Commercial vehicle crashes and fatalities have increased in Ohio in the past four years as the economy has improved and logistic centers that need thousands of semi-trucks have been added in the Springfield-Dayton region, an investigation by this newspaper found.
“Big factors in any crashes really are the economy and how many trucks and cars are on the road,” said Jim Feddern, the motor carrier enforcement manager for the Ohio State Highway Patrol.
“When the economy is somewhat up … there is more freight moving, more cars on the road,” he said.
Truck operators and owners say safety has greatly improved, decreasing the number of crashes from 10 to 20 years ago and statistics point to car drivers increasingly being blamed for the wrecks.
But safety advocates say more needs to be done to protect drivers from dangerous conditions caused by a larger mix of large trucks and other vehicles on roadways.
“The more people can be out there talking about truck safety, the better,” said Michael Leizerman, a Toledo personal injury attorney with E.J. Leizerman & Associates. “I have just sat with too many families where people have been killed.”
Ohio crashes increase, down nationally
The number of Ohio crashes involving commercial vehicles, which include trucks and buses, rose from more than 19,700 in 2012 to more than 22,400 in 2015, a 13 percent increase, according to the state patrol.
Fatalities involving commercial vehicles in Oho increased from 162 to 181, a 12 percent increase, during the same time period.
In Clark County, more than 1,170 commercial vehicle crashes occurred between 2012 and Sept. 14 of this year, including four fatal accidents.
There have been more than 170 commercial vehicle crashes so far this year, which is typical for the area, said Lt. Brian Aller, commander of the Springfield Post of the state patrol.
The recent increase of the speed limit to 70 miles per hour for all vehicles on Interstate 70 may be one of the reasons commercial vehicle safety has improved locally, Aller said. Clark County is down 10 fatalities this year compared to last year at this time, he said.
“They’re all going the same speed,” Aller said. “Before we had trucks doing 55 and cars doing 65.”
Nationally, there were about 3,600 fatal crashes involving large trucks or buses in 2014, the most recent year for which data is available, down slightly from about 3,800 the previous year, according to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration. In 2012, there were more than 3,700.
That’s down from about 4,000 such crashes in 1975, the first year for which that number was tracked, according to the administration. And it’s well down from a high of more than 6,000 fatal crashes in 1979.
And this downward trend has occurred as the number of registered large trucks and buses rose dramatically, essentially doubling from 5.8 million in 1975 to 11.7 million in 2014.
Hauling 28,000 pounds at 65 mph
Drivers tailgate Joe Pryor’s semi-truck on Ohio 49, cut him off when changing lanes, don’t signal and hang out in his blind spot – seemingly all at once.
The reckless driving is a daily experience on Miami Valley’s busy roadways for the Jet Express truck driver.
On a typical day, Pryor drives his truck from the Dayton Origin Distribution Center in Clayton, where his trailer will be filled with parts for the DMAX truck engine plant in Moraine.
On the way from the distribution center, smaller cars swarm Pryor’s truck. They follow too closely and edge in front of him without signaling or allowing enough room.
“A lot of them, they’ll cut in front of you, and then they’ll slow down,” Pryor said with a chuckle.
The key, he said, is patience.
“You’ve just got to take it slow,” said the 14-year Jet Express driver and retired Pittsburgh firefighter. “You’ve got to be calm, cool and collected. That’s part of your job.”
More safety regulations needed
Leizerman served as the first chairman of the American Association for Justice’s Trucking Litigation Group.
The cross-section of the semi-truck drivers against whom he brings claims are “some of the worst of the worst,” he said.
Leizerman said highway safety will get safer as companies adopt newer technologies, such as systems that can automatically apply the brakes.
Technology will answer what he sees as some of the chief problems among truckers: fatigue and distraction. He wants exploration of self-driving trucks and dedicated lanes for trucks.
But he sees what he thinks is an easing of regulations. While drivers were expected to stop driving after 10 hours of service, that was raised to 11 hours, he said.
“What I would like to see is some more enforcement,” Leizerman said.
When cars are at fault
According to a University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute study released in 2013 — a study examining 8,309 fatal car-truck crashes found car drivers were at fault in 81 percent of crashes versus 27 percent of truck drivers
Cars were the encroaching vehicle in 89 percent of head-on crashes, 88 percent of opposite-direction sideswipes, 80 percent of rear-end crashes, and 72 percent of same-direction sideswipes – “obvious indicators of fault,” according to an American Trucking Associations summary of the study’s findings.
“Cars have a tendency to follow too close,” Feddern said. “They cut off trucks, especially in rush-hour traffic when traffic is fairly heavy.”
When it comes to safety, drivers of smaller cars have a key role to play, Feddern and others say.
“The thing to impress on people is, don’t tailgate a truck,” Feddern said. “Give them plenty of room when you’re changing lanes. Don’t hang out in those blind spots.”
‘Trucking is becoming safer’
Sean McNally, spokesman for the Arlington, Va.-based American Trucking Associations, said since the 1980 deregulation of the trucking industry, the number of fatal truck-involved crashes is down 32 percent and the number of fatal crashes per 100 million miles driven has dropped 74 percent.
McNally said the industry has done a better job at training and invested about $9.5 billion annually in new equipment, training, maintenance and repair, and other safety measures.
Brad Bradley, director of safety for Home Run Trucking Inc., of Xenia, said safety is an ongoing focus. It’s involves regular training, including mandatory training, videos, testing, inspections of vehicles by independent inspectors and more.
Drivers are expected to check for items as minute as a license plate light. Something as small as that will give inspectors a reason to pull a driver over, he said.
“There’s not a load out there that’s more important than human life,” Bradley said.
The Springfield News-Sun examined decades of highway traffic data for this story. Our investigation shows wrecks involving commercial vehicles have increased as more trucks added to roadways.
By the numbers
1,172: Large truck-involved crashes in Clark County since 2012.
245: Large truck-involved crashes in Champaign County since 2012.
8: The total number of large truck-involved fatal crashes in Clark and Champaign counties since 2012.
Source: The Ohio State Highway Patrol