oversight

Truck Safety: Motor Carriers Office's Activities to Reduce Fatalities Are Likely to Have Little Short-term Effect

Published by the Government Accountability Office on 1999-02-23.

Below is a raw (and likely hideous) rendition of the original report. (PDF)

                    United States General Accounting Office

GAO                 Testimony
                    Before the Subcommittee on Transportation and Related
                    Agencies, Committee on Appropriations, House of
                    Representatives


For Release
on Delivery
Expected at
                    TRUCK SAFETY
10 a.m. EST
Tuesday
February 23, 1999
                    Motor Carriers Office’s
                    Activities to Reduce
                    Fatalities Are Likely to Have
                    Little Short-term Effect
                    Statement of Phyllis F. Scheinberg,
                    Associate Director, Transportation Issues,
                    Resources, Community, and Economic
                    Development Division




GAO/T-RCED-99-89
Mr. Chairman and Members of the Subcommittee:

I am here today to discuss the safety of large commercial trucks on our
nation’s highways. My testimony presents preliminary information based
on our ongoing work for this Subcommittee on the effectiveness of the
Federal Highway Administration’s Office of Motor Carrier and Highway
Safety (OMCHS) in improving the safety of large trucks (those trucks with a
gross vehicle weight of 10,000 pounds or more). Specifically, I will discuss
(1) trends in crashes involving large trucks, (2) factors that contribute to
such crashes, and (3) OMCHS’ activities to improve the safety of large
trucks.

In summary, of the nearly 42,000 people who died on our nation’s
highways in 1997, about 5,400 died from crashes involving large trucks.
This represents a 20 percent increase from 1992. At the same time, the
annual number of miles traveled by large trucks increased by a similar
proportion. If this trend of increasing truck travel continues, the number
of fatalities could increase to 5,800 in 1999 and to more than 6,000 in 2000.
While trucks are involved in fewer crashes per mile traveled than are cars,
crashes involving trucks are more likely to result in a fatality. In 1997,
98 percent of the fatalities from crashes between trucks and cars were
occupants of the car.

Although no definitive information on the causes of crashes involving
large trucks exists, several factors contribute to these crashes. These
contributing factors include errors on the part of car and truck drivers,
truck driver fatigue, and vehicle defects. Of these factors, errors on the
part of car drivers are cited most frequently as contributing to crashes
involving large trucks. Specifically, errors by car drivers were reported in
80 percent of the crashes, while truck driver errors were reported in
28 percent of the crashes.

While many factors outside OMCHS’ authority—such as the use of safety
belts by car occupants and states’ actions—influence the number of
fatalities that result from crashes involving large trucks, the Federal
Highway Administration has established a goal for 1999 of reducing these
fatalities. Its goal is to reduce the number of fatalities to below the 1996
level of 5,126—substantially less than the projected figure of 5,800. OMCHS
has undertaken a number of activities intended to achieve this goal, such
as identifying high-risk carriers for safety improvements and educating car
drivers about how to share the road with large trucks. However, OMCHS is
unlikely to reach the goal because (1) its initiative to target high-risk



Page 1                                                       GAO/T-RCED-99-89
                                        carriers for safety improvements depends on data that are not complete,
                                        accurate, or timely; (2) several activities will not be completed before the
                                        end of 1999; and (3) the effectiveness of OMCHS’ educational campaign to
                                        improve car drivers’ behavior is unknown.


                                        The annual number of fatalities from crashes involving large trucks
Fatalities From Large                   increased 20 percent from 4,462 in 1992 to 5,355 in 1997 (see fig. 1).1 This
Truck Crashes Are                       result reversed a trend of decreasing truck fatalities in the previous 5-year
Increasing, While                       period, 1988-92. Also during the 1992-97 period, the fatality rate—the
                                        number of fatalities per 100 million miles traveled by large trucks—has
Fatalities Per Mile                     remained fairly constant at about 2.9 after decreasing by 27 percent
Traveled Have                           between 1988 and 1992.
Leveled Off
Figure 1: Fatalities From Large Truck
Crashes and Fatality Rate, 1988-1997




                                        Sources: National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and Federal Highway Administration.




                                        The recent increases in annual fatalities reflect in part increases in truck
                                        travel: the number of miles traveled increased by 25 percent from 1992 to

                                        1
                                         The number of fatalities is from the Fatality Analysis Reporting System, which is considered a reliable
                                        data source for all fatal crashes, including fatal truck crashes. The reporting system is maintained by
                                        the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.



                                        Page 2                                                                            GAO/T-RCED-99-89
                                       1997. If truck travel continues to increase at this rate, and nothing is done
                                       to reduce the fatality rate, the annual number of fatalities could increase to
                                       5,800 in 1999 and to more than 6,000 in 2000 (see fig. 2).


Figure 2: Actual and Projected
Fatalities From Large Truck Crashes,
1988-2000




                                       Sources: National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and Federal Highway Administration for
                                       1988-1997; GAO’s estimate for 1998-2000.




                                       While we are concerned that the number of fatalities from crashes
                                       involving large trucks could increase in the next few years, only about 1
                                       percent of all truck crashes reported to police in 1997 resulted in a fatality.
                                       About 99 percent resulted in injuries or property damage only. From 1988
                                       through 1997, the number of people injured each year increased overall
                                       from 130,000 to 133,000. During the same period, the number of injuries
                                       per 100 million miles traveled fell from 92 to 69. In addition, the annual
                                       number of crashes involving large trucks that resulted in property damage
                                       only increased from 291,000 to 329,000 while the number of these crashes
                                       per 100 million miles traveled decreased from 206 to 172.




                                       Page 3                                                                        GAO/T-RCED-99-89
                                       For each mile that they traveled between 1988-97, large trucks were
                                       involved in fewer total crashes than cars were.2 However, large trucks
                                       were involved in a greater number of fatal crashes per mile traveled (see
                                       fig. 3). The higher fatal crash rate for large trucks is not surprising,
                                       considering the difference in weight between large trucks and cars. When
                                       there is such a mismatch in weight between the vehicles involved in a
                                       crash, the lighter one and its occupants tend to suffer more damage. In
                                       fatal crashes between large trucks and cars in 1997, 98 percent of the
                                       fatalities were occupants of the car.


Figure 3: Comparison of Fatal Crash
Rates for Large Trucks and for Cars,
1988-1997




                                       Note: Rates for both categories include crashes between trucks and cars.

                                       Sources: National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and Federal Highway Administration.




                                       2
                                        For the purpose of this testimony, car is defined as all passenger vehicles, including cars, pickup
                                       trucks, sport utility vehicles, and vans under 10,001 pounds gross vehicle weight rating.



                                       Page 4                                                                             GAO/T-RCED-99-89
                         While no definitive information on the causes of fatal crashes exists, there
Drivers and              is information on factors that may contribute to these crashes.3 Data from
Mechanical Failures      the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s Fatality Analysis
Are Contributing         Reporting System show that errors on the part of car drivers have been
                         cited more frequently as contributing factors to crashes between large
Factors to Fatal Truck   trucks and cars. In fatal crashes, police report driver errors or other
Crashes                  factors related to a driver’s behavior that contributed to the crash. In
                         98 percent of the fatal crashes between large trucks and cars in 1997,
                         driver factors were recorded for one or both drivers. Errors by car drivers
                         were reported in 80 percent of the crashes, while errors by truck drivers
                         were reported in 28 percent of the crashes. The inference that car drivers
                         were more often “at fault” than truck drivers has been disputed by safety
                         groups. These groups maintain that because far more truck drivers than
                         car drivers survive fatal crashes between large trucks and cars, more truck
                         drivers have the opportunity to tell the officer at the crash scene their
                         version of how the crash occurred. However, a recent study found that in
                         fatal crashes in 1994 and 1995 in which both the truck driver and the car
                         driver survived, car driver errors were cited in 74 percent of the crashes
                         compared to 35 percent for truck driver errors.4 This finding lends some
                         support to the hypothesis that, compared to truck drivers, car drivers
                         contribute more to fatal crashes between large trucks and cars.

                         One driver factor—truck driver fatigue—was identified as the number one
                         issue affecting the safety of motor carriers during a 1995 safety meeting of
                         representatives from government, trucking associations, and safety
                         interest groups. When truck driver fatigue contributes to truck crashes,
                         truck drivers are killed more often than someone outside the truck. From
                         1992 through 1997, fatigue was cited by police officers for 11 percent of
                         truck drivers in crashes that were fatal to the truck occupant(s) only.5 In
                         contrast, fatigue was cited for less than 1 percent of truck drivers in
                         crashes that were fatal to people besides truck occupants, such as car
                         occupants or pedestrians.

                         However, these figures may significantly underestimate the actual
                         proportion of fatal truck crashes attributable to fatigue because of the


                         3
                          A contributing factor does not necessarily identify fault or the cause of a crash; rather, these factors
                         reflect the judgment of the officer at the scene and are not based on a thorough evaluation of the crash
                         in an attempt to determine the cause of the crash.
                         4
                          Daniel Blower, The Relative Contribution of Truck Drivers and Passenger Vehicle Drivers to
                         Truck-Passenger Vehicle Traffic Crashes, The University of Michigan Transportation Research
                         Institute (Ann Arbor, Mich.: 1998).
                         5
                          Truck occupants killed in crashes are almost always the truck driver.



                         Page 5                                                                             GAO/T-RCED-99-89
                         difficulty of determining the pre-crash condition of the driver after a crash
                         occurs. OMCHS estimates that truck driver fatigue is the primary factor in 15
                         to 33 percent of the crashes that are fatal to the truck occupant(s) only,
                         and 1 to 2 percent of crashes that are fatal to people besides the truck
                         occupant(s). Furthermore, the National Transportation Safety Board
                         estimates that truck driver fatigue is the probable cause of 31 percent of
                         crashes involving trucks over 26,000 pounds that are fatal to the driver.6

                         Mechanical defects, such as worn brakes or a bald tire, have also been
                         cited as a contributing factor to crashes involving large trucks. According
                         to estimates in several studies, the percentage of such crashes that are
                         attributed to mechanical failure ranges from 5 to 13 percent.7 In addition,
                         in a 1996 study, OMCHS estimated that 29 percent of all large trucks had
                         mechanical defects severe enough to warrant placing the vehicles out of
                         service.8 While we do not know whether any of these large trucks had
                         crashes as a result of their defects, they probably presented a higher crash
                         risk than large trucks without defects.

                         Other factors that may contribute to crashes or that may affect whether a
                         fatality occurs in a crash include drivers’ blood alcohol concentration and
                         use of safety belts. These measures suggest that truck drivers who are
                         involved in fatal crashes might be more safety conscious than car drivers
                         involved in such crashes. For example, in fatal crashes between large
                         trucks and cars in 1997, about 1 percent of truck drivers had blood alcohol
                         concentrations of 0.10 or above, compared to 15 percent of car drivers. In
                         addition, 75 percent of truck drivers were wearing their safety belt in fatal
                         crashes between a large truck and a car in 1997, compared to 47 percent of
                         car drivers.


                         The Federal Highway Administration has established a goal for 1999 of
OMCHS Is Not Likely      reducing the number of fatalities from crashes involving large trucks to
to Meet the 1999 Goal    fewer than 5,126—the number of fatalities that occurred in 1996. This goal
of Reducing Fatalities   is substantially below the projected figure of 5,800 for 1999 if recent trends
                         continue. OMCHS has undertaken a number of activities that it believes will

                         6
                          Fatigue, Alcohol, Other Drugs, and Medical Factors In Fatal-to-the-Driver Heavy Truck Crashes,
                         (Safety Study NTSB/SS-90/01, 1990).
                         7
                           OMC Safety Program Performance Measures, Office of Motor Carriers, Federal Highway
                         Administration, draft report (Jul. 1998). T.D. Gillespie and L.P. Kostyniuk, A Rationale For Establishing
                         the Period of Validity For CVSA Truck Inspection Decals. University of Michigan Transportation
                         Research Institute, (Ann Arbor, Mich.: Apr. 1991).
                         8
                          National Fleet Safety Survey, 1996, prepared for the Office of Motor Carriers by Star Mountain, Inc.
                         (Mar. 1997).



                         Page 6                                                                             GAO/T-RCED-99-89
                             accomplish this short-term goal.9 While these activities could have a
                             positive effect on truck safety issues over the long term if effectively
                             implemented, OMCHS is not likely to reach its goal for 1999. This is because
                             (1) its initiative to target high-risk carriers for safety improvements
                             depends on data that are not complete, accurate, or timely, (2) major
                             components of several activities will not be completed before the end of
                             1999, and (3) the effectiveness of OMCHS’ educational campaign to improve
                             car driver behavior is unknown.

                             OMCHS’  activities are just one of many factors that affect the level of truck
                             safety. OMCHS’ activities—either directly or through grants provided to
                             states—are intended to improve truck safety largely by influencing the
                             safety practices of trucking companies and the behavior of truck drivers.
                             There are other factors that affect truck safety that OMCHS does not directly
                             influence, such as the use of safety belts by car occupants, highway design
                             standards, trucks’ and cars’ handling and crashworthiness characteristics,
                             traffic congestion, local traffic laws and enforcement, and state initiatives.


Insufficient Data Limit      Each year, OMCHS and state inspectors conduct thousands of on-site
OMCHS’ Ability to Target     reviews of motor carriers’ compliance with federal safety regulations,
High-Risk Carriers and       known as compliance reviews. To identify high-risk carriers for these
                             reviews, OMCHS uses a safety status measurement system known as
States’ Ability to Develop   SafeStat. SafeStat relies heavily on data from OMCHS’ motor carrier
and Implement Safety         management information system (MCMIS) to rank motor carriers on the
Plans                        basis of four factors: (1) crashes, (2) driver factors, (3) vehicle factors, and
                             (4) safety management. The crash factor is given twice the weight of the
                             other factors because carriers that have been in crashes are considered
                             more likely to be involved in crashes in the future. Carriers that are ranked
                             in the worst 25 percent of all carriers for three or more factors or for the
                             accident factor plus one other factor are targeted for a compliance review.

                             However, SafeStat’s ability to accurately target high-risk carriers is limited
                             because state officials do not report a large percentage of crashes
                             involving large trucks to MCMIS. For 1997, OMCHS estimated that about
                             38 percent of all reportable crashes and 30 percent of the fatal crashes
                             involving large trucks were not reported to MCMIS.10 Furthermore, 10 states
                             reported fewer than 50 percent of the fatal crashes occurring within their


                             9
                              Truck fatality data for each calendar year are typically not available until 6 months after the end of the
                             year. Therefore, OMCHS will not know if it has achieved its goal for 1999 before July 2000.
                             10
                               For OMCHS purposes, a reportable crash must result in a fatality, an injury where the person injured
                             is taken to a medical facility, or one vehicle having been towed from the scene.



                             Page 7                                                                              GAO/T-RCED-99-89
borders, including four states that reported fewer than 10 percent.
Because MCMIS does not contain a record of all crashes, a carrier that has
been involved in a substantial number of crashes might go undetected by
SafeStat. According to OMCHS officials, states do not report all crashes for
several reasons. In particular, (1) states do not understand that complete
reporting would enable OMCHS to more accurately target high-risk carriers,
(2) state employees who submit crash data to MCMIS may not have
sufficient training or incentives, or (3) there may be errors in some states’
databases that are preventing the transmittal of the data. According to
OMCHS officials, an initiative to encourage states to report data for all
crashes in a consistent manner is being developed; no implementation
date has been set.

SafeStat’s ability to target high-risk carriers is also limited by out-of-date
census data in MCMIS. SafeStat uses the census data—such as the number of
trucks operated by each carrier—to normalize safety data. For example,
SafeStat checks the number of crashes reported for a carrier against the
number of trucks operated by the carrier to determine if the number of
crashes is disproportionate. However, interstate carriers are required to
file census data with OMCHS only once—when they initially go into
business. After that, the census data are updated generally only when
OMCHS or states conduct compliance reviews at the carriers’ facilities. Each
year from 1993 through 1997, these reviews were conducted for fewer than
4 percent of these carriers listed in MCMIS, whose number increased from
275,000 to more than 415,000 over the period. According to OMCHS officials,
a system to update census data annually will not be implemented for at
least 2 years.

As we reported in 1997, states have improved the timeliness of reporting
the results of the roadside inspections, compliance reviews, and crashes
that are used by SafeStat.11 However, they are still not meeting OMCHS’
reporting deadlines. OMCHS’ December 1996 guidance to states includes
deadlines to report the results of roadside inspections and compliance
reviews within 21 days, and crashes within 90 days. As shown in table 1,
states improved the timeliness of reporting data to MCMIS from fiscal year
1997 to 1998 but were missing OMCHS’ deadlines by an average of 8 to 16
days.




11
 Commercial Motor Carriers: DOT Is Shifting to Performance-Based Standards to Assess Whether
Carriers Operate Safely (GAO/RCED-98-8, Nov. 3, 1997).



Page 8                                                                      GAO/T-RCED-99-89
Table 1: Average Number of Days to
Report Results of Roadside                                                                                                 Difference
Inspections, Compliance Reviews, and                                                                                                in
Crashes to MCMIS, Fiscal Years                                                                                               FY 1998
                                                                 Average number of days to report to                              and
1996-1998                                                                    MCMIS                             Reporting    reporting
                                                                     FY 1996        FY 1997        FY 1998      deadline     deadline
                                       Roadside inspections                 49             47             37         21            16
                                       Compliance reviews                   35             41             29         21             8
                                       Crashes                            195            120            102          90            12
                                       Note: The reporting deadline was established during fiscal year 1997.

                                       Source: GAO’s analysis of OMCHS’ data.



                                       Data problems also exist at the state level. In fiscal year 1998, all states
                                       submitted performance-based safety plans to OMCHS for the first time.
                                       Under these plans, states must identify areas that need improvement, such
                                       as sections of highways where a disproportionate number of crashes
                                       involving large trucks have occurred, and develop a plan for improving
                                       those areas. In a pilot program to implement performance-based plans, 5
                                       of the 13 pilot states reported that they lacked sufficient or timely data to
                                       accurately identify areas that need improvement. OMCHS officials said that
                                       insufficient data—such as carrier size information that is used to help
                                       states focus their safety education programs for carriers—have also been a
                                       problem for some states once they have identified problem areas and are
                                       developing improvement plans.


Several OMCHS Activities               Several of OMCHS’ activities that could improve large truck
to Improve Large Truck                 safety—including revising the rule governing the number of hours that
Safety Are Not Complete                truck drivers can drive and targeting high-risk carriers through the number
                                       of citations drivers receive—will not be completed before the end of 1999.
                                       The ICC Termination Act of 1995 directed the Federal Highway
                                       Administration to modify the existing hours of service rule for commercial
                                       motor vehicles to incorporate countermeasures for reducing
                                       fatigue-related incidents, such as crashes. The act required the
                                       Administration to issue an advance notice of proposed rulemaking by
                                       March 1, 1996; this notice was issued on November 5, 1996. The act also
                                       required a proposed rule within one year after the advance notice, and a
                                       final rule within two years after that one year deadline. The Administration
                                       has not issued a proposed rule. OMCHS officials explained that revising the
                                       rule is a difficult and very contentious issue and the final rule will not be
                                       issued until 2000 or later.



                                       Page 9                                                                      GAO/T-RCED-99-89
                          In addition, OMCHS has concluded that high-risk carriers can be more
                          accurately targeted by tracking the number of citations issued to each
                          carrier’s drivers. A 1997 report prepared for the Federal Highway
                          Administration found that trucking companies with higher rates of
                          citations—for such things as overweight vehicles or moving violations—are
                          also more likely to have higher accident rates.12 OMCHS officials have stated
                          that they plan to develop software that will track the number of citations
                          drivers for each carrier receive. However, states must first agree on a
                          standard format for collecting and reporting citations, and OMCHS does not
                          yet have an estimated date for implementing its plan to use driver citations
                          as a targeting mechanism.


Effectiveness of OMCHS’   Because of the large contribution of car driver errors to fatal crashes
Activity to Improve Car   between large trucks and cars, OMCHS launched the “No-Zone” campaign
Driver Behavior Is        in 1994. (“No-Zone” is a term used to describe the areas around a truck
                          where the truck driver’s visibility is limited.) This campaign is intended to
Unknown                   reduce crashes between large trucks and cars by educating car drivers
                          about how to safely share the road with large trucks and about trucks’
                          limitations, such as reduced maneuverability, longer stopping distances,
                          and blind spots. The campaign’s public education efforts include public
                          service announcements via radio, television, and print; brochures; posters;
                          and decals on large trucks. Because car drivers between 15 and 20 years
                          old were found to be involved in a relatively high percentage of fatal
                          crashes, the “No-Zone” campaign focused a large part of its public
                          outreach on this age group.

                          The campaign has a goal of reducing fatal crashes involving large trucks
                          and cars by 10 percent over a 5-year period. However, as evidenced by the
                          overall increase in the number of fatalities since 1994, the campaign
                          apparently did not make any progress toward achieving its goal through
                          1997, the last year for which data are available. OMCHS has not determined
                          to what extent, if any, the “No-Zone” campaign has contributed to
                          changing car drivers’ behavior and reducing crashes between large trucks
                          and cars. While OMCHS plans to conduct a national telephone survey within
                          the next year to determine the level of public recognition of the
                          “No-Zone” campaign, the survey will not measure whether car drivers’
                          behavior has changed.




                          12
                           Driver/Carrier Data Relationship Project, Phase II Report, Prepared by AAMVAnet, Inc. and Keane
                          Federal Systems for the Federal Highway Administration, February 1997.



                          Page 10                                                                       GAO/T-RCED-99-89
           These findings summarize our work to date. We are continuing our review
           of the effectiveness of OMCHS for this Subcommittee. Mr. Chairman, this
           concludes my statement. I will be pleased to answer any questions that
           you or Members of the Subcommittee may have.




(348149)   Page 11                                                 GAO/T-RCED-99-89
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