Big rig truck driving by.
Passing an 80,000-pound tractor-trailer truck on the right can be an invitation to disaster.

It’s a classic confrontation, one with increasingly deadly results: Tractor-trailer trucks competing with cars, SUVs, and pickups for space on the nation’s roadways.

Deaths from crashes involving large trucks have been rising in the U.S. In 2016, more than 4,300 people were killed, up 5.4 percent from 2015, according to the latest statistics from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Research shows that advanced safety features­—including forward-collision warning (FCW) and automatic emergency braking (AEB)—are reducing crashes as they become more common in passenger vehicles.

More on Trucks & Driving Safety

But these same systems are largely missing from the nation’s large commercial trucks, many of which are more than a decade old and predate the advent of the new technology, according to a report by Securing America’s Future Energy, a think tank in Washington, D.C. Only about 15 percent of large commercial truck fleets in the U.S. were fitted with FCW/collision-mitigation systems in 2015, according to SAFE’s report.

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety estimates that in the U.S., 107,000 crashes each year (about 28 percent of those involving large trucks) could be prevented—or the severity reduced­—if those systems, along with blind-spot warning (BSW), lane-departure warning (LDW), and stability control, were onboard.

“If anything, it’s more important that these advanced driver aids come standard on trucks than on cars,” says Jake Fisher, CR’s director of auto testing. “Tractor-trailer trucks can weigh up to 80,000 pounds, and the consequences of a crash—no matter who is at fault—can be devastating.”

Some advanced safety features, such as forward-collision, lane-departure, and blind-spot warning, are designed to alert drivers to imminent dangers. Others, such as automatic emergency braking and lane-keeping assist, are designed to prevent collisions.

Industry experts, regulators, and safety advocates including CR say that big-rig truck manufacturers and operators must do a better job adding these systems to new trucks and retrofitting older models.

But some trucking organizations are resistant to government mandates. And some truck drivers say that while they’re generally in favor of safety systems, technology alone is no substitute for highly skilled driving. Research bears this out. Drivers of passenger vehicles contributed to the reasons for crashes with large trucks more often than the truck drivers. And those passenger-car drivers were more likely to be killed in the crashes.

Dangerous Driver Dynamics

Car drivers have horror stories about run-ins with large trucks.

“I spend a lot of time driving for my job, and there are truckers who use their huge size to their advantage, bullying car drivers and not allowing us to merge into traffic,” says Kevin Sullivan of Ellington, Conn.

While some motorists complained to CR on Facebook that some truckers drive aggressively, most commenters said truckers are courteous and professional. And research makes it clear that passenger vehicles are a big part of the problem.

A definitive 1998 study by Daniel Blower, who was with the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute at the time, found that in 70 percent of fatal two-vehicle truck-car crashes, actions by the passenger-vehicle driver contributed to the crash. Blower also found that in a majority of head-on collisions, the passenger vehicle crossed over the center line into the path of the truck.

Brian Halloran, a 20-year trucking veteran, hauls cars for Reliable Carriers. “It’s disgusting how many people are staring at their phones while driving,” he says. “I think every car driver should have to go for a ride in a big rig as part of their driving test. Then they’d have some idea what we have to deal with.”

For example, car drivers might not know that some trucks can take up to 40 percent more distance to stop, the IIHS says.

Just How Big Are Big Rigs?

Tractor-trailer trucks come in many sizes and configurations. For comparison, we’ve included the length of a 2018 Toyota Camry.

Camry Size 16 feet

Combination Trucks

These can weigh up to 80,000 pounds. This is a five-axle semitrailer, which runs about 74 feet long.

Longer Combination Vehicles

The long end includes “triples”—tractors that tow three 28-foot trailers at a typical total length of about 105 feet. They’re allowed in only 23 states.

Source: Department of Transportation.

Adopting New Systems

If safety technology is spreading among passenger vehicles, why are deaths going up? One answer involves the economy and simple math.

“As the economy improves, it puts more passenger vehicles and trucks on the road, and they’re covering more miles,” says Russ Rader, senior vice president of communications at the IIHS.

Technology aside, some simple changes could reduce crashes, such as lowering the speed limit for trucks and improving trailer guards to prevent cars from sliding underneath in a collision.

But more big rigs have extra safety systems than they did in the past. New trucks have been required to have antilock brakes (ABS) since 1997 and electronic stability control (ESC) since August 2017. Some commercial truck drivers are now required to use an onboard electronic logging device to ensure that they don’t work longer than rules allow.

But adding newer crash-avoidance systems and driver aids such as blind-spot warning would also help, the IIHS says.

As much as 40 percent of large commercial truck fleets in the U.S. could have FCW/crash-mitigation systems by 2020, according to SAFE’s report.

United Parcel Service, for example, has been retrofitting older trucks and buying new ones with safety systems, says Dan McMackin, a UPS spokesman. About 45 percent of its fleet now has a collision-mitigation system, he says, and that should increase to about 65 percent by 2020.

Unless the systems are mandated by the government, many trucks will remain without the technology, according to SAFE.

The American Trucking Associations says it doesn’t support a government mandate regarding advanced safety systems. “Fleets should be able to choose for themselves the technology that works best for their particular operations,” says Sean McNally, an ATA spokesman.

Stanislav Duda, an owner-operator, says that as much as he’d like a brand-new truck, he can’t afford one. A new truck with a sleeper cab fit for multiday routes costs $135,000 to $160,000, according to Norita Taylor, a spokeswoman for the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association.

But it isn’t necessary to buy a new truck to get the latest collision-avoidance systems. According to Mobileye, which makes advanced safety systems, trucks such as Duda’s 2005 Volvo VNL670 could be retrofitted with a collision-avoidance warning system that includes forward-collision and lane-departure warning for $849.

But Duda doesn’t think he needs them. “I have over a million miles without an accident,” he says. And he noted that Mobileye’s system doesn’t have blind-spot warning, which he thinks would be the most beneficial to him.

More Training, Less Speed

Rader, from the IIHS, says that efforts should focus on proven approaches, such as lowering the speed limit for trucks, a policy that CR supports.

McMackin of UPS thinks that driver training could reduce even more crashes. He contends that every driver on the road needs more training. “What we as adults demonstrate to our kids is critical,” he says. “If we are on our phones and doing our makeup or eating while driving, that is what our children will see as accepted practice.”

After all, the results of truck crashes can be catastrophic. “There is no reset button when a crash occurs,” he says. “Lives are changed forever.”

Editor’s Note: This article also appeared in the August 2018 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.