West Virginia, without a doubt, is one of the most naturally beautiful and picturesque states in the country. Unfortunately, however, the very same things that make our state such a great place to live also make West Virginia one of the most dangerous places in the US for accidents involving large trucks. West Virginia actually has the fifth-highest rate of fatal truck accidents per capita among all 50 states.
The natural landscapes of West Virginia, full of mountains and valleys and winding roads, are especially difficult and dangerous for large trucks. Truck drivers traveling throughout the state often find themselves in situations with very little room to maneuver, where just a slight error in judgment can result in catastrophe. Given these realities, it is perhaps unsurprising that West Virginia is one of the most dangerous states in the country for fatal truck accidents.
According to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA), an average of one person was killed every 10 days in an accident involving a large truck between 2007 and 2017. To understand the true scope of this problem, we compiled and analyzed data from several federal agencies. The picture painted by these numbers is grim, highlighting just how many risks West Virginians take when they are on the road with commercial trucks in our state.
Analyzing the Data: What Do the Numbers Tell Us?
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is a federal agency tasked with keeping people safe on roads. As part of the Department of Transportation, it is responsible for enforcing vehicle performance standards as well as partnerships with state and local governments. The NHTSA also gathers data on motor vehicle accidents and other incidents throughout the United States.
A critical data set compiled by the NHTSA is on fatal truck crashes. Each year, the agency releases data on fatalities in crashes involving large trucks by state. To get a fuller picture of commercial truck fatalities, we have put together 10 years of data, from 2007 to 2017.
These numbers show a disturbing truth: West Virginia has an incredibly high rate of fatal truck crashes, particularly in comparison to other states. Based on the number of fatalities per 100,000 licensed drivers, West Virginia has the 5th highest number of deadly crashes. Specifically, for every 100,000 licensed drivers there were:
- 4.22 fatalities in 2007
- 4.13 fatalities in 2008
- 2.99 fatalities in 2009
- 4.40 fatalities in 2010
- 2.99 fatalities in 2011
- 3.96 fatalities in 2012
- 4.05 fatalities in 2013
- 2.64 fatalities in 2014
- 1.94 fatalities in 2015
- 2.38 fatalities in 2016
- 4.57 fatalities in 2017
In comparison, neighboring state Pennsylvania had just 1.86 fatalities per 100,000 licensed drivers in 2017. In Maryland, there were 1.09 fatalities per 100,000 drivers in the same time period. Only Oklahoma, Mississippi, New Mexico, and North Dakota have a higher number of fatalities based on the number of licensed drivers.
Looking at fatalities per licensed driver is important, as it gives a more complete picture of the seriousness of the problem than simply looking at the number of fatalities. This number is determined based on data from the Department of Transportation (DOT). By analyzing this information against the number of truck fatalities, we can determine how often these accidents happen based on population.
For example, California is the most populous state in the country, with 39,512,233 residents. West Virginia has 1,792,147 residents. In 2017, 361 people died in truck accidents in California. 52 people died in truck accidents in West Virginia in that same year.
Initially, it may seem as though California is far more dangerous when it comes to truck crashes. But when these numbers are broken down to reflect the number of licensed drivers, California’s rate of 1.34 fatalities per 100,000 licensed drivers is far lower than West Virginia’s rate of 4.57. In this way, we can get a better understanding of just how often this occurs in West Virginia based on its relatively small population.
Similarly, the number of fatalities can be broken down by vehicle miles traveled to determine the true risk to West Virginia drivers. Our fatality rate per 100 million total vehicle miles traveled is one of the highest in the nation, at 0.27. The U.S. average is 0.16.
Of course, simply looking at the raw data is also information. From 2007 to 2017, 435 people died in West Virginia in motor vehicle accidents involving large trucks, or an average of 34 people each year. In 2017 alone, 41 people were killed in crashes with large trucks.
Why West Virginia Is One of the Most Dangerous States for Truck Accidents
Without a doubt, driving a large truck — such as an 18 wheeler or a semi truck — is more difficult and more dangerous than driving a passenger vehicle like a car, SUV or pick-up truck. The average car might weigh between 2,000 and 4,000 pounds, while a fully loaded tractor-trailer truck can weigh over 80,000 pounds. Depending on what a truck is hauling, it may be anywhere from two to five times as long as a passenger vehicle.
These factors affect truck drivers on any road, and in any state. So why does West Virginia have such a high rate of fatal truck accidents?
There are three primary factors that contribute to motor vehicle crashes in West Virginia: (1) driver negligence; (2) topography; and (3) weather. Combined, these three elements lead to a shockingly high number of accidents.
First, driver error plays a major role in West Virginia collisions. According to a study released by the West Virginia Department of Transportation, there were 20.56 accident fatalities per 100,000 residents in a five year period, compared to a national average of 12.38 deaths/100,000 people. West Virginia has a significantly higher number of fatalities attributed to speeding, alcohol use, and failure to wear a seatbelt, as compared to regional and national averages. These types of driver negligence likely contributes to a higher rate of truck accident fatalities.
Second, West Virginia is known as the Mountain State for a reason. It is the only state that falls completely within the Appalachian Mountains. As a result, it has a higher mean elevation than any state in the Eastern United States, with elevations ranging from 240 to 4,862 feet.
There are thirty-nine mountains in West Virginia, which fall into three regions: the Allegheny plateau in the west and north, the Allegheny Mountains from the southwest to the northeast, and the Ridge and Valley province, which run along the state’s eastern border with Virginia. Within the eastern panhandle of the state, the Great Appalachian Valley and the Blue Ridge Mountains make up two additional provinces or regions. Most of the state — 78% — is covered by forest.
As a result of these unique geographical features, driving in West Virginia is simply more challenging than in many other states. Driving through the state requires negotiating steep hills, sharp descents and hairpin turns. For an inexperienced, unfamiliar, distracted, drowsy, or unskilled driver, these roads can lead to disaster.
Third, the mountains of West Virginia lead to changing — and challenging — weather conditions. As the elevation increases, the temperature drops while precipitation increases. Depending on where you are in the state, you may experience rain, ice, or snow — any of which can make it more difficult to drive safely. When combined with hills and turns, it is little wonder that so many accidents occur in the state.
While there is little to be done about West Virginia’s topography or weather, we can address driver error. According to NHTSA, 94% of all motor vehicle accidents are attributed to driver error. Through better training and increased safety incentives for truck drivers, we can reduce the number of fatal truck accidents that occur in our state.