Thursday, August 5, 2010

The research is there

One of the first things I learned at Land Line was to avoid preaching sermons to the choir.

Yes, our readers are mostly truck drivers, who are prone to being bashed by mass media and understood by some as outlaw characters from “Smokey and the Bandit.”

Our readers, however, demand more than articles telling them that they’re good enough, smart enough, and doggone it, people like them.

With that in mind, occasionally we have to point out glaring examples of truckers being blamed.

I’m going to address the big picture of truck crashes, and car-truck crash fatalities. I’ve seen one too many news headlines this week calling out truckers for being out of shape, and I’ve heard FMCSA medical staff continue to beat the drum for more medical regulations – something they justify as a safety issue.

Despite a steady diet of tabloid style headlines decrying “tired truckers,” the public hasn’t been told some very basic facts about drowsiness among commercial drivers.

Without going deep into the weeds, let’s go with a few basics. Number one: If a truck and car crash into one another, it is far more likely to be the car driver’s fault.

Previous U.S. studies have shown that in at least 75 percent of fatalities involving cars and trucks, the truck driver is not at fault. The data continue to confirm that despite driving far larger vehicles with 20 to 40 times the weight of small cars, and while driving far more miles annually, truck drivers are responsible for far fewer wrecks and fatalities than other drivers.

A recently released European Union study showed that human factors were a main cause in 85 percent of the 624 truck wrecks they studied, though “only 25 percent are caused by the truck driver.”

The EU study stated that to help decrease truck wrecks, governments should add awareness campaigns on speeding and safe distances between vehicles, and revised driving school regulations to help car drivers understand truck maneuvers.

The study also recommended that governments increase enforcement, particularly regarding speeds, and that media “report objectively and based on facts and figures on who is causing the accident.”

This is important, because although some FMCSA medical staffers have gone out of their way to link drivers with issues like sleep apnea, these same individuals haven’t acknowledged the cause of the majority of truck-car wrecks.

Instead, FMCSA has acknowledged the agency needs more research on the issue.

Here is what we do know from research on this topic.

Fatigue is one of four factors that combined – combined – are responsible for 5 percent of fatal wrecks between cars and trucks. That’s according to a 2002 study from AAA.

Among the EU study’s 624 wrecks, it found fatigue was the main cause in only 6 percent of the wrecks.

So, of the 4,000 annual deaths tied to commercial vehicles (including buses, delivery vehicles, and farm equipment), the vast majority aren’t the fault of the commercial vehicle driver. That figure, by the way, has continued to drop in recent years – and is far below the 40,000 to 200,000 annual deaths caused by medical physician errors.

When a motorcyclist or pickup driver speeds into the back of a trailer and dies, that fatality is counted among the 4,000 annual deaths tied to commercial vehicles.

It’s true that more truck drivers should watch their weight, exercise more and visit the doctor more often. That’s for their sake, but it should mean more to them and their families and less to the safety argument than some would have you believe.

A basic contradiction

Results from the EU study appear to fly in the face of arguments made at medical conferences in which a rapidly growing industry of sleep medicine professionals and others have claimed tired truckers are a safety risk.

A quick update: FMCSA medical staff employees have mentioned tightened apnea restrictions for truckers as part of an upper respiratory rule, though such a rule has yet to be proposed.

FMCSA’s researcher, however, has admitted that the presence and severity of sleep apnea in drivers “are not good predictors of motor vehicle crash involvement.”

At a May sleep apnea conference in Baltimore, FMCSA Administrator Anne Ferro said any new requirements for CDL holders and apnea should be “affordable and implementable.”