The number of trucks and buses on U.S. highways doubled in less than 20 years, from 5.8 million in 1975 to nearly 11.8 million in 2014.

When two fatal truck accidents, just an hour apart, claimed the lives of three Coloradans recently, it was a shocking reminder of the hazards of heavy trucks sharing the road with personal vehicles.

Statistics, though, show that here, and across the United States, casualty rates declined or at least remained steady, despite an increasing number of big rigs on the road. Improved federal regulations may be a factor.

On March 10, 2017, a head-on crash between a tractor-trailer and a pickup truck on U.S. 36 near Byers killed two people, Jesse Paul of The Denver Post reported. Later that morning, a water delivery truck crashed into a PT Cruiser at a Pueblo intersection. Police said the driver of a water truck didn’t see a stop sign and ran it, hitting the smaller vehicle, KKTV reported.

Numbers Are Downshifting

Statistics from the U.S. Department of Transportation show that between 2004 and 2014, the number of fatal accidents involving large trucks in Colorado decreased slightly. In 2004, 69 people died in truck crashes. The numbers fluctuated, reaching a high of 82 deaths in 2007, before falling to 58 in 2013 and 63 in 2014. The federal agency released the statistics in March 2016. Nationwide, 4,234 died in crashes with large trucks in 2014, the agency reported.

Increased Safety

National statistics dating back 40 years, in fact, tell an amazing story of increasing safety. Across the United States in 1974, 4,483 people died from crashes involving large trucks, a number that increased to a peak of 6,702 in 1979. The numbers began tapering and for years hovered in the 5,000 range, with a noticeable dip in 1992, when trucking deaths hit 4,462.

The death rate shifted dramatically in the first decade of the new millennium, when federal regulations began requiring truck drivers to get more sleep. By 2009, the fatalities hit the 3,000 range and didn’t climb out through 2014, the latest trucking statistics available.

While the number of fatalities was plummeting, the number of trucks and buses on U.S. highways was doubling, from 5.8 million in 1975 to nearly 11.8 million in 2014. The numbers show 30.4 deaths per million U.S. truck miles in 1975, falling to only 12.1 deaths per million miles in 2014.

A Good Night’s Sleep

Drivers can thank the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration for a good night’s sleep and fewer marathon driving shifts. In 2005, the FMCSA changed its rules, prohibiting drivers from taking mere catnaps in their sleeper compartments between driving stints. Regulations require drivers to take a full eight hours of rest plus two hours of down time.

Truck drivers were sent to bed more directly in 2011, when the federal agency began phasing in rules to limit drivers’ work weeks to 70 hours. The rules targeted only about 15 percent of truckers: those driving the longest hauls across the country.

Working long daily and weekly hours on a continuing basis is associated with chronic fatigue, a high risk of crashes, and a number of serious chronic health conditions in drivers, FCSA said. It predicted that its new safety regulations would save 19 lives and prevent approximately 1,400 crashes and 560 injuries each year.

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