In the inland marine marketplace, contradictory forces are at work. First, the good news: relatively speaking, fatality rates on the road have been going down.
Now, the bad news: the nation's infrastructure is aging. In the eyes of the nation's engineers, U.S. roads and bridges are creaky. Indeed, some are on the verge of collapse.
While the number of vehicles on the nation's highways has been increasing steadily for decades, and roads are handling more weight, the adjusted number of auto fatalities has been declining steadily as well, federal statistics show.
The fatality rate dropped to a new low of 1.44 fatalities per 100 million vehicle miles of travel in 2004, according to Traffic Safety Facts 2004, a publication produced by the U.S. Department of Transportation's National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
Though the number of people killed or injured in accidents involving large trucks has increased only slightly, from 4,483 to 5,190 over a 29-year period from 1975 to 2004, it has done so despite a lot more trucks on the road. The number of fatalities in large truck crashes has dropped from 74.16 people per 100,000 registered vehicles in 1975, to 59.50 people per 100,000 registered vehicles in 2004.
While the number of trucks and other vehicles on the road has gone up by an order of magnitude over the past 30 years, adding to density, the amount of roadway has gone up only by 10 percent, says Ben Armistead, chairman of Greenwich Transportation Underwriters Inc., an insurer that specializes in trucking concerns.
"It used to be they could go from Atlanta to Nashville and have clear sailing, but it'd be damn hard for a trucker to go 80 mph now," says Armistead. "But what's interesting is that if you can't go fast, it's safer from a fatalities standpoint, because speed usually kills."
And that means coverage is available at decent rates for the trucking industry. "Rates are not going up in our industry right now," Armistead says. "Insureds are usually paying between $4,000 and $5,000 a power unit for liability only."
INFRASTRUCTURE AT RISK
Still, the higher traffic volume has taken its toll on the roads and bridges that help move cars, trucks and motorcycles from one coast to the other.
This would be no problem if public authorities kept up with road and bridge repairs and resurfacing.
But in some instances, state and federal governments are falling short, as the lesson of the Kalahari Creek bridge attests. In the late 1980s, the bridge on the heavily traveled New York State Thruway was washed out in a flood, recalls Ron Thornton, president of the Inland Marine Underwriters Association.
Authorities had to divert traffic onto secondary roads. Closing the bridge caused delays and frayed the nerves of dozens of truckers and motorists.
It also caused New York highway authorities to become more selective in what they chose to cover. In some instances, they pulled back on coverage by retaining more risk.
"Today, New York says, 'There are only certain things we want insured--the bridges, the toolbooths on the tollway, not the road beds. Those are self-insured,'" says Thornton. "Over the last 25 years, we've come full circle to those things being insured as a stand-alone entity."
More highway authorities assuming a greater portion of the risk is symptomatic of a wider response to the aging of the country's infrastructure, Thornton says.
Public highway authorities may well choose to retain even more risk in the future, at least judging by a recent report issued by the American Society for Civil Engineers, which isn't kind to the state of our public highways. In its latest report card, the engineering society gives roads a D, navigable waterways a D-, railroads a C-, and bridges a C.
Accidents on bridges are nothing to be trifled with. Sure, they're rare. But when they happen, losses are often brutal, and people lose their lives.
"Fortunately, they don't occur with a lot of frequency, but you can sometimes see a very large loss," says Steven Silverman, vice president and product line manager for inland marine and specialty property with Lexington Insurance Co. "There could be fires, or a lot of times on bridges that traverse the water, you'll see a runaway barge or a vessel hit it and damage the structural support. That might be a very large claim; it could be in the millions."
Thornton says the ASCE's report "speaks volumes" about the components that make up the nation's infrastructure, and he has a simple answer for the state we're in: lack of funding, and by the billions of dollars.
Reginald Souleyrette, a professor of civil engineeing at Iowa State University and chairman of the planning economics committee for the American Society of Civil Engineers, says the country is falling short.
"Poor road conditions cost motorists $54 billion per year in repairs and operating costs," he says.
"We need $94 billion to improve transportation infrastructure, but we're only spending $59.4 billion."
The crux of the ASCE's report is that if governments neglect a bridge for too long, it decays beyond repair and has to be replaced.
"They're talking about the cost to repair or replace bridges, because if a bridge gets into a bad enough condition, it can't be repaired. They have to lose the bridge," says Souleyrette.
FOR NOW, SOFTER RATES
The contradictory long-term forces affecting the inland marine marketplace aside, rates for the moment are manageable.
"There are certainly signs of softening," says Patrick Lennon, cargo underwriting manager at Canal Insurance Co., which specializes in insuring truckers. "It's a transitional market. It has been hard, but its probably heading toward soft."
Canal writes a maximum limit of $500,000 per occurrence for cargo losses. He says he's seen few losses of any importance. "I'm not aware of any in the last 10 years that have been that high, although there certainly have been some six-figure losses. Nowadays, high-end lumber can be very expensive, and an overturned truckload of gourmet black olives can cost between $200,000 and $300,000," he says.
Nonetheless, accident costs in one region of the country may differ from another. "Due to the jurisdiction an accident might happen in, and the liberal or conservative nature of the courts there, experiences might vary," Lennon says.
Geographic differences might have a parallel in accident rates, which also vary, sometimes in surprising ways. Jersey City, N.J., experiences only 2.09 fatalities per 100,000 people, and New York City experiences only 3.60 fatalities per 100,000 people. Yet the figure for Knoxville, Tenn., is 22.46 per 100,000.
In other cases, losses on bridges or highways have nothing to do with the decaying infrastructure, according to Dick Rowley, president of the inland marine division of St. Paul Travelers.
"If there's a crash on a bridge, it's not necessarily because the infrastructure was bad. The lighting could be bad, or perhaps signage could be improved," he says.
He adds that his company is not raising premiums because of infrastructure problems. "Our engineer will say, 'This has gone down since last year,' and we'll sit down with that client and see what they intend to do about it. It's not a question of increasing the rate by 5 percent and letting the bridge continue to deteriorate," Rowley says.
While the decay in the nation's infrastructure may not be affecting rates for overland transportation companies, it may be a cost that is quietly creeping up on the industry, he says.
JOHN OTROMPKE is a writer living in Chicago.
April 15, 2006
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