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.

RJ Sangosti, The Denver Post
Student driver Leonel Marrufo, left, backs up a semitrailer as his instructor Ray Chavez keeps a watchful eye at the United States Truck Driving School in Wheat Ridge on May 3, 2019.

As some point out, driver error is the prevailing factor in most crashes. And that includes error by the drivers of surrounding vehicles — who are, according to federal and state studies, more often than not the ones found at fault, whether because they are driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs, driving recklessly or, increasingly, focusing on their smart phones instead of the road.

That variability — and the constant stream of trucking traffic entering from other states — makes it difficult to assess whether Coloradans can have confidence that the semitrailers and drivers traveling our treacherous mountain passes and choked interstates are safe.

“We hold this industry to a higher standard for safety, and we agree with that — we should, because we recognize there’s a higher consequence for accidents,” said Greg Fulton, the president of the Colorado Motor Carriers Association.

Click image to enlarge

He said the industry is as eager as the public to learn what happened in the fiery I-70 crash last month, and to potentially absorb lessons. Before the crash, Houston driver Rogel Lazaro Aguilera-Mederos told police he lost his ability to brake while coming down I-70’s steep mountain descent into the city. It could have been due to mechanical failure, as his attorney said, or improper use that caused the brakes to overheat, which experts say is more often the case.

Just as befuddling to veteran truckers as nearly everyone else: Aguilera-Mederos’ truck was captured on video blowing right past a runaway truck ramp minutes before the crash in Lakewood.

“We realize we have a responsibility out there, and we want it to be safe for everyone,” Fulton said. “But like anything else, we can improve, and that’s our goal.”

Nationally, there are about 12 million large trucks registered that have a gross vehicle weight rating of more than 10,000 pounds, before they’re carrying cargo.

In the broader view, the U.S. trucking industry’s safety record is still light years better than it was decades ago, before legislation in the 1980s required more roadside inspections and gave states money to carry most of those out — and before technological improvements made trucks safer.

In 1979, according to Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration data, there were 5.21 fatal crashes per million miles traveled by large trucks. In 2017, despite the recent surge in fatalities, the same measure was at 1.42.

Students Eli De Larosa, left, and ...
RJ Sangosti, The Denver Post
Students Eli De Larosa, left, and Ashlynn Ward, center, talk with instructor Bill Moore during a practice session at the United States Truck Driving School in Wheat Ridge on May 3, 2019.

Colorado’s roads are more difficult than most

Colorado’s mountains offer a particular challenge to truckers. Harold Trent, a commercial driving instructor, takes students up and down the foothills stretch of I-70 often. They put to use the slowing techniques they’ve learned to avoid the smoking brakes that can quickly lead to disaster, making it impossible to stop.

“At first, they’re a little intimidated and they’re a little nervous,” said Trent, the director of United States Truck Driving School in Wheat Ridge. “But after they’ve gone up and down, they’re comfortable. Bottom line, though, for any driver that’s out there — whether they’re experienced or inexperienced — you never take a downgrade for granted, even if you’ve done it before.

“The minute you get complacent, that’s the moment the highway is going to jump out and bite you.”

The Colorado Department of Transportation has built 13 runaway truck ramps on mountain roads, with most on I-70. The most-used ones are two on the descent from the Eisenhower-Johnson Memorial Tunnels to Silverthorne, CDOT spokeswoman Tamara Rollison said. But the at-grade Mount Vernon runaway zone — the one Aguilera-Mederos skipped — has been used at least nine times, and probably more, since 2016.

But those ramps are there as a last resort. Truckers are taught to use a lighter touch on their brakes on sustained downhills, since a 40-ton load easily can cause them to overheat within minutes. They maintain a slower speed by engine-braking in a low gear or by using light braking techniques, Trent said; if they overdo it, they can pull over to let the brakes cool, which typically takes an hour or so.

The recent crash was as horrific as it was rare for I-70, but others have happened on the foothills stretch. After a deadly semitrailer crash in 1989, CDOT put up a series of signs aimed at talking big-rig drivers down the descent, telling them not to be fooled in flat parts because more steep grades are ahead.

As Trent and others have scrutinized video of Aguilera-Mederos’ truck, they’ve asked questions likely being examined by investigators: Did he notice the signs? Did he understand English well enough, as required by federal trucking regulations? And in the 23-year-old driver’s apparent panic, did he even see the runaway truck ramp?

“He was fighting to keep it upright, which is why he had those erratic lane maneuvers,” Trent observed.

The Jefferson County district attorney on Friday charged Aguilera-Mederos with four counts of vehicular homicide and dozens of other charges, alleging he was criminally reckless.

The Colorado State Patrol, which oversees trucking inspections in Colorado and is involved in the investigation, has declined in the wake of the crash to take questions or discuss its approach to truck safety.

A red-flag safety system

The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Association’s inspection-monitoring system aids CSP’s troopers and other officers by telling them which drivers or companies have red flags that require more frequent inspections, whether at weigh stations or traffic stops.

“When you see carriers that are having a greater level of problems or more issues … they’re going to get a greater level of focus,” Fulton said.

The FMCSA’s tracking shows 58,474 roadside inspections of varying intensity were performed in Colorado during the fiscal year ending Sept. 30, most by CSP. And CSP’s own figures say its truck inspections have increased by more than 90 percent since 2009.

RJ Sangosti, Denver Post file
Traffic is bumper to bumper heading into the mountains for the start of the holiday weekend on July 1, 2011, along Interstate 70 near Genesee.

In nearly one-quarter of the 2018 inspections, according to the FMCSA, trucks were sidelined until violations could be fixed. Sometimes that’s a matter of minutes, sometimes days, and those “out-of-service” orders were slightly more common than in inspections nationally.

Aguilera-Moderos reportedly had worked just a couple weeks for his latest employer, Castellano 03 Trucking, which has five trucks, according to its FMCSA record. In the last two years, those trucks were subject to 19 roadside inspections that found 30 violations. Ten were brake-related, including two out-of-service violations. But none of those inspections were conducted in Colorado.

In fact, several kinds of brake violations are among the 20 most common violations cited in inspections, according to the FMCSA. Safety advocates say this underlines the need for drivers to take their pre- and post-drive mechanical checks seriously.

Some observers worry about gaps in the inspection system, including the potential for less-scrupulous truckers to know weigh stations’ hours and escape scrutiny there — though traffic stops are always a risk.

“You’re not getting a random sample of trucks (at the stations), that’s for sure,” said Paul Jovanis, a professor emeritus at Penn State University who has long studied trucking safety. “And you’re not getting a random sample of people driving through the area.”

Jovanis also is skeptical of the industry’s emphasis on driver error in crashes, pointing to robust maintenance and work policies as important. He’s been critical of a federal hours-of-service expansion that allows long-haulers to drive for up to 11 hours in a shift, an hour longer than the previous limit.

“All the research I’ve done shows that crash risk goes up substantially in the ninth, 10th and 11th hours,” Jovanis said.

  • Student driver Leonel Marrufo, left, backs ...

    RJ Sangosti, The Denver Post

    Student driver Leonel Marrufo, left, backs up a truck at the United States Truck Driving School in Wheat Ridge on May 3, 2019. Good training is critical for safe operation of semitrailers.

  • Students driver Eli De Larosa , ...

    RJ Sangosti, The Denver Post

    Students driver Eli De Larosa, left, listens to his instructor Bill Moore, right, as he hooks a truck to its trailer at the United States Truck Driving School in Wheat Ridge on May 3, 2019.

  • Students at United States Truck Driving ...

    RJ Sangosti, The Denver Post

    Students at the United States Truck Driving School get hands-on instruction when learning to drive big rigs in Wheat Ridge on May 3, 2019.

  • Students driver Ashlynn Ward makes a ...

    RJ Sangosti, The Denver Post

    Students driver Ashlynn Ward makes a lap around the yard at the United States Truck Driving School in Wheat Ridge on May 3, 2019.

of

Expand

Calls for improvements

Brenda Lantz, a Denver-based researcher who has specialized in the trucking industry since the 1990s, helped develop the algorithm used by the FMCSA’s warning system. And she recently served on a panel of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine that evaluated the system and recommended improvements.

As it stands, she credits the FMCSA’s systems for serving as a check that comes with real consequences for repeat violators. It also provides some public accountability for companies’ records. In the 2018 fiscal year, the agency sent more than 30,000 warning letters and, with state partners, performed more than 14,000 investigations of trucking and bus companies.

In rare cases, flagrant violators with sloppy maintenance practices or driving records are ordered to shut down.

“We need to continue to focus on driver behaviors, as the vast majority of crashes can be attributed to some kind of driver error,” said Lantz, a senior research fellow at the University of Denver who also is associate director of the Upper Great Plains Transportation Institute at North Dakota State University.

Since the FMCSA was formed in 2000 within the U.S. Department of Transportation, outside advocates and government watchdogs have applied pressure periodically for more aggressive enforcement. In 2013, as the newer system was being rolled out, the National Transportation Safety Board called for better oversight of the trucking industry and for companies to take more proactive safety precautions.

Even if surrounding vehicles tend to cause more crashes than the trucks themselves, the size disadvantage has disproportionately deadly results.

In 2017, national crash data show, occupants of passenger vehicles, motorcycle drivers and people who weren’t in vehicles accounted for about 80 percent of the 4,761 people killed in crashes involving large trucks.

Sensitive to public perceptions that point the finger at trucks, industry leaders say more law-enforcement inspectors at the state and federal levels could ratchet up efforts to root out bad actors in the industry.

The public should “be confident that the lion’s share — the overwhelming majority — of drivers out there, especially commercial motor vehicle drivers, are safe,” said Chris Turner, a former Kansas Highway Patrol commander who now is the director of crash and data programs for the Commercial Vehicle Safety Alliance. The nonprofit represents enforcement officials in the United States, Canada and Mexico and works with the industry on uniform inspection and violation standards.

“This is their livelihoods and they take it seriously,” he said of drivers. “But like any situation or profession, there are those who aren’t as professional, and they are the ones who are typically involved in those type of collisions.”