March 6, 2006

Truck Deaths Could Hit Six-year High

By John Crawley

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Deaths from crashes involving large trucks on U.S. roads could hit a six-year high when the first figures for 2005 are released this spring, according to the Transportation Department's preliminary estimates.

The agency projected in budget documents that deaths could rise by 116 from the previous year to 5,306. The last time deaths from truck crashes topped 5,300 was in 1999 at 5,380.

Deaths from truck-related crashes went up for a second-straight year in 2004 even though the number of truck-related crashes per 100 million miles traveled, an important safety indicator, fell to a 30-year low.

There were more than 4,800 large trucks, including tractor trailers, involved in fatal crashes in 2004, safety figures show.

The overwhelming majority of victims in truck-related crashes are occupants of other vehicles.

The number of crashes for last year was not projected by the Transportation Department. But the agency estimates the rate of fatalities per 100 million miles traveled for all motorists in truck-related crashes will rise slightly for 2005. The government's goal for the year was a noticeable decline.

Crash and highway death figures for all vehicles will be released this spring by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and a final total will be released next fall.

In 2004, 42,636 people were killed on U.S. roads.

The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, the Transportation Department agency responsible for trucking regulation, said more work needs to be done to reverse the death rate. "By focusing on driver behavior and factors that cause crashes, we can drive the rate down," said Ian Grossman, FMCSA spokesman.

The agency is planning a national program for truck driver safety. The main trucking industry trade group -- the American Trucking Associations -- believes any safety plan must include drivers of all vehicles, but also favors an industry program for slowing down trucks. This includes manufacturing new trucks that can go no faster than 68 miles per hour.

Large trucks, including tractor trailers, comprise 4 percent of registered vehicles and 7 percent of vehicle miles traveled but are involved in more than 10 percent of highway deaths, NHTSA statistics show.

The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration has been under fire on two fronts in recent weeks.

Consumer and safety groups have sued a second time to block rules on trucker hours and fatigue prevention, saying the Bush administration is shortchanging driver health.

Also, senior Democrats influential on transportation matters in the House of Representatives suggest the FMCSA is adrift and facing new uncertainty with its administrator, Annette Sanderg, set to leave at the end of the month.

"With more than 5,000 people killed and 100,000 injured in truck-related crashes each year, we strongly urge that you refocus the agency on its core mission of 'safety as the highest priority,"' James Oberstar of Minnesota and Peter DeFazio of Oregon wrote in a letter to Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta last month.