The June 7 fatal truck crash critically injuring comedian Tracy Morgan has served as a reminder to drivers just how dangerous the nation's highways can be. It's one thing when two cars collide. Advanced construction techniques and refined safety features have made cars safer and reduced fatal injuries.
But when a car – no matter how well built – collides with a tractor trailer truck, all bets are off.
The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) reports a total of 3,514 people died in large truck crashes in 2012. Seventeen percent of these deaths were truck occupants, 67% were occupants of cars and other passenger vehicles, and 15% were pedestrians, bicyclists or motorcyclists.
The death toll from truck accidents is rising. It was 12% higher in 2012 than in 2009, when it was lower than at any year since the collection of fatal crash data began in 1975.
Perhaps that's understandable, since 2009 was in the depths of the Great Recession, when because of the economy, fewer trucks were on the road.
In the Tracy Morgan accident the truck driver was charged in the accident, accused of violating laws against driving commercial trucks without proper rest. Morgan has since sued Walmart, which owned the truck and employed the driver.
But trucking industry officials maintain that fewer than a third of truck accidents are the fault of the truck driver. They say motorists take unnecessary risks, getting too close to these behemoths or not realizing how long it takes a truck to come to a stop.
However, it can't be argued that there continue to be unsafe vehicles – and unsafe drivers behind the wheel – in the fleet of trucks and buses on the nation's highways. Just last month the U.S. Department of Transportation's Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) ordered a Minnesota bus company to immediately cease all passenger transportation operations after finding that the company was endangering the traveling public by failing to ensure the safety of its vehicles and drivers.
What motorists can do
While regulators are trying to get unsafe buses and trucks off the road, motorists still need to be wary when sharing a crowded Interstate with these much larger vehicles. There are a few things drivers can do to reduce chances of a close encounter with a tractor trailer.
The first is to remember that trucks have very large blind spots. If you can't see the driver in the truck's side mirrors, then the driver can't see you either.
That means keeping a safe distance when trailing a rig. The trucking industry recommends a distance of 20 car lengths, a space that is hardly every observed.
In fact, in recent years many motorists have purposefully tailgated large trucks in a misguided attempt to save fuel. The theory is that by staying on a truck's tail, the wind's “draft” exerts a pull on the trailing car, requiring it to use less fuel.
What these drivers don't take into account is that if the truck suddenly slows it is much harder to avoid rear-ending it, which is much more deadly than rear-ending another car.
When approaching the rear of a truck, keep a safe distance until you are able to quickly get ahead of it and achieve a safe distance before pulling back over in front of the truck. Just as you shouldn't tailgate a truck, you certainly don't want the truck tailgating you.
Remember that trucks are heavier and take longer to make a complete stop, so avoid cutting quickly in front of them. A fully loaded tractor-trailer takes a football field and both end zones to come to a complete stop when driving at highway speeds.
Then, there's always the chance that the truck you are sharing the road with has a safety issue that could jeopardize other drivers. Something could always fall from the truck or it could lose tire tread.
On busy Interstate highways, it's impossible to avoid tractor-trailer trucks. But the savvy driver will try to spend as little time close to them as possible.