Fatalities Involving Tractor Trailers on the Rise

PHOTO: Multi-vehicle accident

Editor's Note: The following story has been updated to clarify language about regulations.

Strong winds, slick roads and blinding snow squalls this week were culprits behind deadly accidents involving semi-trucks that weigh up to 80,000 pounds.

Chain-reaction crashes were reported in Michigan and Indiana, including a 30-vehicle pileup along Interstate 75 near Detroit that resulted in the death of an adult and two children, and sent more than a dozen other people to local hospitals with injuries. Drivers reported desperately trying to swerve to avoid stopped semi-trailers and tankers that dominate the highway.

A recent government study by the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration found that in 2010-2011, fatalities of the drivers in large trucks - vehicles over 10,000 pounds - rose 20 percent in one year.

It's not clear why the numbers are rising, but weather isn't the only culprit. Increased speed limits in some states may be a factor. Other causes are being explored.

"This uptick is discouraging," said Bill Graves of the American Trucking Association. "I think we're going to find a lot of it has to do with the congestion we're experiencing on the nation's highways, the rebound of America's economy."

What can be done? A new technology developed by Volvo allows a truck to begin braking on its own when it senses a vehicle ahead. It also has a collision warning system inside that sets off an alarm when the truck is 1.5 seconds from rear-ending another vehicle.

However, there are no federal requirements to install such advanced technology, it's up to most trucking operators to follow through. And less than 10 percent of the nearly two million registered vehicles have this kind of technology.

"This is relatively new to our industry," Graves said. "It's not like passenger vehicles, where lots of airbags and the kinds of things we've come to expect in safety options is available. These are fairly new and it's actually rolling out rather quickly and it's something we think will have a dramatic impact on the numbers."

But there are some ways to protect yourself when driving alongside big trucks on the roads we all share.

1. Stay at least 10 car lengths ahead of a large truck before you change into the lane in front of it. Remember that it takes the length of a football field for a truck to stop.

2. Make sure you can see the truck's headlights in your rearview mirror before changing lanes.

3. If possible, only pass a truck on the left because the truck's blind spot on the right runs the length of its trailer and extends out three lanes.

4. Check the truck's mirrors. If you can't see the driver's face, the driver cannot see you.

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