Suicide by Truck

TASA ID: 9075

A 2014 investigational analysis of large truck fatal crashes in Sweden (Bálint et al., 2014) reported that 17% of them were attributable to suspected suicide.  The two major suicide scenarios were cars (or other light vehicles) crossing the highway centerline and pedestrians stepping out in front of trucks.  Another 9% were judged “unknown” for suicide, while the remaining 74% were coded “no.”  An international trucking firm based in Australia reviewed each of its fatal crashes and estimated that 20% or more were suicides, with the majority involving pedestrians (Jones, 2020).

All of the estimated 48,000 U.S. suicides each year are tragedies.  They reflect anguished individuals suffering from depression, loss, mental illness, or other overwhelming life circumstances.  As a caring person I mourn all these lost lives.  As a truck safety researcher, I am motivated to quantify the problem of suicide-by-truck to understand its genesis, and to consider ways to reduce it.

Suicide by truck is a phenomenon that “falls through the cracks” of public safety and health reporting.  The U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) Fatality Analysis Reporting System (FARS) is an analytic census of U.S. fatal crashes.  Yet a fatal collision known by police investigators to be a suicide is technically not a “traffic accident” and is not recorded in Federal crash records.  However, in my opinion, FARS statistics on fatal truck crashes suggest likelihood that many are suicides.

Most serious crashes involving large trucks and other vehicles are precipitated by the actions of those other vehicles.  Of all major, large truck fatal crash scenarios, head-on crashes are those most likely to be caused by the other motorist (Knipling, 2009).  These violent physical events leave distinct pavement scuffs and gouges at the point of impact.  Crash investigators looking at fatal car-truck head-on crashes have concluded, based on this and other evidence, that about 90% involve the car crossing the center line (FHWA OMC, 1999; Moonesinghe et al., 2003).

I obtained more recent statistics on all fatal truck head-on crashes from the U.S. DOT.  In 2017, there were 470 fatal large truck involvements in head-on crashes where the two opposing vehicle paths could be discerned clearly.  The large truck was in its own lane going straight in 416, or 88.5% of the crashes.  In other words, the other vehicle crossed the centerline or median.  The 416 crashes killed 483 people.  This included 413 other-vehicle drivers, 51 of their passengers, and 19 truck occupants.  Three of the other-vehicle-into-truck crashes killed only the truck driver.

Vehicles cross highway center lines for many reasons, including distraction, asleep-at-the-wheel and loss-of-control.  Speeding and alcohol are also well-known culprits, especially at night.  Yet to me this FARS data provides more evidence, albeit indirect, that the large number of vehicle crossovers into trucks contains many intentional actions.

FARS does not contain similar scenario classifications for pedestrians.  In 2017, 372 pedestrians died after being struck by trucks.  Once again, known suicides would be excluded from FARS statistics.  But how many suicides are embedded in the 372 pedestrian fatalities?  A close relative of mine died when walking at night on a downtown freeway.  The circumstances suggested suicide.

The two scenarios I have described killed 855 people in 2017.  That’s 18% of all truck-involved crash fatalities that year.  And, again, known suicides are not included in Federal crash data.  Individuals committing suicide are primary victims, but there are also collateral victims.  Among the 483 other-vehicle crossover head-on fatalities were 19 truckers and 51 crossing-vehicle passengers.  Surviving people are also collateral victims because of their injuries and the trauma of their experiences.  Imagine seeing a crossing vehicle driving straight into your path and then feeling the shock and force of the head-on impact.  Or, watching in horror as a pedestrian intentionally steps out into your path.  After one such event reported in Overdrive (2018), a trucker from PA said, "I can't stop having the nightmare.  I can't stop screaming about dead people when I sleep."

Trucking companies can face financial liability and even bankruptcy after suicide-by-truck cases.  In 2014, there was a $90 Million judgment against Werner Enterprises, one of the largest U.S. carriers.  A head-on crash occurred after a pickup truck, with two children as passengers, lost control on an icy Interstate and crossed the median into the path of an oncoming Werner tractor-trailer.  The truck was in its lane traveling below the speed limit.  Yet plaintiff attorneys argued successfully that the Werner driver should have pulled off the road due to the icy conditions. This fatal crash was not a suicide, but the case illustrates that “deep pocket” defendants can be held liable for the consequences of other drivers’ errant actions.

How to address the calamity of suicide-by-truck?  Can you prevent desperate people from acting on their premeditated intent or uncontrolled destructive impulses?  As a researcher, I first want more information.  I believe that the U.S. DOT should review all relevant research and scour crash investigative reports, including State files, to better estimate and describe the problem, and to design a truck crash surveillance system to red flag these events and filter them from the population of true traffic accidents.

In the public eye, the trucking industry is unfairly blamed, for many crashes it does not cause.  Media reports of a “truck crash” are often perceived as a “truck-caused crash.”  The trucking industry must be passionate about reducing all human harm associated with its operations.  But it has the right to defend its record and not be blamed for the self-destructive acts of others which also take down innocent people.  


Bálint, A., Fagerlind, H., Martinsson, J., and Holmqvist, K.  Accident Analysis for Traffic Safety Aspects of High Capacity Transports [trucks], final report, Chalmers University of Technology, Department of Vehicle Safety, May 2014.

FHWA Office of Motor Carriers [predecessor to FMCSA].   Driver-related factors in crashes between large trucks and passenger vehicles, Analysis Brief, MCRT-99-011, April 1999.   

FMCSA. Large Truck & Bus Crash Facts 2014.  FMCSA-RRA-16-001, March 2016.

Jones, Sarah.  Suicide by truck.  Presentation in the ANB70 Health & Wellness subcommittee meeting.  TRB Annual Meeting, January, 2020.

Knipling, R.R. Safety for the Long Haul; Large Truck Crash Risk, Causation, & Prevention. American Trucking Associations. ISBN 978-0-692-00073-1, 2009. Available at www.atabusinesssolutions.com.

Moonesinghe, R., Longthorne, A., Shankar, U., Singh, S., Subramanian, R., & Tessmer, J.  An Analysis of Fatal Large Truck Crashes, NHTSA National Center for Statistics & Analysis, DOT HS 809 569, March 2003.

Overdrive magazine. Werner will appeal $90M verdict in crash lawsuit”. May 23, 2018. Available online: https://www.overdriveonline.com/werner-will-appeal-90m-verdict-in-crash-lawsuit/

Zaremba, J.  Truckers and pedestrian suicide: 'I can't stop screaming about dead people when I sleep'.  Online article, NJ Advance Media for NJ.com.  February 17, 2015.  Available at http://www.nj.com/somerset/index.ssf/2015/02/after_rash_of_deaths_by_tractor-trailer_experts_sa.html.

About the Author

This expert, TASA Id#: 9075, is the author of Safety for the Long Haul; Large Truck Crash Risk, Causation, & Prevention, the only comprehensive textbook on large truck safety.  In recognition of the book, he received the International Road Transport Union (IRU) Order of Merit award, the first given to an American scientist.  He is a traffic safety researcher, consultant, and expert witness based in the Washington, DC area.  More information is at www.safetyforthelonghaul.com.

TASA Article Disclaimer

This article discusses issues of general interest and does not give any specific legal or business advice pertaining to any specific circumstances.  Before acting upon any of its information, you should obtain appropriate advice from a lawyer or other qualified professional.

This article may not be duplicated, altered, distributed, saved, incorporated into another document or website, or otherwise modified without the permission of TASA and the author TASA Id#: 9075. Contact marketing@tasanet.com for any questions.

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