Hit the Road, with Care

Statistics point to increasingly dangerous roadways.

IF you and your family travel by car this summer, be sure to watch out for work zones. And keep this tidbit in mind: There's about a one-in-four chance each tractor-trailer you encounter has a problem that would cause an inspector to order it out of service. (In fairness, studies also have found a significant percentage of America's passenger cars aren't well maintained and present safety risks on the road.)

Two recent reports got me thinking about the safety of large trucks. The commercial trucking industry applauded when the U.S. Department of Transportation's inspector general challenged SafeStat, a database used by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration to target truck and bus companies for safety inspections and enforcement. In fact, what the IG's audit found wasn't good news: Six states reported no large-truck wrecks at all for the six months in question. Thousands of crashes were missing from the database. About 98,000 motor carriers, 15 percent of the active carriers in the country, were recorded in SafeStat as having zero drivers (yet somehow, 15,136 of these driverless companies underwent at least one inspection from October 2001 through September 2002).

Given the gaps in SafeStat's data, perhaps I shouldn't rely on the other report that concerns me, for it, too, comes from the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration. The agency released "Commercial Motor Vehicle Facts," containing data for fiscal years 1997 through 2003, this spring. The report lists 2002 fatality rates of 2.3 for large trucks and 1.5 for all vehicles per 100 million miles. Their injury rates were the reverse: 60.5 for large trucks and 102.5 for all vehicles per 100 million miles.

Ricin blackmail notwithstanding, the government's revised hours of service rule took effect in early March. FMCSA's report estimated 100 percent compliance with hours of service rules by commercial truckers in 2002 would have saved 75 to 120 lives. Fatigue-related crashes that year cost $2.3 billion (in 1999 dollars), the agency said. Particularly interesting was its chart of FY2003 roadside inspections and out-of-service (OOS) rates for large trucks and commercial buses:

Large Trucks

Commercial Buses

Driver inspections

2,962,274

24,637

Driver OOS rate

6.9 %

5.7 %

Vehicle inspections

2,115,384

35,584

Vehicle OOS rate

23.2 %

10.3 %

With those numbers in mind, all of us should "Watch out for the other guy" a lot more carefully.

This article originally appeared in the June 2004 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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