Automotive > Powertrain, Body, Chassis & Safety Blog

Truckers: A Vital, Vulnerable Economic Lifeline

by Roger Lanctot | Aug 02, 2021

We generally don’t think about trucks and truck drivers too much – that is, until an 18-wheeler is creeping up behind us on the highway, or gas stations run out of fuel because of a reported shortage of truck drivers. Trucks also figure prominently in multi-vehicle pileups which pop up periodically on the news like tornadoes touching down in trailer parks.

Those multi-vehicle pileups that inevitably involve an 18-wheeler or two often occur in foggy, frozen, or wet driving conditions and they highlight highly avoidable driving circumstances. The fact that neither the industry nor regulatory authorities have stepped in to mitigate these circumstances is likely an important contributor to the fact that truck driving is either the sixth or seventh most deadly profession in the U.S., according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).

Given that statistical status one might have assumed that all measures possible were being taken to make truck driving safe or safer. One would be disappointed to learn that this is not the case. The failure of regulators and politicians to do more to protect truck drivers, trucking companies, and the general public is especially galling given the fact that the U.S. government’s regulatory authority is almost absolute in the commercial vehicle sector. The path to the adoption of regulations in the trucking industry is much shorter than the sometimes decades-long process for passenger vehicles.

To be sure, individual trucking companies may take exceptional steps to ensure the safety of their drivers and the motoring public to which they are exposed. Overall, though, the industry response to the widely reported shortage of drivers has been an effort to lower standards, including attempting to lower the minimum age for drivers to 18 years of age, from 21, according to a recent “Planet Money” report - instead of helping drivers be better and safer at their job.

Studies conducted by the BLS have shown that the so-called driver shortage is a result of driver compensation and benefits shortcomings that have driven an annual driver turnover rate of 90%. In other words, the job is one of the most dangerous in the country and drivers themselves remain poorly compensated and under-regulated – meaning under-protected.

Even though it is not the most dangerous job in the country, the number of fatalities associated with truck driving stands out. The BLS data shows that about 1,000 truck drivers die annually – which reflects a lower rate per 100,000 than the half dozen more dangerous U.S. professions, but a much higher total because there are as many as 3.5M active truck drivers in the U.S. Roofers make more than truck drivers, perhaps as compensation for their efforts in the fourth most dangerous U.S. profession.

Maybe truck drivers are abandoning truck driving for roofing.

The carnage inflicted on truck drivers by their chosen craft encompasses the non-truck-driving public. Trucks are implicated in 5,000 deaths annually, 4,000 of which comprise passengers in the trucks, other vehicle drivers and passengers, and pedestrians, according to NHTSA data.  And the problem is only getting worse.

According to data gathered by the National Safety Council and shared by RoadAware, a traffic safety provider to the industry, truck crashes have been on the rise for the past 10 years. RoadAware believes and has demonstrated that truck drivers would benefit from the introduction of speed alerts and warnings intended to prevent crashes related to weather and road geometry.

For a graphic example (warning) of what can result from failure to properly inform drivers of roadway conditions, view this video of the 133-vehicle crash that occurred in Dallas, Tex., earlier this year, resulting in six fatalities - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YQpbY-ItS6U

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RoadAware’s application combines multiple data points in order to provide speed guidance to truck drivers taking into account GPS data (position, speed, and direction), vehicle dynamics (vehicle configuration and load), accurate road geometry (curve radius and percent slope), and safety margins (to be determined by the operator). In this way, truck drivers could be guided to avoid tip-overs on exit or entrance lanes or brake fails and runaways that occur in the event of steep roadway declines.

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The efficacy of the RoadAware solution has been demonstrated in proof-of-concept tests that have shown that drivers provided with speed guidance in hazardous driving circumstances do adjust their driving behavior. This is obviously of interest to insurers given the fact that highway pileups involving 18-wheelers not infrequently result in massive multimillion dollar damage awards – sometimes putting operators out of business.

RoadAware has gone so far as to show that lower insurance claims are directly correlated to higher profits for fleet operators. The supporting business case and the motivations to take action are clear.

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We see the deadly pileups on the evening news. We can see the data that highlights the perils of truck driving in poor weather and on dangerous roads. We understand the market forces that ought to translate to industry action to make driving safer and more attractive as a profession. 

Given the critical role that truck drivers play in a world of just-in-time deliveries and global supply chains, now would seem the ideal moment for regulatory intervention to ensure truck drivers are equipped with safe speed guidance at all times. The ball is clearly in the court of the U.S. Department of Transportation and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration where change is afoot and new leadership appears willing and prepared to act. With the U.S. economy emerging from a devastating pandemic and more heavily dependent on the industry than it has ever been before the time is right to act.

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