Research group shifts focus to non-nuclear truck crash verdicts

Truck crash

The American Transportation Research Institute (ATRI) will study non-nuclear verdicts in truck crashes as its top priority for the year following last year’s analysis of multimillion-dollar awards.

ATRI expects to publish its findings on nuclear verdicts in June, ATRI President Rebecca Brewster told FreightWaves.

In addition to the effects of small verdicts on the trucking industry, ATRI’s Research Advisory Council chose to follow up on a 2019 study of trucking insurance rates by looking at how rising premiums impact operational costs.

ATRI, an independent research group formerly tied to the American Trucking Associations (ATA), takes its marching orders from its 33-member advisory council. Crash verdicts and insurance costs ranked first and fifth in voting order out of 29 topics considered.

The second through fourth priorities are:

Safety Metrics — E-commerce growth, last-mile delivery and long-haul routes accounting for fewer miles driven are prompting ATRI to look at mileage-based safety metric alternatives beyond rating accidents and fatalities by traditional rates per million vehicle miles traveled.

“Given the changes in average length per haul, is there a more appropriate way to look at our safety performance?” Brewster said. “We don’t advocate for anything. We just put the research out there.”

Owner-Operators — What is the role of owner-operators and independent contractors in the supply chain as state legislative and policy actions, like California Assembly Bill 5, require companies to count independent contractors as employees? ATRI wants to assess the contractors’ financial and operational differences to better inform policy decisions.

“I think [it] is more of a census of the owner-operator/independent contractor population,” Brewster said. “What motivates someone to be an independent contractor and how prevalent is that and what are the operational differences? It’s bringing more depth to understanding the differences between those drivers and fleet drivers.”

VMT Cost/Benefit Analysis — ATRI wants to analyze vehicle-miles-traveled (VMT) taxes that would look at the cost of implementation and how it could be enforced at the state and local levels.

ATRI studied highway funding in 2007 and 2017. Both times, the fuel tax came out as the most efficient way to pay for infrastructure improvements like road and bridge repairs. In January, ATRI published a study on tolls based on the research advisory group’s recommendation.

The VMT study is more challenging, Brewster said, “because you don’t have 21 VMT systems to compare and collect financials on like we did in the toll paper. There have been some locations that have looked at the potential for a VMT.”

Oregon enacted a law in 2013 to enroll 5,000 passenger vehicles in a program to collect miles-traveled data and charge the vehicle owner in lieu of the federal gas tax, which would still be charged and refunded later.

ATRI calculated the rising cost of truck insurance in its November 2019 update on truck operating costs. The study found commercial trucking insurance is a volatile cost center for fleets regardless of size. Several factors unrelated to a fleet’s safety rating or crash history come into play.

Based on data provided by motor carriers, insurance cost per mile increased by 12% to 8.4 cents per mile in 2018. Specialized carriers paid 10.4 cents per mile, ATRI found.

“This is a more in-depth look beyond just calculating what has been the cost per mile,” Brewster said. “This is what’s behind that and how we’re adjusting to deal with those costs.”