Since federal regulators and the trucking industry got serious about safety nearly four decades ago, thousands of lives have been saved on U.S. roads.
But last month’s horrific high-speed crash west of Denver, in which an apparently out-of-control semitrailer plowed into more than two dozen stopped vehicles on Interstate 70 — igniting an inferno and killing four people — is part of a worrying trend.
Over the last decade, fatal crashes involving large trucks have been on the rise again.
The number of fatal crashes involving large trucks in the United States increased by 42 percent between 2009 and 2017, according to National Highway Traffic Safety Administration data, a trend reversal that came as trucking traffic levels recovered from the Great Recession. Nearly 4,800 people were killed in 4,237 wrecks in 2017 — most of them in neighboring vehicles.
In Colorado, the number of fatal crashes was down slightly in 2017 but has more than doubled, from 35 in 2009 to 80 in 2017, the most recent year available. Those wrecks killed 87 people.
During the same period, the federal and state agencies responsible for overseeing about 3.5 million roadside inspections of large trucks each year began rolling out the most sophisticated system ever used in the United States to track mechanical and safety violations coast to coast. By zeroing in on the data and comparing the inspection records of companies and drivers to their peers, authorities now crack down on the most egregious repeat offenders in the hope of reducing risks on the roads. Colorado was among the earliest participants.
But the recent trends have industry veterans scratching their heads, in part because the rising fatality numbers aren’t explained entirely by growing truck traffic.