A recent front page headline in Transport Topics stated that Truck Fatalities Rose 8.7%. The data comes from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and refers to the number of large truck accident fatalities in 2010. This is the first increase in four years. Overall for all vehicles the 2010 statistics recorded 2.9% fewer fatalities. So what's to be made of this?
The folks who believe that truck safety is achieved by fewer work hours have pointed to this statistic as proof that the hours of service must be reduced. They explain away a fairly long term decrease as the result of other safety gains. Their expectation is that an hours of service reduction will result in a further decrease in accident and fatality statistics.
Trucking industry advocates aren't swayed by the apples and oranges comparison being made. The 8.7% increase is a measurement of the number of fatalities, not the rate per million miles. That's the benchmark that is used to analyze long-term trends. It will be a month before the 2010 large truck mileage is released. Only then can the frequency per million miles be calculated, and that's the number that presents an apples to apples comparison to previous years. There's no way to know or predict how that will turn out.
So what's the effect of all of this discussion? It won't change the as yet unannounced changes to the hours of service. The decisions have already been made and the rule has been written. Publication in the Federal Register is expected by the end of the year. In fact some observers feel it's likely that the driving hours will be reduced to 10.
The ATA has already stated that they will take legal action if that happens. Their main focus will be on the steady decline of the fatality frequency even though driving hours had been increased from 10 to 11. They'll argue that even with the increase in hours the fatality frequency continued to decrease. And that's where the problem begins.
Both sides will enter court with the same statistics and each will have their own interpretation of them. In the final analysis it's the statistic that isn't known at this time that may prove to be the most important -- the actual frequency for 2010. If it continues to decline that will bolster the ATA's argument. But, if it increases, that will certainly complicate the ATA's position.
Is the trend reversed? That question can't be answered for several years. Even during this period of frequency decline there have been several slight increases, but the overall downward trend has been unmistakable. Even if there's a slight uptick for 2010, it's most likely that the downward trend will continue. But the safety advocacy groups won't want to wait for future results. Their argument will be that safety is being compromised by drivers impaired by overwork.