Truck crash fatalities jump 13% to ‘crisis’ level

Truck on its side

Fatalities in crashes involving trucks hit a “crisis” level and reversed a downward trend in place before the pandemic, according to federal regulators.

Based on preliminary data released Tuesday by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, total estimated fatalities in crashes involving at least one large truck (gross vehicle weight rating of more than 10,000 pounds) increased by 13% from 2020 to 2021, from 4,965 to 5,601. That compares with a roughly 1% decline between 2019 and 2021 (5,005 to 4,965).

NHTSA said the latest estimate is based on the involvement of trucks in commercial and noncommercial use at the time of the crash. The results may change as final fatality counts are reported into the agency’s database.

Overall, NHTSA projects an estimated 42,915 people died in motor vehicle traffic crashes last year, a 10.5% increase from 2020. It is the highest number of fatalities since 2005 and the largest annual percentage increase in the history of NHTSA’s Fatality Analysis Reporting System.

Taking into account vehicle miles traveled (VMT), the estimated fatality rate for 2021 was 1.33 fatalities per 100 million VMT, down slightly from 1.34 fatalities per 100 million VMT in 2020.

“This crisis on our roads is urgent and preventable,” commented NHTSA Deputy Secretary Steven Cliff. “We will redouble our safety efforts and we need everyone — state and local governments, safety advocates, automakers and drivers — to join us. All of our lives depend on it.”

NHTSA’s latest data revealed large shifts in fatalities and fatality rates in a given month for certain categories compared to the corresponding month in 2020. The share of fatalities on urban roads, for example, went from 57% in March 2020 to 62% in March 2021. For the entire year, fatality counts on urban roads increased 16% in 2021 to 25,411.

Safety, self-driving lobbies speak out

NHTSA’s truck-related fatality estimate constitutes a record high, according to the Truck Safety Coalition, a 52% increase in truck crash fatalities since 2010. The coalition pointed out that despite passenger vehicles being safer, 97% of fatalities occur to passenger vehicle occupants in large truck crashes.

“What more is needed to take safety seriously?” asked Dawn King, president of the coalition’s board of directors. “We need to do everything possible to reverse this terrifying trend because lives hang in the balance.”

The group urged regulators to take action on a number of issues, including requiring automatic emergency braking and advanced driver assistance systems on all trucks, completing a proposed rulemaking requiring all trucks to install speed limiters, and passing legislation raising minimum insurance requirements for trucks from $750,000 to $5 million.

Ariel Wolf, general counsel for the Autonomous Vehicle Industry Association, with members that include autonomous truck technology companies Embark, TuSimple and Aurora, called NHTSA’s latest fatality data “the most sobering crash report since the inception of the traffic fatality tracking system in 1975.”

He noted that the spike in fatalities in 2021 and an increase in “risky driving behaviors” since 2020 “provide a reminder of why the autonomous vehicle industry is dedicated to developing and deploying lifesaving technology. AVs — which do not speed, become impaired or get distracted — can help radically improve safety on American roadways.” 

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