Truck Accidents on the Rise
Commuters traveling along Loop 820 in North Richland Hills on the morning of Dec. 22 couldn’t just see the flames; they could feel the heat of the fire that scorched a stretch of expressway alongside the highway’s westbound lanes, witnesses told KXAS-TV.
A collision between a fuel tanker and a truck hauling animal waste erupted in a raging blaze that burned for more than three hours and turned both vehicles into charred shells.
One driver died, and two others were injured.
Since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, incidents like this — fatal crashes involving commercial vehicles — have spiked.
And, it’s not happening in a vacuum.
Deadly truck accidents are rising steadily in the context of a nationwide road safety problem.
Texas traffic experts are working to make road travel safer, but the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex’s booming growth and crisis in the trucking industry are complicating their mission.
VIRAL CRASH EPIDEMIC
When overall traffic plummeted at the onset of the pandemic, local transit experts like Michael Morris expected road safety to improve.
“We were making steady improvements previous to COVID, and then when we hit March 2020, somewhat to our surprise, the numbers turned around,” said Morris, director of transportation at the North Central Texas Council of Governments.
Although miles traveled nationwide dropped 13.2% in 2020 compared to 2019, traffic accident fatalities jumped 7.2% in 2020 from the previous year, according to the National Highway Safety Administration. In the first three months of 2021, 8,730 people died in traffic crashes, an increase of 10.5% from the same period in 2020, the AP reported.
In the 12 counties encompassing Dallas-Fort Worth — Collin, Dallas, Denton, Ellis, Hood, Hunt, Johnson, Kaufman, Parker, Rockwall, Tarrant and Wise counties — the number of fatal crashes involving a commercial vehicle shot up in 2020 and steadily increased into 2021.
The region saw 78 fatal crashes involving a commercial vehicle in 2019. In 2020, that number jumped to 90. Without accounting for December’s total, 2021’s number is already 92.
With more space on the road at the beginning of the pandemic, people drove faster and more recklessly.
“Higher speeds mean a greater chance of fatality versus accident,” Morris said. “We saw more aggressive driving on the part of cars. They could weave around [large trucks].”
Traffic has returned to and surpassed pre-pandemic levels in Texas, reports Arity, which tracks driver behavior, but while congestion has returned, reckless behavior hasn’t subsided.
“It seems like there is a lot more anger out on the road,” said Lance Simmons, the Texas Department of Transportation’s director of engineering and safety operations.
“And, this is me, just based on what I’m seeing, but it sure seems like we see more folks taking a lot more risks this day and time,” he said. “We just need to share the results of what some of that risky driving could lead to.”
The Texas Department of Public Safety has a team dedicated to commercial vehicle safety and enforcement. But not all roadways are conducive to enforcement, said Sgt. Josue De La Cerda.
For example, while drivers often speed on expressways, that activity is difficult to enforce, because there is no place for officers to safely conduct a traffic stop, he said.
Unique to Texas cities, “Growth is one of our challenges,” Simmons said.
With more people comes more traffic and construction.
“Staying ahead of the population growth in Texas is indeed a challenge,” Simmons said. “And any time we struggle to stay ahead of that growth, we run into both congestion and safety issues.”
‘A GUMBO OF DISASTERS’
When truck drivers regularly work their maximum hours per week, something called “road hypnosis” starts to set in.
Following endless yellow road lines, watching cars pass and listening to the constant hum of the truck engine “gives you this almost trance-like state,” said Carlos Mendez, a former truck driver and organizer with Teamsters Local 745 in Dallas.
The trucking industry, a critical link in the country’s brittle supply chain, is suffering from an unprecedented driver shortage — estimated at 80,000 in October — and, as a result, drivers are regularly pushed to their limits, Mendez said.
Federal regulation does not permit drivers to be on duty more than 60 hours in a period of seven consecutive days or drive for more than 11 hours in a shift. Drivers are also required to take breaks.
Due to the pressure the industry is under, there are incentives to cut corners or fudge numbers, Mendez explained.
“It’s a dispatcher telling you, ‘If you really want to turn $3,000 this month, here’s what you need to do. You need to turn here, turn here, turn here. Maybe shave off a little time on your rest,’” Mendez said. “They lure you with that carrot in front of you.”
Like in the airline industry, the pandemic pushed older experienced drivers to retire.
Even prior to the pandemic, retirement accounted for 54% of the driver shortage, according to a 2019 report from American Trucking Associations
As a result, “It’s possible your average remaining truck driver is not the same caliber,” said Morris.
Driving quality also suffers from what’s called “hotshot” hauling, Mendez said.
These operations promise premium payments for quick deliveries of smaller, time-sensitive loads. They hire young drivers out of school and often guarantee a pass on the CDL test, Mendez said.
“You can be struggling. You really don’t have the experience to be in the rig. I think that’s the biggest danger that we’re seeing now,” he said. “It’s a gumbo of disasters waiting to happen.”
In the last three months, a group of Texas safety advocates and transit experts — including Lance Simmons and Michael Morris — started meeting regularly to address road safety more comprehensively.
The TxDOT MPO Safety Task Force partners state-level and regional perspectives to come up with more efficient solutions to safety issues, which range from infrastructure fixes to education campaigns.
First, experts study crashes.
“Where we have hotspots, we solve with engineering,” Morris said.
Simmons explained he also is working to improve rest stops for commercial truckers to ensure there is space for drivers to rest.
The group is also spearheading public education campaigns to share with drivers the potential consequences of risk driving and remind them how to share the road with commercial vehicles.
The task force’s work is taking place in the context of the federal government attempting to shore up the trucking industry amid pandemic-spurred supply chain issues.
The Biden Administration earlier this month unveiled its “Trucking Action Plan,” which aims to strengthen the trucking industry by recruiting veterans to drive, removing obstacles to getting a commercial driver’s license and accelerating the creation of driving apprenticeships.
“Most of these men and women that drive these trucks, they have family to provide for,” Mendez said. “They’re making the sacrifice to be on the road and doing these long hauls, because the money is promised.
“And there’s money to be made. But you have to be rolling.”
Jess Hardin: @jesslhardin
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