Why Single Unit Trucks Don’t Stack Up In Safety

By Denise Johnson | September 30, 2013

The commercial trucking industry has come a long way in improving safety for drivers. Even so, a large portion of trucks on the road today — some 8.2 million single unit trucks — remain exempt from critical safety rules required of larger tractor trailers.

Single unit trucks represent more than three-quarters of all large trucks on U.S. roads and such safety exemptions has some transportation experts concerned.

The crash index for single unit trucks is on the rise while the number of crashes for large trucks has declined, according to a study from the American Transportation Research Institute.

Better driver training, commercial driver’s license requirements, a universally-adhered to weight classification system and enhanced truck safety equipment to improve safety and reduce crashes are ways the industry can improve results, according to a recent report by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB).

Improvements are critical to saving lives, the experts say. During 2005 to 2009, 1,800 people died on average each year as a result of accidents with single unit trucks. And a majority of hospitalizations in the trucking sector have stemmed from vehicle crashes involving single unit trucks.

“In terms of proportion, because of the size of the fleet, close to 60 percent of all hospitalizations involve single unit trucks,” said Dr. Mark R. Resekind, during a NTSB board meeting held in June to discuss the findings of a safety study on single unit truck crashes.

Single unit trucks are ubiquitous — ranging from large pickups and garbage trucks to home fuel oil trucks, delivery vans, utility trucks, dump trucks, cement trucks and even furniture trucks. Single unit trucks carry cargo that does not detach from the cab with all axles on the same frame. And unlike large tractor trailers, single unit trucks do much of their travel on city and state roadways, not on interstates, according to Debbie A.P. Hersman, NTSB chairman.

The U.S. Department of Transportation defines large trucks as those with a gross vehicle weight ratings over 10,000 pounds. This broad definition opens the door to just about anyone driving a commercial truck, said Rob Abbott, vice president of safety policy for the American Trucking Associations.

“I don’t want to speculate but it’s important to understand that the trucking industry is comprised of anybody who operates a truck,” Abbott said.

This could include landscapers or plumbers or even the local food service company. “For them, trucking and perhaps truck safety is not their specialty. It’s not their core competency, so that’s an issue,” Abbott said. They are also far more likely to operate in more urban or congested areas where exposure is greater, and that’s a big concern, he said.

Large trucks pose a high risk of fatalities and they are more likely to be involved in intersection accidents, according to the NTSB. And while single unit truck accidents are not likely to cause the most severe injuries as compared to tractor trailer accidents, data revealed they were involved in at least 37 percent of fatalities, 49 percent of in-patient hospitalizations and 61 percent of emergency room visits.

The reason may be due, in part, to the fact that despite their size and similar conspicuity impediments, single unit trucks are excluded from certain safety rules applicable to tractor trailers, the experts claim.

Weight Class Questioned

A potential safety improvement that begins even before a truck hits the road deals with the actual weight of a given single unit truck.

“If you are operating a vehicle with a gross vehicle rating of in excess of 26,000 pounds, you must have a commercial driver’s license (CDL),” said James Ritter, deputy director of the NTSB Office of Research and Engineering.

The Commercial Motor Vehicle Safety Act of 1986 mandated all states to issue commercial driver’s licenses to operators of commercial motor vehicles according to a national standard, said V. Paul Herbert, a Calif.-based commercial motor vehicle safety and compliance expert. The deadline to comply with the new law was April 1, 1992. That law led to a new definition of a commercial motor vehicle.

“Prior to that, a commercial motor vehicle was defined as a vehicle having a gross vehicle weight rating exceeding 10,000 pounds. That’s not a very big vehicle. In fact, my pickup truck … weighs over 8,000 pounds and it’s a one ton unit. It’s got a gross vehicle weight rating of almost 10,000 pounds,” Herbert said.

The new definition stated that operators of commercial motor vehicles as defined in that section were required to have commercial driver’s licenses issued according to the standard.

“The new definition was a vehicle having a gross vehicle weight rating exceeding 26,000 pounds or designed, used or maintained to transport 15 or more passengers, including the driver,” said Herbert. But what it’s done is it’s opened up this definition of commercial motor vehicle of 26,001 pounds or more. You’ll see it expressed both ways. One would be over 26,000 pounds and the other one would be 26,001 pounds or more, which basically is saying the same thing,” Herbert said.

According to Herbert, a problem lies in how truck manufacturers assign gross vehicle weight ratings where a truck clearly has the ability to carry much more weight than the arbitrary gross vehicle weight classification assigned to it.

“We have these big, big trucks out there running up and down the roads that have the ability to carry a lot of weight that have a gross vehicle weight rating assigned to them by the manufacturer of 26,000 pounds, which is one pound under the threshold, interestingly,” Herbert said.

However, according to Herbert, the weight of a single unit truck can be manipulated.

“If we looked at both of the axle weights, steering axle and drive axle or front and back axle and add them up, we’re well over the 26,000 pounds,” he said. But the manufacturer doesn’t require a specialized driver’s license to drive these trucks. “And it’s not really based on the size of the truck, the weight of the truck, the weight carrying capacity of the truck. It’s for a good part based on whether the industry’s interest in having these vehicles not required to be operated by a holder of a commercial driver’s license,” Herbert said.

CDL Requirements

Although a truck may be operated commercially and weigh thousands of pounds, the driver may have the same driver’s license needed for driving his or her personal car.

For vehicles weighing less than 26,000 pounds, there is no mandatory drug and alcohol testing and no CDL requirement, according to Abbott.

In general, a CDL is a national licensing standard for vehicles over 26,000 pounds. “Many states they will have a different license for them (single unit truck drivers) or some sort of classification,” Abbott said. “It might be a general operator’s license with a commercial qualification to say they can operate these vehicles, but it doesn’t meet the federal CDL standards.”

According to the NTSB report, drivers of single unit trucks involved in fatal accidents are three times more likely to have invalid licenses than the drivers of tractor trailers involved in fatal accidents.

The rental truck industry is one example, Herbert said. Companies like U-Haul, Ryder and Penske that lease trucks to everyday automobile drivers don’t want to require those drivers to obtain a CDL.

“It would be very difficult if those vehicles had to be operated by an operator of a commercial driver’s license. It would greatly hinder the business’s ability to rent out their trucks,” Herbert said.

Abbott conceded that consumers operating single unit trucks may lack experience.

“That being said, compared to the whole universe of trucks in that category, it’s probably a very small portion of that industry segment,” Abbott added.

Even so, there’s a higher risk of an accident when a heavy truck is combined with an unskilled driver, said Herbert.

“These trucks…have the ability to carry much more weight than their gross vehicle weight rating is assigned. They’re operated by people, sometimes, who are not very experienced in trucking operations, especially, let’s say, descending long downhill grades. I’m working on a case right now involving a truck that was hauling carpeting from the east coast, and it made it all the way out here to California, before descending a long, steep grade with a very heavy load of carpeting,” Herbert said.

“This truck was overloaded, unbeknownst to the people. They didn’t have a clue how much weight that truck could carry or should be carrying. They went down a long steep grade, didn’t go down in the proper gear, became a runaway situation and was involved in a serious accident down towards the bottom of the hill,” Herbert said.

The combination of an unskilled driver and a heavy truck can have dire consequences.

“These drivers are driving trucks that are every bit as wide as a big rig, a tractor trailer rig. They have huge blind spots associated with them, but these drivers receive no specialized training on how to use gears, how to compensate or keep inventory of their blind spots and how to deal with them,” he said.

Herbert also noted that straight trucks have blind spots and maneuvering difficulties.

These factors correlate with truck accident research by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration.

“When we look at the reasons for crashes, in roughly 10 percent of the instances, a vehicle defect is the cause or can be pointed to as the reason for the crash,” Abbott said. But in 90 percent of the cases the crash is related to driver behavior.

“What we really need to look at is what are the minimum standards for hiring and licensing these drivers and what are we doing to monitor their behavior on the roadway,” Abbott said.

Equipment & Technology

Despite sharing some of the same safety concerns as large tractor trailers such as maneuvering and blind spot issues, no safety equipment requirements, like onboard recording devices or underride guards — which protect cars from getting stuck beneath a large truck — currently exist for single unit trucks.

The NTSB report found that half of all collisions between passenger vehicles and the side of single unit trucks resulting in injury involved underride.

In addition, the rate of serious injuries and hospitalizations are higher in collisions occurring at night. The NTSB report found that injury rates could be reduced by conspicuity improvements.

“It costs well under $100 per vehicle to equip it with a retro reflective tape. That is certainly cost-effective,” Dr. Ellen Braver said during the NTSB board meeting.

“What is interesting, too, is the issue of pedestrians. Comdex Crossover Mirrors are so inexpensive — the city of New York requires them as a retrofit,” she said. “Conspicuity, there is strong evidence for how effective that is.”

The report also found that single unit trucks are involved in a third of all large truck rollovers and single vehicle run off accidents — two types of accidents that can be mitigated by electronic stability control systems.

As a result of the study of single unit truck crashes, the NTSB recommended the following:

  • Requiring onboard systems and equipment that compensate for blind spots;
  • Requiring underride detection systems like those on tractor trailers;
  • Requiring electronic stability control systems, lane departure systems, adaptive control and collision warning systems;
  • Creating a national repository of location-based information for accidents; and
  • Requiring commercial drivers’ licenses for operators of single unit trucks.

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