With about 5,000 fatal tractor trailer accidents occurring every year – over 100 of those in Virginia alone – you might be wondering what causes these accidents. 

Large trucks are more likely to be involved in fatal multi-vehicle accidents than passenger vehicles, and if they collide with a passenger vehicle, occupants of the passenger vehicle are more likely to suffer injury or death because of the enormous size difference between the two vehicles. 

Considering how deadly large truck accidents can be, advocacy groups are calling for the federal government to do more to reduce the annual number of injuries and deaths from truck accidents.

Tractor Trailer Accident Facts

When reading these facts, especially those that compare large truck statistics with those for passenger vehicles, keep in mind that large trucks account for only 3% of the registered vehicles on America’s roads.

  • About 5,000 fatal tractor trailer accidents occur each year, and about 100 of those occur in Virginia.  According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), 1 out of every 9 fatal accidents involves a tractor trailer.
  • Of those killed in a tractor trailer accident, 76% were occupants of another vehicle, 9% were non-occupants, and 15% were occupants of the tractor trailer.  This just goes to show that in a large truck accident, the victim is usually the driver of the smaller vehicle.
  • The fatality rate for tractor trailer accidents is nearly double that of passenger vehicles.
  • Over 440,000 accidents occur each year as a result of large truck accidents.
  • In about half of all fatal truck accidents, both the truck and the other vehicle were traveling in a straight line – no turns or curves in the road influenced the accident.
  • Most fatal truck accidents – 67% – happen during the daytime, and 61% of fatal truck accidents happen in rural areas.
  • More truck drivers than passenger car drivers involved in fatal accidents have prior speeding convictions or were previously involved in an accident.

Decoding the Statistics

The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) performed a Large Truck Crash Causation Study last year in order to better understand what causes large truck accidents.  Overall the study found that – not surprisingly – the main factors in accidents involving large trucks are fatigue, speed, and alcohol. 

However a closer look at the data reveals some interesting insights into what factors contribute to large truck accidents.


87% of trucks in the study were involved in an accident because of a problem with the driver.  This includes physical impairment (driver fell asleep, had a heart attack or seizure, etc.), inattention (driver wasn’t paying attention or was distracted), judgment (driving too fast, following too closely, etc.), and performance (panic, overcompensation, poor decision).  Only 10% of trucks were involved in an accident because of a problem with the truck itself, and 3% of trucks were in an accident because of an environmental problem (i.e. road design or maintenance).

The study lists the top ten factors for trucks and truck drivers that increased the likelihood of a large truck accident:

  1. Brake problems
  2. Traffic flow interruption (congestion, previous crash)
  3. Prescription drug use
  4. Traveling too fast for conditions
  5. Unfamiliarity with roadway
  6. Roadway problems
  7. Required to stop before crash (traffic control device, crosswalk)
  8. Over-the-counter drug use
  9. Inadequate surveillance
  10. Fatigue

In addition, the study reviewed factors that contributed to accidents involving both large trucks and passenger vehicles.  The following factors were found to increase the likelihood of an accident, and are risk factors shared by both truck and passenger vehicle drivers:

  1. Interruption of the traffic flow
  2. Unfamiliarity with roadway
  3. Inadequate surveillance
  4. Driving too fast for conditions
  5. Illegal maneuver
  6. Inattention
  7. Fatigue
  8. Illness
  9. False assumption of other road user's actions
  10. Distraction by object or person inside the vehicle.

Now, while truck and passenger vehicle drivers were found to share some risk factors that contribute to the likelihood of a large truck accident, the study noted that there were several risks associated predominately with truck drivers, and others associated predominantly with passenger vehicle drivers:

  • Significant risks for truck drivers only:  following too closely, distractions outside the vehicle, and truck-specific issues (brakes, tires, jackknife, and cargo shift).
  • Significant risks for passenger vehicle drivers only:  alcohol and illegal drug use, fatigue, and illness – which revealed that passenger vehicle drivers involved in an accident are far more likely than truck drivers to suffer from adverse physical conditions.

What is being done to reduce the number of large truck crashes?

It’s great to have a lot of statistics and facts about truck accidents, but what can be done to prevent accidents from happening in the first place?  Large truck accidents have not been reduced significantly over the years, and advocacy groups are asking why.

In order to reduce the number of truck accidents on America’s roads, a press release from the Truck Safety Coalition and representatives of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety and Public Citizen was issued to call on the FMCSA to: 

  • Reject any rollback in truck safety regulations that would allow special interest exemptions to federal truck size and weight laws or the freeze on longer combination vehicles, such as triple trailer trucks.
  • Prohibit the opening of the southern border to Mexico-domiciled trucks until all federal safety requirements have been met.
  • Mandate the use of electronic on-board recorders for every truck and bus to improve safety enforcement and prevent cheating on driver hours of service rules.
  • Deny any special interest exemptions to the federal hours-of-service rule affecting truck and bus drivers; and,
  • Require speed governors on all trucks to regulate how fast a truck can travel.

The Truck Safety Coalition compares the number of annual truck accident deaths in the United States to the equivalent of 26 major airline crashes each year.  It remains to be seen if accident and death rates from truck accidents will be any better for 2007, when the results are released by the NHTSA.

The attorneys at Dulaney, Lauer, and Thomas care about your safety on Virginia’s roads and highways. 

If you or somebody you love is unfortunate enough to be involved in a serious Virginia tractor trailer accident, our law firm wants to help. 

Please contact Dulaney, Lauer, and Thomas to discuss your case for no cost and no obligation. 

We can help you recover from the shock of a serious tractor trailer injury and make sure you receive the compensation you deserve.

Andrew Thomas
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Civil litigation attorney in Virginia and is AV Rated by Martindale-Hubbell.

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