stem from drivers fatigued due to a grueling schedule and strict timetable. Many surveys have demonstrated that driving drowsy is as dangerous as driving drunk, and an excessively tired operator of an 80,000 pond vehicle is a danger to all other motorists. Making the situation even more perilous is the frequent use of prescription and illicit drugs by truck drivers to stay alert, and the lax enforcement of regulations to catch operators driving under the influence. An undercover federal investigation in 2007 found that 75% of facilities charged with drug testing truck drivers did not maintain adequate security. Other driver errors are the result of truck operators frequently negotiating unknown roads in unfamiliar areas.
The second most common cause of truck accidents is equipment failure. The nation’s highways are littered with the remnants of shredded truck tires, and tire failure frequently leads to operators losing control of their vehicles. Inadequate maintenance and improper loading are also major causes, often the result of trucking companies desperately trying to rein in costs as margins shrink while the economy slowly recovers from recession. Inexperience when loading is also a factor, and freight distributed unevenly can pose a threat as it may shift during high speed maneuvers.
The third leading cause of truck accidents is poor driving conditions, which are often caused by bad weather. Trucks are far heavier than cars and require a far greater stopping-distance in an emergency braking situation. This can become extremely dangerous when visibility is reduced, the road surface is slick or they are not given enough room to maneuver by other road users.