In 2007, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration analyzed five years of data on crashes involving commercial vehicles heavier than 10,000 pounds gross vehicle weight. Average cost/crash (in 2005 dollars): $91,112. Average associated costs for property-damage-only crashes: $11,299. Cost/crash resulting in nonfatal injuries: $195,258. Cost/fatal crash: $3.6 million.

According to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration's (FMCSA) 2007 study — “Unit Costs of Medium/Heavy Truck Crashes” — “a significant proportion (up to 60%) of fatal truck crashes is associated with rollovers,” with ejections occurring in about 35% of fatal truck crashes.” We don't need to examine the dynamics of each crash to agree on the effectiveness of seat belts. An FMCSA study found that one-half of drivers ejected from cabs and 35% of those pinned inside were killed versus 7% of those wearing seat belts.

Yet many drivers still resist using restraints. While general use is about 80%, only 48% of commercial truck drivers used seat belts in 2005, FMCSA reports. This improved to 59% in 2006. The seat belt usage rate for all medium and heavy trucks and buses was 65% in 2007, according to DriveCam, a company that records and tracks driver behavior.

To increase the use of seat belts:

Hold safety meetings. Emphasize the benefits of using seat belts. Ask those who don't why they don't. Typical answers are that a large truck offers enough protection, that good drivers don't need them, and that they prevent escape. Research has debunked each of these reasons.

When the truck stops, an unrestrained driver keeps going until he or she strikes something. Large cabs provide more surfaces for an unrestrained driver to strike. Unrestrained, any object including driver or passenger, continues moving at the original velocity. Good drivers wouldn't need belts if all the drivers on the road were also good. We wear them because of the bad drivers.

But federal studies in conjunction with AAA show that almost three-fourths of truck crashes are caused primarily or solely by a passenger car. Also, injured or unconscious drivers can't easily escape from a submerged or burning truck. Seat belts minimize injuries.

Follow up. Set rules and enforce them, or drivers will ignore them. Equip trucks with orange, yellow, or neon green seat belts. They stand out, and you can see at a glance if they're being used. Check your drivers as they exit and enter the yard and at jobsites.

Remind drivers that not wearing seat belts is against the law in most states. Usually police will issue a citation if they stop a vehicle for another offense. But police in some states can stop and cite a driver solely for not buckling up.

Next time, we'll look at ways technology can prevent crashes.

— Paul Abelson is a former director of the Technology and Maintenance Council of the American Trucking Association, a board member of Truck Writers of North America, and active in the Society of Automotive Engineers.