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A truck is not always a truck in official data, FMCSA says

“The population of ‘trucks,’ therefore, now includes mobile homes, large pickups, cab chassis and various other larger vehicles, most of which are not used by motor carriers, except for short-haul pickups and deliveries,” the final rule said.

By Lyndon Finney
The Trucker Staff

12/28/2011

WASHINGTON — The argument by the American Trucking Associations and others opposed to changing the current Hours of Service rules that the recent recession could not explain the decline in fatality rates because truck VMT actually increased during that period is an “artifact” of a change in the definition of truck used by the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) in estimating vehicle miles traveled (VMT), the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration said in the just released final rule on Hours of Service.

The FMCSA noted in the final rule that economic conditions do play a part in the number of crashes and that the large decrease in truck-related fatality rates from 2007 to 2009 is not unprecedented.

Similar year-to-year percentage decreases in fatal crash rates occurred in 1980, 1982, 1991, 1992 and other periods of recession, the FMCSA said.

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The ATA had argued that the recent recession could not explain the decline in fatality rates because VMT actually increased despite the recession.

However, in the final rule, the FMCSA noted that in estimating the number of trucks, FHWA had recently defined that term to mean any vehicle other than a bus with a gross vehicle weight rating greater than 10,000 pounds, the FMCSA said.

“The population of ‘trucks,’ therefore, now includes mobile homes, large pickups, cab chassis and various other larger vehicles, most of which are not used by motor carriers, except for short-haul pickups and deliveries,” the final rule said. “The changed definition increased the number of combination trucks by 17 percent and the number of single-unit trucks by about 22 percent for 2008. The change increased 2008 VMT for combination trucks by about 28 percent and VMT for single-unit trucks by about 50 percent.”

The FHWA revised VMT estimates for previous years to reflect the new methodology and allow year-to-year comparisons, and these revised VMT numbers show that combination truck VMT peaked in 2007, fell slightly in 2008 and fell sharply in 2009.

 “This pattern obviously reflects the decline in demand for transportation associated with the recent recession,” the final rule said, adding that the drops in VMT are consistent with other data that reflect VMT for trucks.

“Diesel fuel sales for over-the-road-vehicles, which are primarily for trucks, dropped 14 percent from 2007 to 2009, according to data from the Energy Information Administration,” the final rule said. “The Census Bureau’s Annual Survey of the Service sector indicated that the trucking industry revenues dropped by about 19 percent from 2008 to 2009 and VMT for for-hire carriers by 15 percent. ATA’s own trucking activity index (year 2000=100) lists the mileage index for truckload carriers in December 2003 as 100.4 seasonally adjusted; the index fell slightly (less than 10 percent) until the middle of 2008 when it began to fall sharply, reaching a low point of 71.3 in April 2009.”

(The not seasonally adjusted tonnage index, which represents the change in tonnage actually hauled by the fleets before any seasonal adjustment, equaled 115.3 in November 2011).

The final rule noted that safety advocates, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), and another commenter pointed out that the crash rates began falling well before 2004 and that the passenger vehicle fatality rate has fallen faster than the truck fatality rate in recent years.

IIHS stated that there was no apparent change in the long-term trend coincident with the 2003 rule change, the final rule said, adding that IIHS also noted that there had been a general downward trend in CMV driver deaths, but that the number rose between 2003 and 2006, before dropping in 2007 and 2008.

The FMCSA said crash rates for trucks and passenger vehicles have actually been falling since the late 1970s.

“The reasons for the decline are complex and cannot be attributed to any single factor. It is very likely that improved vehicle safety design for cars and improved road design have contributed to the reduction,” the final rule said. “Injuries and fatalities have also decreased with greater use of seat belts by car and truck drivers. The rates have been steadily declining over a long period, well before the HOS rules changed.”

The final rule said a study conducted by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration showed that large fatality declines for all vehicles tended to coincide with areas with higher increases in the unemployment rate, which limits driving, particular long-distance driving.

“A similar study conducted by the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute attributed the decline to a number of factors,” the final rule said. “The study noted that crashes for all vehicles had fallen more sharply on rural interstates than on other roads, which they stated was consistent with a decline in long-distance leisure travel. Similarly, crashes during rush hours dropped more than crashes at other times, consistent with reduced traffic. They noted that the decline in truck crashes was consistent with the decline in freight traffic.”

The Trucker staff can be reached to comment on this article at editor@thetrucker.com.

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