NTI Major Accident Report Retrospective Reveals Improvements
A review of almost two decades of data since NTI commenced its landmark Major Accident Report back in 2005 reveals significant improvements in the trucking industry’s safety performance, but challenges remain.
Despite significant increases in freight movements and traffic volumes, data from NTARC Major Accident Investigation Reports, produced since 2005 by leading transport and logistics insurer NTI, shows that heavy-vehicle-involved road crash deaths have consistently declined.
While the just-released 2022 report (based on 2021 data) shows little change on the 2021 results (based on 2020 data), an in-depth examination of the historical data set shows a significant reduction in both major crashes as well as deaths involving trucks.
Taking account of a 55 per cent increase in trucks on the road (to 640,651) and a 51 per cent rise in road freight volumes (to 224.6 billion-tonne-per-kilometre) since 2003, the data reveals a combination of tighter government regulation and industry investment in safety, technology, professional development and leadership has seen a steady decline of around 0.04 deaths/BTK per year in all heavy-truck-involved road crash deaths over the period.
Truck occupant crash deaths have remained largely static at around 0.17 for every billion-tonne-kilometres of freight moved.
NTI Transport Research Manager, Adam Gibson – who has authored the report since 2019 – agrees the numbers tell a largely positive story of improvements over the past two decades.
“Things are improving, with fewer deaths in Australia from accidents involving trucks. But the flipside is that the number of truck drivers dying in road accidents has remained stable at around 35 per year over the past decade,” he adds.
“So, the data shows that the key beneficiaries of the safety improvements have been car drivers, not truck drivers.”
At NTI, we're committed to creating safer roads - not only for transport operators but for all road users. That's why we established the National Truck Accident Research Centre (NTARC).
Undoubtedly, the biggest improvement over the past two decades has been in the reduction in major incidents where fatigue and inappropriate speed for the prevailing conditions were found to be the dominant cause.
Back in 2005, fatigue and inappropriate speed were found to be responsible for more than one in two serious truck crashes (57.1 per cent). In 2021, this declined to 20.7 percent.
Following the introduction of driving hours reforms and standardised logbooks in most states and territories in 2008, fatigue-related incidents dropped from a high of 27.3 per cent to a low of eight per cent in the 2020 study, before rising marginally to 8.2 per cent in the latest report.
Notably, 2009 data shows that fatigue-related serious truck crashes fell by a massive 50 percent just a year after the implementation of the reforms to account for just 10 per cent of major crashes.
Gibson notes, however, that NTI data reveals the improvement is not just due to a reduction in hours worked, but more so a change in the previous industry mentality of “just keep driving until the job is done”.
“It’s hard not to feel that either directly or indirectly the adoption of standardised driving hours and logbooks has had a significant influence on addressing some of these cultural problems,” he says.
Despite the dramatic improvement, fatigue remains a significant problem for the industry, Gibson adds.
The 2020 NTARC report found that fatigue is still the biggest cause of truck driver deaths, accounting for 34.8 per cent of fatalities.
Data highlights several ongoing problem areas.
Comparing the proportion of fatigue losses by combination type against all losses reveals that multi-combination vehicles (excluding B-doubles) make up 11.1 per cent of all NTI’s large loss events, however account for more than double that proportion of fatigue-related incidents (25.9 per cent).
Similarly, B-doubles make up 21.5 per cent of all NTI’s large losses but 32.1 per cent of fatigue-related losses.
Conversely, rigid trucks with one trailer (predominantly truck-and-dog tippers) make up 6.9 per cent of all NTI’s large losses but only 1.2 per cent of fatigue-related events.
What’s more, fatigue still accounts for 25.9 per cent of major incidents in “very remote Australia”, significantly above the 8.2 per cent of major losses that occur in these areas.
Gibson believes these relationships are “consistent with the operating radii and freight task performed by these respective configurations and confirm the difference in risk profiles between different segments of the road transport industry” – and he expects this to continue as an increasing number of high-productivity vehicles make their way onto Australian roads.
Also troubling is that the largest proportion (38.3 per cent) of fatigue-related crashes occur between midnight and 6am, around double the proportion which occur in any other six-hour period – though this is down from 52.7 per cent in 2015.
When the relative proportion of traffic is considered, the situation is even more dramatic. Around one-tenth (9.4 per cent) of daily truck movements occur during midnight to 6am, compared to around 40 per cent through the middle of the day.
“Taking these lower traffic volumes into account, the likelihood that a truck on the road between midnight and 6am is involved in a fatigue crash is around three times higher (306 per cent) than the daily average,” Gibson points out.
And whereas back in 2005 Tuesdays and Fridays were the worst days for fatigue-related accidents, and Sunday the best, that’s now flipped.
“Using the distribution of all losses as a proxy for risk exposure, Sunday has a much higher proportion (203 per cent) of the week’s fatigue (12.4 per cent) losses than of all loss types (6.1 per cent),” he says, attributing the trend to “issues around cumulative sleep debt” towards the end of the working week.
These lingering issues highlight flaws in relying on just driving hours restrictions to address the underlying causes of fatigue, Gibson believes.
“We’ve been talking about chain of responsibility (COR) since the 1990s, but the chain is still too short.
“Change needs to be driven by end customers and until the volume of prosecutions (of consignors) are there, we won’t see change,” he argues.
Aside from fatigue, the other key improvement over the past two decades is in the proportion of major crashes caused by inappropriate speed for the conditions.
Inappropriate speed is where the proximate cause of the crash was that the speed of the vehicle was incompatible with the vehicle dynamics, road geometry and/or prevailing weather and road conditions – that is, it’s not about exceeding the sign-posted limit.
Back in 2003, inappropriate speed was the dominant cause of 26.1 per cent of major incidents – rising to 27.3 per cent in 2005, 27.4 per cent in 2007 and a high of 31.8 per cent in 2009.
Encouragingly, this dropped to 26.1 per cent in 2011, 21.4 per cent in 2015, 13.8 per cent in 2020 and to a record low of 12.5 per cent in 2021.
Gibson attributes this stark advance to two major factors: the roll-out of COR laws from 2014, which placed a legal obligation on all parties in the chain to take all reasonable steps to ensure drivers do not commit a speeding offence; and the increased use of heavy vehicle stability safety technologies, specifically electronic braking systems (EBS) and electronic stability control (ESC).
NTARC data shows a vast majority of inappropriate speed-related incidents result in vehicle rollovers - and likely contribute to inappropriate speed still ranking as a leading cause of truck occupant fatalities, accounting for 20 per cent of the total in 2020.
While it’s no surprise that the largest proportion (36.4 per cent) of inappropriate speed crashes occur in 100km/hour zones, Gibson points out that the data consistently reveals that when reviewing the posted speed limits at the scene for inappropriate speed crashes in comparison to all losses, the 60 to 80km/hour speed zones are over-represented, while a smaller proportion of inappropriate speed crashes occur in higher speed zones.
Despite the improvements to date, Gibson suggests that there are lessons to be learned from the roll-out of ESC which can be applied to emerging Advanced Driver Assistance Systems (ADAS). Whether it is adaptive cruise control (ACC) or Lane Keep Assist (LKA), these technologies monitor and support driver performance and may drive future improvement in safety.
Truck and Car Crashes
While the long-term NTARC data shows a vast majority of truck driver deaths involve single-vehicle incidents, since 2009 it has consistently highlighted that in fatal truck and car crashes, the truck driver is not at fault in most cases.
Back then, the truck driver was found to be not at fault in 82 per cent of fatal crashes, and while this dropped to 70 per cent in 2021, Gibson says it still reflects that in a significant majority of these crashes, the truck is not at fault.
By contrast, the distribution of fault for non-fatal car and truck crashes has remained consistent over the past two decades, with the truck driver at fault in 65.3 per cent of incidents in 2021 compared with 61.6 per cent back in 2005.
Gibson says the reason is simple. While more than two-in-three non-fatal truck-at-fault car and truck crashes are ‘ran into rear’ crashes, the most common mechanism for car-at-fault car and truck crashes are head-on crashes (43.8 per cent), with the car crossing the centreline and impacting the truck.
For fatal car and truck crashes, the proportion of incidents with this mechanism coding rises to 78.6 per cent.
“The fact that (in 2021) 65.3 per cent of non-fatal accidents are truck-at-fault is a positive reflection on the industry as it is unquestionably much harder to drive a B-double than a hatchback,” says Gibson, noting that the proportion of crashes caused by inadequate following distance in major cities (71.8 per cent) is twice that of all losses (35.2 per cent).
“The crash types most important for industry to respond to are single vehicle accidents rather than losses they can’t manage on their own such as inadequate driving distances (between car and truck) etc. The only way to address these issues is to address overall driver behaviour on the road.”
In sharp contrast to the long-term reduction in incidents caused by fatigue and inappropriate speed, the NTARC data exposes a dramatic increase in major accidents caused by ‘human factors’.
Grouped for the first time in the 2022 report, ‘human factors’ include fatigue and inappropriate speed, but more importantly inattention/distraction, inappropriate vehicle positioning and inadequate following distance.
Combined, these factors now represent nearly two out of every three serious crashes (63.5 per cent), up just over one percentage point on prior years.
Inattention/Distraction & Inappropriate Vehicle Positioning
Of these, inattention/distraction and inappropriate vehicle positioning (including striking awnings and other structures, dropping into culverts, off weighbridges or otherwise failing to keep the vehicle on the roadway) have trended significantly upwards over time, with the former rising from 6.7 per cent in 2017 to 14.3 per cent in 2019 and to 16.3 per cent in 2021; and the latter almost doubling from 5.4 per cent in 2017 to 10.5 per cent in 2021.
Driver inattention/distraction – defined as the driver becoming disengaged from the driving task as the result of either a specific non-driving related stimulus (distraction) or due to a loss of task focus (inattention) - is now the cause of almost one in six of all losses.
Inadequate following distance, meanwhile, has trended downwards from nine per cent in 2017 to 8.6 per cent in 2021.
Gibson describes the sharp rise in accidents caused by inattention/distraction as the “Pokémon Go” effect, attributing it largely to increased “interaction” with mobile phones when driving, though he notes the data shows this is a less significant issue with truck drivers.
Notwithstanding this, he believes the data highlights potential opportunities to reduce the frequency of such incidents where the truck driver is at fault.
“If a remote operator sees (through in-cab driver monitoring systems) a whole heap of mobile phone use, rather than taking a purely punitive approach, it might be that they encourage drivers to take a short rest break when they re-enter mobile coverage from a remote area,” he suggests.
Gibson also believes drivers are becoming distracted by what he labels “peak in-cab displays” – that is, the increasing number of devices, from navigation systems to in-cab cameras – that have been retrofitted into truck cabs.
“Hopefully, in 10 years’ time it’s likely all the data will be on displays (fitted by manufacturers) on the truck – just like in aviation where they have a single, simple dashboard,” he notes.
While in the period 2015-2021 the data shows a decline in incidents involving livestock (10.2 per cent to 1.4 per cent), vehicles (5.8 per cent to 1.5 per cent), containers (4.5 per cent to 0.9 per cent), general (32.9 per cent to 18 per cent) and mining/resources (5.9 per cent to 1.7 per cent), there has been a sharp jump in incidents involving tippers (up from 7.1 per cent to 10.7 per cent) and empties (up from 6.9 per cent to 33.1 per cent).
At the same time, roll overs while tipping has grown from just 5.3 per cent of major incidents in 2015 to 6.9 per cent in 2021.
Articulated combinations (as distinct from rigid trucks, with or without trailers) make up 51.6 per cent of rolled-while-tipping incidents.
While there’s no industry data on the split of the freight task between rigid and articulated tippers, Gibson says it would appear likely that semi-trailer end tippers have a higher frequency of rolled-while-tipping events.
A confluence of low barriers to entry and regulatory blind spots (that is, tippers tend to operate in areas where regulators don’t) is largely to blame, he believes.
Historically NTI’s insured portfolio focussed more on larger articulated combinations, however over the past decade NTI’s market share of rigid trucks has grown consistently year-on-year.
Correspondingly the proportion of large losses involving rigid trucks within the NTARC data set has also grown. Gibson says that the operating environment and risk profile of rigid trucks can differ significantly from larger combinations.
Rigid trucks are more likely to operate in urban and peri-urban areas and in turn interact with heavy traffic and greater volumes of light vehicles. Gibson also highlights that rigid trucks are less likely to be operated by a hire and reward transport business, instead servicing the in-house transport needs of other industries.
Data reveals driver error was the major factor in 2021 (just under 50 per cent), with one-third (33.1 per cent) of these driver error losses due to inadequate following distance, compared to only one quarter (25.8 per cent) for all vehicle types.
“Rigids are a challenging space. The crash frequency is likely to be higher, but the severity not,” he notes.
Gibson believes the latest wave of safety features coming as standard in trucks promises to deliver further improvements in future years.
Following the rollout of seatbelts, front under-run protection systems (FUPS) and anti-lock braking systems (ABS) over the past few decades, he says the latest advances such as electronic stability controls, electronic braking systems, and collision and lane-departure warning systems now standard on most makes and models – coupled with advanced driver and vehicle monitoring systems – have the potential to drive additional gains.
“There’s a bunch of technology there and lots of opportunity (to deliver improvements in safety outcomes) if it’s done well,” he says.
“What the Major Accident Investigation series of reports shows is that safer combinations, new legislation, and improved technology, can have real impacts on safety.
“That’s why it’s so important we continue to review data and have informed industry conversations.”
At NTI, we're committed to creating safer roads - not only for transport operators but for all road users. That's why we established the National Truck Accident Research Centre (NTARC)