June 6, 2023

Feds report more truck drivers dying from not using seat belts


WASHINGTON — The lack of seat belt use among truck drivers is grabbing the attention of federal regulators concerned about the latest fatality data.

“One thing we’re seeing in trucking and other sectors is that seat belt usage is going down,” said Polly Trottenberg, deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of Transportation, speaking at a DOT safety forum last week. “And when we look at the fatality numbers they are extraordinarily disproportionately people who are unbelted.”

In 2021, 64% of truck drivers killed in crashes of large trucks were not wearing a seat belt, according to the latest data compiled by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. That compares with 59% in 2019 and 44% in 2020.

Data on deaths of large-truck occupants (drivers or passengers) reveals that 42.6% were wearing a seat belt. Of those who were not, nearly 75% were totally ejected from the truck.

“This is a trend that we’re really focusing on, because it’s pretty clear the numbers are increasing,” said Jessica Powell, a Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration statistician who presented the data on Tuesday during a meeting of FMCSA’s Motor Carrier Safety Advisory Committee (MCSAC).

Large truck driver Fatalities, 2017-2021

Number of fatal crashesNumber of driver fatalitiesNumber not wearing seatbelt % of driver fatalities not wearing seatbelt
Source: NHTSA, Fatality Analysis Reporting System

MCSAC’s two-day agenda includes finalizing a three-year strategic plan for the agency, to be approved later this year after being reviewed by FMCSA Administrator Robin Hutcheson.

Adrienne Gildea, deputy executive director of the Commercial Vehicle Safety Alliance and vice chair of the committee, considers the problem serious enough to be reflected in FMCSA’s strategic plan.

“I think FMCSA should focus across their goals on that issue in particular, including outreach and education,” Gildea said during the meeting.

“They should look more into who these drivers are — younger drivers, older drivers, in certain sectors or regions? Digging into that and understanding who is choosing not to use a safety belt is important and an area where once FMCSA has that information there’s a lot of ways it can be used to improve seat belt use and reduce those fatalities.”

Powell also emphasized that the number of fatal crashes involving large trucks — 5,199 in 2021 — was up 16% from 2020. At the same time, large-truck occupant fatalities jumped 23% to 1,019 in 2021, breaking the 1,000 mark for the first time since at least 2005.

Pedestrian and work-zone deaths in crashes involving large trucks are also on the rise, according to NHTSA data.

Speeding was the most frequent truck driver-related factor in 2021, according to NHTSA, cited in 7% of the cases. This includes exceeding the speed limit or driving too fast for conditions. “However, this is such an underreported data element, it’s not a true representation of what’s actually happening on the road,” Powell said, “but it is our best estimate.”

Click for more FreightWaves articles by John Gallagher.

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