US truck drivers racking up speeding violations

US truck drivers racking up speeding violations

The number of violations issued to truckers for driving 15 mph or more above limits rose 10.3 percent last year. Photo credit: Shutterstock.com.

Commerce moves fast across the United States, sometimes too fast. The number of speeding violations issued to US truck drivers increased 7.8 percent in 2018, climbing to 146,945 violations, according to a review of Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) data.

That followed a 1.1 percent increase in 2017, and a 9.7 percent leap in 2016, the FMCSA data showed. The number of tickets issued by state and federal authorities for speeding 1 to 10 miles per hour (mph) over the speed limit dropped in 2017, before rising again in 2018.

It’s not clear whether the moving violations data, searchable on FMCSA’s analysis & information website, represents a broad increase in speeding or a law enforcement crackdown. Even if each of the violations went to an individual driver, which is not necessarily the case, the number would still represent less than 5 percent of the 3.5 million US truck drivers the American Trucking Associations (ATA) estimates are on the road.

What is clear is the trend is long-term, with the number of violations rising for at least three years.

Shippers should be concerned. An increase in speeding and other unsafe driving violations by truckers could translate into more accidents, more lives lost, and more damaged goods. In supply chains, faster doesn’t always mean safer and more efficient.

Speeding involved in one-fifth of fatal truck accidents

The total number of people killed in truck-related crashes in 2018 was 4,951, and there were 4,415 fatal accidents involving large trucks, according to another source, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s (NTSA's) Fatality Analysis Reporting System (FARS). 

Speeding was a factor in 839 of those 4,415 crashes — about 19 percent. That number dropped slightly from its recent peak of 843 in 2017. But the number of fatal truck crashes involving speeding shot up 21.3 percent, from 695 to 841, from 2014 through 2016 alone.

Unlike the FMCSA moving violations data, which is limited to truck drivers, it’s not clear from the FARS data available to the public on NHTSA’s website whether the truck was the vehicle speeding in these fatal crashes, or another vehicle. But the trendline is not good.

A NHTSA overview of fatal motor vehicle crashes in 2018 released last month shows a 2.4 percent decrease in the overall number of people killed in US motor vehicle accidents last year, with 913 fewer fatalities. However, the number of truck-crash deaths rose 0.9 percent. 

The causes for the long-term rise in speeding, truck accidents, and fatalities isn’t easy to pinpoint. Some suggest the electronic logging device (ELD) mandate has contributed to the total, but the trend predates the mandate, introduced in December 2017, by several years.

Despite the ups and downs of the economy since 2014, there are more trucks on US highways, traveling more vehicle miles, than ever before. And truck drivers are being asked to deliver within strict time limits, as more businesses promise same-day and next-day service.

More violations at higher speeds

From 2015 through 2018, the overall number of speeding violations issued to truck drivers rose 19.5 percent, the FMCSA data shows, with the number of tickets for speeding 15 mph or more beyond the speed limit increasing 30.3 percent.

Tickets for speeding 11 to 14 mph above the limit rose 6.8 percent last year, compared with 9.2 percent in 2017. Violations for speeding 6 to 10 mph beyond the limit jumped 7.9 percent, compared with a 0.1 percent drop in 2017.

From 2015 through 2018, the number of tickets issued to truckers traveling 11 to 14 mph above the speed limit rose 40 percent to 70,055 violations, out of a total 146,945 violations. Violations for driving 6 to 10 mph faster than allowed rose 16.4 percent, the FMCSA data shows.

The number of violations issued for speeding 1 to 5 mph over the limit rose 3.4 percent last year, compared with a 10.1 percent decrease in 2017. Over the three-year period beginning in 2015, the number of 1 to 5 mph speeding violations dropped 10.2 percent.

Speeding through work zones

The biggest increase, however, was in the number of tickets handed out for speeding in a construction or work zone, a whopping 85.9 percent increase since 2015 and a 20.8 percent year-over-year increase in 2018, according to the FMCSA data.

Work-zone speeding violations for truckers rose from 3,842 in 2015 to 7,142 in 2018, and year-to-date in 2019 the total is 4,306, according to the FMCSA. Neither FMCSA nor NHTSA tracks the number of highway and arterial street work zones nationwide.

The size of that increase suggests it is due to tougher enforcement, as state police crack down on drivers who speed through work zones. Pennsylvania, for example, is rolling out a new pilot program testing automated work-zone speed enforcement on its interstate highways.

A crackdown does appear necessary. The number of fatal work zone crashes involving big trucks increased 16.1 percent to 216 in 2017, the last year for which data is available, according to the National Work Zone Safety Information Clearinghouse.

Tougher enforcement or more speeders?

The rise in the number of speeding violations may reflect tougher enforcement more than an actual increase in speeding, but the growing number of fatal accidents in which speeding is a factor points to a problem with speed the US logistics community can’t ignore.

The problem may be most acute at smaller trucking firms that only adopted ELDs last year or are not yet in compliance. A recent study by three university researchers found unsafe driving violations increased at smaller trucking firms in the wake of the ELD mandate last year.

The study is based on a survey of inspection data, accidents, and violations at carriers of various sizes from January 2017 through September 2018, before and after the ELD mandate took effect in December 2017, and including periods of “light” and full enforcement.

The authors — Alex Scott of Northeastern University, Andrew Balthrop of the University of Arkansas, and Jason W. Miller of Michigan State University — did find the mandate “unequivocally” improved hours-of-service (HOS) compliance but may have encouraged unsafe driving.

The study found the number of unsafe driving and speeding violations rose faster post-mandate among small carriers and independent drivers than among larger fleets.

Out of the 189,406 speeding violations reported in the period of the study, 47,143 were handed to drivers at carriers with 21 to 100 trucks. The same group also had the largest number of unsafe driving violations, 63,935 out of 268,427, according to the report.

“Speeding increased by 31 percent for independent owner-operators, 15.9 percent for two to six truck fleets, 10.6 percent for six to 20 trucks, and 16.5 percent for fleets of 21 to 100 trucks,” the authors said in their report, “Did the Electronic Logging Device Mandate Reduce Accidents?”

“Compared to large asset-based carriers, drivers for smaller carriers were cited in much higher numbers after the ELD mandate went into effect,” the researchers said. When it came to accidents, “gains from fatigue reduction were offset by increases in unsafe driving behavior.”

The Small Business in Transportation Coalition (SBTC) argues the study’s findings support suspension of the ELD mandate, or a broad class exemption for small trucking firms, and it is pursuing both. The study itself doesn’t offer any suggestions on the mandate or policy.

Putting on the brakes

Are truckers being “forced” to speed by hours of service restrictions and ELDs, or by dispatchers and deadlines? Drivers do have agency, meaning they can make a choice, although they may not feel free to make the right choice when a paycheck is riding on on-time delivery.

But in the era of electronic logging and truck tracking, there’s no excuse for motor carriers. The speed of each truck is recorded, and with routing and dispatching software in real time or close to it, it should be evident when and where drivers violate state and local speed limits.

Technology is making it harder for a legitimate carrier to turn a blind eye to driver speeding or say “I didn’t know” when questioned about it. And the risk of an accident, which could lead to jury awards in the millions of dollars, is much greater than the risk of a missed delivery.

Drivers who believe they are being “forced” to speed to make up time lost due to congestion or because of delivery demands that can’t be met during legal driving hours have the option of filing a complaint with the FMCSA under the Driver Coercion rule, which went into effect in 2017.

That rule doesn’t provide immediate relief to a driver en route in a truck cab, but FMCSA can impose significant penalties on carriers, brokers, receivers, and shippers found to have coerced a driver, even when that coercion didn’t result in a violation of federal safety rules.

Shippers and receivers also need to reduce the perceived need for speed by cutting detention time and by matching lane lengths and trip times to hours of service rules. A shipper may not know a driver has only two hours left, but should know a 600-mile run is not “same-day."

The data generated by the ELD mandate was supposed to accomplish this, but apparently not enough data is being shared by carriers, intermediaries, and shippers. And some shippers, hopefully fewer, are still willing to let the truck driver pick up the slack in their supply chains.

Contact William B. Cassidy at bill.cassidy@ihsmarkit.com and follow him on Twitter: @willbcassidy.