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The U.S. transportation system moved an estimated 50 million tons of cargo per day in 2010, according to the most recent figures available from the United States Department of Transportation (USDOT). While some of this freight was transported by rail, water, or air, nearly 70% was carried by trucks. The number of heavy trucks on U.S. highway has increased dramatically over the past two decades, but the capacity of our nation’s roadways to handle the increased traffic from trucks, as well as passenger vehicles, has not kept pace.  Heavy trucks (also known as big rigs, tractor trailers, semi trucks, or 18-wheelers) carry large loads of fifty to eighty thousand pounds (the maximum weight allowed without special permits).  More USDOT transportation data on “Freight Facts and Figures” can be found here.

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As a result, motorists now share increasingly congested roadways with big rigs and those trucks are much more likely to be carrying heavy loads. This poses a particular danger to the drivers of passenger vehicles. A 4,000 pound automobile is clearly no match for a 75-foot-long, 40-ton truck and the data on fatalities from accidents involving trucks makes this chillingly clear. The Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) publishes a safety report every year. Oregon’s summary on truck crash reports and stats reported 1,020 tractor trailer (including double and triple trailer configurations) and commercial truck crashes in 2011 that involved a fatality, injury, or damage requiring a tow. There were 43 people killed in those crashes, but only six of the victims were truck drivers.

Oregon Truck Crashes

Information about traffic accidents in Oregon is available from both the Oregon Department of Transportation and the National Highway Transportation and Safety Administration (NHTSA). There were 49,053 total crashes in Oregon in 2011, including fatal, non-fatal injury, and property damage only crashes.

Those crashes resulted in 331 deaths. As noted above, 43 (13%) of those deaths occurred in 1,928 big rig and commercial truck crashes. These statistics suggest that tractor trailer and truck accidents are seven times as likely to produce a fatality as other types of accidents in Oregon.

Truck Safety in Oregon

Efforts to improve traffic safety in Oregon have been successful, lowering overall fatalities from 455 in 2007 to 331 in 2011, even with a slight increase in population. Fatalities involving large trucks, however, have been on the increase. After declining from 51 in 2007 to 30 in 2009, fatalities increased to 45 in 2010 and decreased slightly to 43 in 2011.

Oregon safety officials working under a program known as the Motor Carrier Safety Assistance Program (MCSAP) have identified 12 major traffic corridors in the state that have historically been plagued by trucking accidents. They have focused their traffic enforcement activities on these 12 stretches of roadway, known as AIM Corridors (Accident Intensified MCSAP Corridors). Four of these corridors are found on Interstate 5, the major highway that runs from Canada, through Washington, Oregon, and California, to the U.S. border with Mexico. Another four are found on Interstate 84, which runs east from Portland, Oregon to its junction with Interstate 80 near Echo, Utah. Stretches of both these highways experience what the ODOT has called “treacherous weather conditions” during the winter months.

Causes of Oregon Truck Crashes

In addition to the 43 truck crash fatalities in 2011, Oregon’s 1,020 commercial truck crashes in 2011 resulted in 419 people being injured and about $126,308,000 in property damage. Truck drivers were at fault in 440 of those crashes according to an Oregon DOT analysis of collision fault. (Oregon DOT’s Summary of Oregon Truck Safety states that Oregon is the only state that analyzes crashes to assign fault.) The primary cause of truck-at-fault accidents was speeding, which contributed to 222 crashes. Other important causes included following too close, failure to remain in lane, and improper lane change.

In 2010, 35 crashes were attributed to a mechanical problem with the truck. In 2011, Oregon conducted 45,820 truck safety inspections and the most common problem found was a brake defect (14,641 violations). In other words, some violation of Oregon safety standards for brakes was found in 32% of inspections. These inspections in 2011 placed 14.11% of the vehicles out-of-service, or about 6,465 trucks.

The DOT’s analysis found that car-at-fault truck crashes were “primarily due to cars driving in truck blind spots or traffic violations by car drivers, such as: speeding, tailgating, failure to yield and negligent or reckless driving.