Howard Abramson’s Aug. 21 op-ed in the New York Times grossly mischaracterized the current state of highway safety. Bill Graves, American Trucking Associations’ president and CEO, provided an excellent rebuttal. I echo Bill’s sentiments regarding the rollback of the restart provisions of the hours of service rules that had pushed more trucks onto the highways in morning rush hour and Abramson’s spurious claim of ATA promoting 82-hour work weeks. Bill also correctly points out the industry’s push for electronic logs, speed limiters and other advances in truck safety. I also want to take issue with Abramson’s selective use of highway safety data.
Abramson starts his op-ed by claiming that trucking is not as safe as domestic commercial air travel. Comparing trucking related deaths to domestic airline related deaths is like comparing apples to oranges. The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration publishes annual statistic on highway usage and accidents. In 2013, the last year for which we have published data, 10.6 million large drove 275 billion miles and 236 million passenger vehicles drove 2.7 trillion miles. There were 3,541 fatal crashes involving large trucks and 3,964 people lost their lives in those crashes.
That is certainly tragic. But it must be looked at in perspective. There were 1.44 fatalities for every 100 million vehicle miles traveled. For passenger vehicles, there were 25,886 fatal crashes that claimed 28,413 lives. Also tragic, but the fatality rate is even lower at 1.06 per 100 million miles traveled. For an individual that drives 20,000 miles per year, it would take 5,000 years of driving to accumulate 100 million miles. Many professional truck drivers accumulate 100,000 miles per year, but even at that rate a professional truck driver would need to drive 1,000 years to accumulate 100 million miles. The average large truck only accumulated 26,000 miles in 2013 using FMCSA data.
How does that compare to commercial airlines? In 2014, zero people died on scheduled, commercial U.S. flights, but 252 people died traveling on what's called "general" aviation: a category that covers small, privately owned planes. Over the past 20 years, there have been 1,598 deaths over a total of 1.43 billion miles flown by U.S. carriers. This works out to 1.11 fatalities per 100 million miles traveled by airplanes, remarkably similar to truck and passenger car data. However, when you take into account that most passenger vehicles have five or fewer occupants and most air flights have 100 or more passengers, there is no doubt that for an individual passenger, you are safer on a plane than in your car.
But so what? Airline pilots don’t have to worry about being rear-ended by a distracted or drunk driver. That’s a pretty big advantage when you consider the FHWA’s estimate that in 2013, for 62.8 percent of fatal accidents involving large trucks, the “Critical Precrash Event” was “Other Vehicles” either encroaching in the trucker’s lane or their actions within the trucker’s lane, while only 22.6 percent were due to the actions of the trucker, with the remaining 14.6 percent being due to some other reason such as pedestrian actions. Serious efforts to improve highway safety have to be more broadly focused than demonizing truck drivers and trucking companies.
In 1979, the last year before trucking deregulation, there were 6.15 fatalities for every 100 million miles driven by large trucks. For passenger cars in that year the fatality rate was 3.22 for every 100 million miles driven. The trucking industry cut its fatality rate by 77 percent since deregulation. While it is true that the fatality rate for large trucks has risen slightly since the low point in 2009, attributing that increase to “coddling” by Congress is ludicrous and Mr. Abramson should know better. The trucking industry and professional truck drivers are absolutely committed to improving highway safety.