Truck Safety:

Effectiveness of Motor Carriers Office Hampered by Data Problems and Slow Progress on Implementing Safety Initiatives

T-RCED-99-122: Published: Mar 17, 1999. Publicly Released: Mar 17, 1999.

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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO discussed the safety of large commercial trucks on the nation's highways, focusing on: (1) recent increases in the number of crashes involving large trucks; (2) the Federal Highway Administration's Office of Motor Carrier and Highway Safety's (OMCHS) need to better understand the factors that contribute to such crashes; and (3) OMCHS' need for better data and quicker action on implementing improvements to truck safety to be more effective.

GAO noted that: (1) of the nearly 42,000 people who died on the nation's highways in 1997 (the latest year for which data are available), about 5,400 died in crashes involving large trucks; (2) this represents a 20-percent increase from 1992; (3) at the same time, the annual number of miles travelled by large trucks increased by 25 percent; (4) if this trend of increasing truck travel continues, the number of fatalities could increase to 5,800 in 1999; (5) this figure is substantially more than the goal that the Federal Highway Administration established for 1999 of reducing fatalities from truck crashes to below the 1996 level of 5,126; (6) while trucks are involved in fewer crashes per mile travelled than are cars, crashes involving trucks are more likely to result in a fatality; (7) in 1997, 98 percent of the fatalities from crashes between trucks and cars were occupants of the car; (8) while no reliable nationwide information exists on the causes of crashes involving large trucks, one existing database does provide some indication of the extent to which factors such as driver behavior, vehicle mechanical condition, the roadway, and the environment contribute to these crashes; (9) however, the existing database includes data from only fatal truck crashes, and does not rely on a thorough investigation of the crash scene; (10) to better tailor its activities to address the factors that are most likely to contribute to truck crashes, OMCHS plans to design and fund the development of a database that contains more detailed information on these factors; (11) in addition, several states plan to collect their own data on contributing factors based on in-depth crash investigations; (12) while many actions outside OMCHS' authority influence truck safety, OMCHS had undertaken a number of activities to improve truck safety, such as identifying high-risk carriers for safety improvements and educating car drivers about how to share the road with large trucks; (13) however, the effectiveness of these activities is limited by: (a) data that are incomplete, inaccurate, or untimely; (b) the length of time it will take to complete several activities; and (c) the unknown effect of OMCHS' campaign to educate car drivers about the limitations of large trucks; (14) for example, OMCHS' effort to identify high-risk carriers for safety improvements depends in part on having complete data on the number of crashes experienced by carriers; and (15) however, OMCHS estimated that about 38 percent of all crashes and 30 percent of the fatal crashes involving large trucks were not reported to OMCHS in 1997.

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