Hidden in September’s announcement of the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ preliminary Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries for 2014 was a disturbing fact: the number of fleet drivers killed on the job was the highest in six years.
Specifically, in 2014 the bureau estimates that 835 people who drive for a living — including salespeople and truck drivers — died on our highways. Combing the bureau’s archives reveals the figure constitutes a shocking 42-percent increase over the 586 fleet drivers killed in 2009. Since that year, the figures have increased in each subsequent year but one.
Now, you might think that the economy is the culprit. After all, studies show that traffic fatalities and unemployment are inversely related — fewer employed drivers means fewer of them on the roads. But, a closer look at the data suggests that’s not the whole story, because it’s not just the raw number of fatalities that’s risen, but the occupational rate of fatalities is higher as well.
Last year, approximately 23.4 out of every 100,000 fleet drivers died on the job, compared to just 18.3 in 2009. Even in 2007, when 908 drivers were killed, the fatality rate was 22.8 drivers per 100,000, marginally lower than last year’s rate.
Increased Risk Factors
My take from all of this is that American drivers — fleet drivers included — are facing more risk than they did six years ago, and that the trend in fleet accidents and fatalities is likely to get worse before it gets better. Why?
Population growth. Based on current trends, the U.S. Census Bureau projects that our population will increase by nearly 40 million to 360 million by 2030, reach 380 million by 2040, and grow to almost 400 million by 2050. That correlates to tens of millions of additional drivers on our highways, including many immigrants from countries where driving is even more dangerous.
Inadequate infrastructure. Unless we start repairing our roads and building more highways, all of those additional drivers are going to face increasing congestion and hazardous roadways, conditions that will only contribute to more accidents, not less. Combined with the increased driver population, that means more congestion on our roads, and massive construction and repair projects will make it worse.
More in-vehicle distractions. From cell phones and video screens to laptop computers, more powerful audio systems and navigation systems, the number of electronic devices per vehicle seems to increase every year. Worse, all the studies show that, even though we all recognize using these devices while driving is dangerous, as a nation we’re using them more and more.
To me, these trends represent an inexorable increase in both the risk and number of traffic accidents in the years ahead.
And, what have we got to mitigate that risk? Plenty, but the question is will it be enough?
Hot-Button Safety Topics
Presently, the hottest topic in traffic safety is the advent of onboard crash avoidance devices. These include rear- and side-facing cameras, lane departure warning systems, adaptive headlights, adaptive speed control, forward crash warning systems, and automatic emergency braking systems.
Recent studies suggest that some, such as forward crash avoidance systems with automated braking, are effective in reducing crashes, while others appear to have limited benefits.
But the question is, how much will these “driver-assist” systems reduce crashes, and will it be enough to outweigh the growing risk factors? Frontal collisions are only one type of accident, and having a forward crash prevention system in your fleet vehicle doesn’t mean it can’t be hit by another driver without one.
Meanwhile, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety projects a very gradual adoption rate of crash avoidance systems, from less than 5 percent of all registered vehicles today to 30 percent by the mid-2020s and not reaching 80 percent until 2040.
Then consider the very strong possibility that all the ways vehicles are constantly being improved to protect drivers and passengers in an accident is instilling a complacency that allows drivers to downplay the risks of speeding, texting, and using their cell phones.
That’s why, in addition to investing in crash avoidance technology that intervenes when a driver makes a mistake, employers need more than ever to adopt driver risk management systems that monitor, measure, and change driver behavior.
We should be working to make our drivers more safety conscious, keep them aware that it’s their duty to drive safely, and help guard themselves against the growing dangers in the behind-the-wheel workplace.
The CEI Group is the exclusive sponsor of the annual Fleet Executive of the Year award, presented by Fleet Financials.