Truck Safety:

Motor Carriers Office Hampered by Limited Information on Causes of Crashes and Other Data Problems

RCED-99-182: Published: Jun 29, 1999. Publicly Released: Jun 29, 1999.

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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO examined the effectiveness of the Office of Motor Carrier and Highway Safety (OMCHS) in improving the safety of large trucks, focusing on: (1) recent trends in the number of crashes involving large trucks; (2) the factors the contribute to such crashes; and (3) OMCHS' activities to improve truck safety.

GAO noted that: (1) of the more than 42,000 people who died on the nation's highways in 1997, about 5,400 died in crashes involving large trucks; (2) this figure represents a 20-percent increase from 1992, reversing a trend of decreasing truck fatalities from 1988 through 1992; (3) in addition, from 1992 through 1997, the fatality rate--the number of fatalities per 100 million miles travelled by large trucks--has remained fairly constant at about 2.9 deaths per 100 million miles travelled after decreasing by 27 percent between 1988 and 1992; (4) the recent increases in fatalities reflect, in part, a 25-percent increase in the annual number of miles travelled by large trucks since 1992; (5) if this trend of increasing truck travel continues, the number of fatalities could increase to more than 5,800 in 1999; (6) while trucks are involved in fewer crashes per mile travelled than passenger vehicles, crashes involving trucks are more likely to result in fatalities; (7) while no reliable nationwide data exist on the causes of crashes involving large trucks, some data exist on the extent to which factors such as drivers' behavior, vehicles' mechanical condition, the roadway, and the environment may contribute to these crashes; (8) to better tailor its activities to address the factors that are most likely to contribute to truck crashes, OMCHS plans to design and fund a study to obtain more detailed information on such factors; (9) because the factors that contribute to crashes do not vary significantly from year to year, the results of the study are estimated to be relevant for about 15 years; (10) OMCHS has undertaken a number of activities and plans to undertake others to improve truck safety; (11) these actions include identifying high-risk carriers that should receive reviews of their compliance with safety regulations, educating passenger vehicle drivers about how to share the road with large trucks, and developing technology to alert truck drivers of the onset of drowsiness; and (12) while these activities address what are considered to be significant contributing factors to truck crashes, OMCHS' effectiveness is limited by: (a) long-standing data problems; (b) the length of time it takes to complete activities; and (c) the unknown effect of its campaign to educate passenger vehicle drivers about the limitations of large trucks.

Recommendation for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Status as of July 26, 2007: FMCSA has begun to prioritize its safety activities according to their potential for reducing the number of crashes and deaths. For example, based on the results of its study on the causes of large truck crashes indicating that truck driver and car driver factors (such as fatigue, inattention, and misjudgment) are much more likely than vehicle factors (such as defective brakes and worn tires) to be the critical reason for crashes involving a truck and a car, FMCSA has increased its focus on drivers. For example, FMCSA shifted the focus of some of its inspections from the truck to the driver, and has called on states to institute "driver inspection strike forces" in high-crash corridors. FMCSA is also investigating ways to use available data to identify high-risk drivers and take appropriate actions against them. FMCSA plans to conduct additional analyses of data from the study of crash causes over the next several years, and, depending on the results, it may make additional refinements to its enforcement programs.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Transportation should prioritize the activities in OMCHS' safety action plan according to their potential for reducing the number of crashes and deaths and, to ensure that the activities are completed in a timely manner, only undertake those that the Office is reasonably sure it can complete within available budgetary and human resources.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation


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