Traffic deaths in the United States are reportedly on the rise, but that hasn’t stopped the U.S. government from moving to decrease trucking regulations. The shift has been done to help trucking companies lower their operating costs in an attempt to stimulate the economy. But will the move to decrease trucking regulations make U.S. roads less safe? Given the catastrophic nature of truck accidents, other drivers on the road should be concerned about how changes to legislation could affect their safety.
U.S. Traffic Deaths Jump Six Percent
According to preliminary data from the National Safety Council, the number of motor-vehicle deaths in 2016 was 40,200. That’s up six percent from 2015. It’s also the first time since 2007 that the yearly traffic fatality total has been higher than 40,000, making 2016 the deadliest year for U.S. drivers in almost a decade.
The numbers are preliminary, so there is a chance they could change somewhat. But as a comparison, the National Safety Council also included the preliminary data from 2014 and 2015. Comparing preliminary data from 2014 to 2016, the total number of traffic deaths across the U.S. increased 14 percent in only two years. That’s an astounding jump, given that the traffic fatality rate from 2013 to 2014 jumped only 0.5 percent.
NHTSA Issues Equally Bleak Numbers
In October 2016, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) issued its half-year estimate of motor vehicle traffic fatalities. At that time, the agency noted that in the first half of 2016, there were an estimated 17,775 fatalities in motor vehicle crashes, an increase of 10.4 percent over the same time frame in 2015.
Overall, according to the NHTSA, there has been an increase in traffic fatalities in the U.S. starting with the fourth quarter of 2014.
U.S. Government Looks to Decrease Trucking Regulations
Despite the increase in traffic fatalities, the U.S. government has already begun to decrease trucking regulations, blocking federal safety rules and hoping to block state laws. In December, Republicans blocked safety rules from the Obama administration, which were designed to prevent tired truck drivers from getting behind the wheel.
Those regulations required truck drivers to take two nights off to rest if they only take the minimum 34-hour break before they start their new workweek. Some drivers can work up to 80 hours in a workweek, some of it behind the wheel and some loading and unloading the truck, and other non-driving duties. Under the Obama administration’s regulations, truck drivers who only take a 34-hour break must take that break over a time frame that includes two 1:00 a.m. to 5:00 a.m. periods. The Republican block of those rules means truck drivers do not need to ensure they get at least two nights’ sleep.
“Unfortunately, it’s going to be an open season on safety in this coming Congress,” said Jim Hall, who was chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board in the 1990s.
Truck driver fatigue is one of the main concerns of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA). On December 8, Anthony Foxx, Secretary of the Department of Transportation, issued a notice expressing support of the “hours of service” rules for truck drivers issued in 2011.
“Nearly 4,000 people die in large truck crashes each year and driver fatigue is a leading factor,” Foxx wrote, before noting that fatigue causes slower reaction times and inhibited ability to assess situations.
“The research revealed that truck drivers (like most people) often can’t assess their own fatigue levels accurately and are therefore unaware that their performance has degraded,” Foxx wrote. “Too often, fatigued drivers fail to notice that they are drifting between lanes.”
Truck safety advocates agree that the government’s move to decrease trucking regulations will make the roads less safe, mainly because, as they argue, trucking companies care more about profits than about safety. Truck drivers, meanwhile, may feel they have no choice but to keep driving when tired, to keep up with demand. Long driving hours, tight schedules, nighttime driving, and lack of time to recover from long shifts all combine to increase fatigue in truck drivers.
“It’s going to be very tough because the companies really care about the cost,” said safety advocate Joan Claybrook. “They don’t care about the safety, no matter what they say.”
Critics Concerned About Rollback of Trucking Regulations
At a recent Senate Commerce subcommittee on surface transportation hearing, Senator Cory Booker, ranking member of the subcommittee, expressed his concern about the trucking industry.
“Right now we’re seeing a startling increase of traffic fatalities on our highways, specifically involving large trucks,” Booker said. “We can and must do better.”
For now, the government still appears committed to decrease trucking regulations as much as possible.
What the rollback means to initiatives, such as the proposed truck safety rule that would have required speed limiting devices on semi trucks, remains to be seen. In 2016, the NHTSA held a public comment period on the rule. Although some in the trucking industry expressed support of speed-limiting technology on new trucks, others have said the devices will make the roads less safe. The trucking industry has also vowed to block state laws that impose more strict rest breaks than what federal law requires.
Driver fatigue and other issues pose a serious safety concern for other drivers on the road. The government’s move to decrease trucking regulations—specifically those focused on safety—will only put other drivers at risk of a catastrophic trucking accident, by allowing tired truck drivers to get behind the wheel.