The other day the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration announced that fatalities in passenger vehicles had declined 5% in 2010 over 2009, resulting in the lowest death toll since 1949 and the lowest fatality per mile rate ever. But the trucking industry flew right on by, with fatal accidents in large trucks up 6% over 2009 and injuries up 12%. What the heck’s goin’ on here? As a CDL holder who spent the last few decades in big trucks, let me theorize the causes of this increased Commercial Vehicle carnage.

Fatigue has probably always been the biggest cause of trucking fatalities. Back when I drove for Continental Baking, by union contract we had consistent starting times (no yo-yoing between day and night shifts), two 15 minute breaks in an eight hour shift, and a third 15 minute break if  the shift ran over 9 hours, AND a half hour off the clock lunch break that you were encouraged to take. In fact, if you needed more rest, you just wrote in the lengthened lunch break on your time card and nobody bothered you about it. When I drove for the Postal Service, by union contract our work day was limited to 12 hours, and time and a half after eight and double time after ten hours discouraged long shifts. The contract at UPS had similar provisions, with two 10 minutes paid breaks, an unpaid 40 minute lunch, and UPS preferred to keep shifts to 12 hours or less to eliminate the need to log under the DOT’s “100 mile radius” exemption.

Well, today the successor to Continental Baking has closed dozens of bakeries and a concession contract essentually pays drivers by the mile. So instead of judicious breaks to prevent fatigue, the driver is motivated to stop for nothing- safety checks, rest, bathroom breaks, etc.. Same at UPS- mileage pay has replaced hourly on many long runs and instead of 500 miles a day many runs are now pushing 600 miles and more. At the Postal Service, more stops have been added to schedules to the point where drivers are forced to skip breaks to stay on schedule. The new Hours of Service regulations the trucking industry lobbied through DOT haven’t helped either- drivers can now be pretty much forced to drive 11 hours a day vs. the previous 11, and  drivers can no longer take “off duty” time for breaks that doesn’t count against the daily hours of service maximums. With the clock ticking from the moment they punch in, drivers are motivated to drive on regardless of how tired they be. Not that the regulations matter- in four decades of trucking I never had a law enforcement official ask to see my logbook!

The other cause I’ll postulate for this growing carnage is speed too fast for conditions. Back in the old days we hourly drivers dutifully plugged along in the slow lane at 55-60 MPH without too much complaint. Today, with hourly pay an endangered species and 400 HP trucks considered underpowered, I’m routinely tailgated by trucks running 70 MPH in 60 and even 55 MPH zones. Truck tires are only good for 65 MPH sustained, and they still pretty much use drum brakes that’ll fade away in a panic stop from higher speeds. Yet we’re seeing these speeds on some pretty crappy rural two lanes and urban freeways in all, including some pretty miserable, weather conditions.

Is it any wonder big truck fatalities and injuries are up?