Wrong way

While more regulations keep being added, trucker fatalities reach a 30-year high.

December 2019/January 2020

Tyson Fisher


Trucker crash fatalities reached a 30-year high in 2018, according to the latest numbers from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Although complete numbers will not be released until mid-2020, available data suggests the ELD mandate is not producing the desired outcome.

Large truck occupant fatalities increased by 0.8% to a total of 885. That is the highest it has been since 1988, when 911 truck occupants were killed. The number of fatal crashes involving large trucks increased by 1.1%.

The increase comes in spite of the ELD mandate that went into effect in December 2017. Proponents of the mandate claimed that ELDs would promote safety and decrease truck-related traffic deaths.

The number of occupants killed declined in all vehicle categories except large trucks.


According to NHTSA, there was a 2.4% decrease in people killed in motor vehicle traffic crashes in 2018 when compared with the previous year. In total, 36,560 people were killed. In 2017, 37,473 people died in a vehicle crash.

Per 100 million vehicle miles traveled, traffic fatalities decreased by 3.4% from 1.17 to 1.13. The decrease was not a result of less driving. Vehicle miles traveled increased by 0.3% in 2018 compared with 2017.

The largest decrease came from occupants of passenger cars, down 5.2% with 702 fewer deaths. Including light trucks, traffic fatalities are down 4.1%, which is 966 fewer occupants killed.

Distracted driving appears to be improving. The number of fatalities where distraction was a factor decreased by 12.4% to 2,841 deaths, accounting for 7.8% of total traffic fatalities. Regarding drowsy drivers, that number is down by 4.3%.

As reflected in a recent Transportation Research Board study, younger drivers are the largest contributors to the overall fatality decrease grouping by age. Compared to 2017, drivers 16-24 involved in fatal crashes decreased by nearly 6%.

Drivers in fatal crashes ages 25-44 dropped by 2.3% and ages 45-64 dropped by 2.4%. However, the 16-24 age group was the only group to experience a decrease in a 10-year comparison, a reduction of nearly 9%. All other age groups reported an increase ranging from 15% (25-44) to 35% (65 and older).

NHTSA also released preliminary data for the first half of 2019. From January through June, 16,890 were killed in crashes, compared with 17,479 in 2018, a 3.4% reduction. Again, vehicle miles traveled increased by 0.8% compared with the previous year. Preliminary numbers do not include stats by specific categories, such as vehicle type.

crashes‘Safety’ regulations

An increase in fatalities raises some questions about the efficacy of the safety regulations imposed on the trucking industry, particularly the ELD mandate and hours of service.

In effect since December 2017, the ELD mandate final rule claimed “it improves commercial motor vehicle safety and reduces the overall paperwork burden for both motor carriers and drivers.”

Calculating the safety benefits in the final rule, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration estimated that nearly 2,000 crashes would be avoided annually, including nearly 600 avoided injuries and nearly 30 lives saved.

At the same time, FMCSA stated in the page before those numbers are revealed that it “is currently unable to evaluate the impact the changes to supporting documents requirements would have on crash reductions.”

Considering that 2018 was the first full year of the ELD mandate, NHTSA’s latest fatal crash numbers gives us a glimpse of the potential effect of the rule. An increase in fatalities suggests that the ELD mandate did not do what it was billed to do.

On the other hand, ELD advocates have at least one leg to stand on. Part of the mandate gave drivers using an automatic on-board recording device extra time to become fully compliant. Technically, not all truckers affected by the final rule have been required to have a regulation-compliant ELD. In fact, all AOBRD users have until Dec. 16 to have a certified ELD.

With that said, those who believe ELDs will eventually save lives will likely claim that the full picture won’t be revealed until final crash numbers are in for 2020. That’s another two years for advocates to hold onto the idea that ELDs will improve safety. Final numbers for all crash data for 2019 will not be available until mid-2021.

But that’s looking ahead. Looking at what we know for sure, it appears so-called safety regulations have fallen flat.

Weak correlation

As NHTSA’s stats show, large truck occupant fatalities reached a 30-year high in 2018. In the past 30 years, the federal government has installed several safety regulations that were supposed to reduce that number.

Most notably are the current hours-of-service regulations, which were established in 2011. According to the final rule, the goal was “to reduce excessively long work hours that increase both the risk of fatigue-related crashes and long-term health problems for drivers. Unfortunately, fatigued driving is nested in the “impairment” category of driver-related factors within the annual large truck and bus crash report. Alcohol- and illness-related crashes are also in that category.

Although we cannot narrow down specifically to fatigue-related crashes, impairment crashes were the same in 2017 as they were in 2012 as a percentage (4%). That is only a slight decrease from 4.1% in 2011.

However, the latest hours-of-service regulations mostly added 13 hours to the restart cycle of the 2003 regulations and requires a 30-minute rest break after eight hours. Crash data reveals that fatal crashes increased in 2004 and 2005 before slightly decreasing in 2006 and 2007. It’s worth noting that fatal crashes were trending downward since 1998 before increasing in 2003.

There was a large drop in 2008 and 2009, but that is likely the result of the recession. Since the recession, fatal crash numbers have been steadily climbing, closing in on numbers last seen when the first HOS regulations since the early 1960s were implemented in the early 2000s.

Looking at the numbers, it appears that fatal truck crashes have ebbed and flowed since 2000. The latest final numbers (2017) show only a small improvement from 2000, with preliminary numbers trending upward for 2018 and 2019.

The only visible correlation is the state of the economy. Decreases in fatal crashes are seen in 2001 and 2002 and move back up in 2003. Crashes begin to slow down in 2006, plummet in 2008 and 2009 then move right back up.

In other words, the correlation between the safety regulations and fatal truck crashes is weak at best.

Relation-safety disconnect

OOIDA President Todd Spencer testified at a House subcommittee in June that many of the regulations placed on truckers have nothing to do with safety.

“This is a copy of the regulations that all drivers are required to comply with,” Spencer said while holding up the 700-page Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations handbook to show lawmakers. “They are trained on virtually none, but they are there because they can be held responsible even when they should have no responsibility.”

“Looking at what the data shows, there is a disconnect between compliance with the regulations and improved safety outcomes.” LL

Tyson Fisher

Tyson Fisher joined Land Line Magazine in March 2014. An award-winning journalist and tireless researcher, his news reports, features and blogs bring depth to our editorial content, backed with solid detail. Tyson is a lifelong Kansas Citian.