A “large truck” is defined as one having a gross weight in excess of 10,000 pounds. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), in 2008, 380,000 large trucks were involved in traffic accidents in the United States. About 4,000 of the large trucks were involved in fatal crashes, resulting in approximately 4,250 fatalities. One of out every nine traffic fatalities in 2008 resulted from a collision involving a large truck. In addition to the people killed in a large truck accident, 90,000 people were injured in such crashes. In 2008, large trucks accounted for 8 percent of all vehicles involved in fatal collisions and 4 percent of all vehicles involved in injury and property-damage-only crashes.
Approximately nine million registered large trucks are on the road. There are two main categories of large trucks: (1) single-unit trucks, in which the engine, cab, drive train, and cargo area are all on one chassis, and (2) combination-unit trucks. A combination-unit truck is defined as a tractor pulling any number of trailers, or a straight truck pulling at least one trailer. In this configuration, a separate power unit is combined with a trailer. Conventional combination vehicles include a 5- or 6-axle tractor semi-trailer. The 5-axle tractor semi-trailer is the most popular configuration. It has a common maximum weight of 80,000 to 90,000 pounds when fully loaded and accounts for about 60 percent of all large trucks involved in a fatal collision.
When a large truck gets into an accident, it is rarely the typical fender bender. Because of the weight disparity between a large truck and the typical vehicle—be it a sedan or an SUV—or a motorcyclist, bicyclist, and pedestrian, the damage is usually severe and the injuries critical, even fatal. The average passenger vehicle weighing 2,500 to 3,500 pounds is no match for a fully loaded commercial truck weighing up to 80,000 pounds or more.
Of the deaths that resulted from crashes involving large trucks in 2008, 74 percent were occupants of another vehicle, 10 percent were non-occupants (e.g., pedestrians and bicyclists), and 16 percent were occupants of the large truck (that is, the truck driver himself or his passenger). Of the people injured in crashes involving large trucks, 71 percent were occupants of another vehicle, 3 percent were non-occupants, and 26 percent were occupants of the large truck.
Large trucks are more likely to be involved in fatal multiplevehicle crashes (as opposed to fatal single-vehicle crashes) than are passenger vehicles. In 30 percent of the two-vehicle fatal crashes involving a large truck and another type of vehicle, both vehicles were hit in the front. In half of the two-vehicle crashes involving a large truck and another type of vehicle, both vehicles were proceeding straight at the time of the crash. About one-third of two-vehicle fatal crashes involving large trucks are head-on collisions. In 9 percent of the crashes, the other vehicle was making a turn. In 9 percent of large-truck accidents, either the truck or the other vehicle was negotiating a curve at the time of the collision. In 8 percent, either the truck or the other vehicles was stopped or parked in a traffic lane.
Fatal truck accidents involving large trucks are most likely to occur during the daytime (67 percent) on a weekday (80 percent) in a rural area (64 percent) on dry road conditions. On weekends, 63 percent of truck-related crashes occur at night (6:00 p.m. to 5:59 a.m.).
In addition to the injuries caused by the impact of the collision, there will be the possibility of serious secondary injuries in cases where the large truck is hauling hazardous or flammable materials. A victim may come into contact with or breathe in caustic hazardous materials. She may be severely burned or suffer smoke or heat inhalation injuries if the tanker trailer spills its load of gas or other flammable fuel and catches fire.
There are four broad reasons large trucks get into accidents: (1) driver error, (2) something is mechanically wrong with the truck (usually a problem involving the brakes, tires, lights, or steering, often due to negligent maintenance of the truck or trailer), (3) there is a defect in the condition or design of the road or traffic signs or signals, or (4) there is a defect in the design or manufacture of the truck and/or trailer.
As for driver error, there are a number of reasons the driver may make a mistake. Common reasons are:
Driver fatigue may result in up to 30 percent of truck accidents. The driver may have compensation incentives that encourage faster truck speeds and more hours of consecutive driving than would be normally allowed or advisable. Unrealistic schedules and expectations of trucking companies often encourage drivers to hurry, despite the safety risks involved.
There are federal rules and regulations on the number of hours an interstate commercial truck driver may drive each week, as well as the number of hours of sleep the driver is expected to get each night. The driver is expected to keep a log of his activities, such as hours and miles on the road and hours and time of sleep. However, drivers frequently falsify their log entries or complete their log books days after the fact, ignoring the regulations while en route to their destination. Before President George W. Bush changed the rules, truck drivers could spend 10 consecutive hours behind the wheel, and could drive a maximum of only 60 hours each week. The driver could return to work only after 50 hours off-duty.
In the last months of his administration, however, President Bush signed a regulation increasing the number of hours a truck driver could drive each day from 10 to 11 and increasing the total number of hours the driver could drive from 60 to 77 hours a week. After the driver has driven the maximum amount of hours, the Bush regulation requires that the driver must not drive for at least 34 consecutive hours, 16 hours fewer than the previous 50 hours the driver was required to be off-duty. As a result of the Bush changes, drivers are driving longer hours on less rest, resulting in an increase in the number of big truck accidents. The percentage of fatal crashes resulting from driver fatigue rose 20 percent from 2004 to 2005, the first year in which the longer driving hours were allowed. In October 2009, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration signed an agreement with consumer groups, the Teamsters Union, and others vowing to revise the 11-hour rule. With the increase in driving hours, many drivers resort to stimulant drugs to help to keep them awake and aware.
Nearly one-fourth (24 percent) of all large-truck drivers involved in fatal crashes in 2008 had at least one prior speeding conviction, compared to 18 percent of passenger car drivers involved in fatal crashes. However, drivers of large trucks were less likely to have a previous license suspension or revocation than were passenger car drivers (7 percent and 15 percent, respectively). Only 2 percent of large-truck drivers involved in fatal crashes had a blood alcohol content (BAC) of .08 (the limit for driving under the influence) or higher. For drivers of other types of vehicles involved in fatal crashes in 2008, the percentages of drivers with BAC levels of .08 or higher were 23 percent for passenger cars, 23 percent for light trucks, and 29 percent for motorcycles.
Worn brakes and tires, faulty steering, and light problems are the major mechanical reasons for large trucks causing an accident. If the brakes are worn, the driver is not able to stop the truck in time to avoid colliding with the vehicle in front of it or stopping at the limit line of an intersection. Worn or bald tires also prevent the truck from stopping properly and reduce the truck’s responsiveness in turns. Steering problems make it difficult, if not impossible, for the driver to control the truck, while burnt-out or otherwise inoperable lights fail to show other vehicles on the road that the truck is intending to turn, has applied the brakes, etc.
Other leading causes of large truck accidents due to problems with the truck or trailer include:
In one study, more than one-third of the large trucks inspected after a crash had maintenance defects that would have placed them out-of-service (OOS) if they had been inspected before the crash. Brake problems were found in 32 percent of the trucks, and violations of light/marker/signal regulations were present in 23 percent of the large trucks involved in accidents.
In July 2009, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) issued stringent new braking standards that will save lives by improving large truck stopping distance by 30 percent. The new standard requires that a tractortrailer traveling at 60 miles per hour come to a complete stop in 250 feet, rather than the old standard, which required a complete stop within 355 feet. The NHTSA estimates that the new braking requirement will save hundreds of lives annually, and will also prevent many serious injuries each year. It is estimated to reduce property damage costs by over $169 million annually. The new regulation will be phased in over four years beginning with 2012 models. The new rule applies only to truck tractors and does not include single-unit trucks, trailers, and buses.
Large trucks such as eighteen-wheelers have the risk of jackknifing if it is necessary for the driver to come to an abrupt stop to avoid a collision or make a sharp turn to avoid hitting another vehicle. Large trucks also pose a specific danger when they are making turns, as they must make a wider turn than the average motor vehicle and another car may not realize the danger and get involved in an accident.
Tragedy often strikes when the truck’s brakes are worn and can’t keep the large truck from running wild down a hill. The truck driver may be unable to stop at a stop sign or red light at the base of the hill, resulting in the runaway truck crashing into everything in its way, causing deaths, critical injuries, and tremendous property damage. Or the driver may not be able to negotiate a turn at the bottom of the hill, also resulting in personal injuries to those in its way, damage to property, and possible deaths.
Problems with the condition or design of the roadway or with traffic signs and signals are another cause of truck accidents. In those cases, the public entity that owns or controls the defectively designed or improperly maintained road may be found legally responsible for some or all of the damages. The roadway may be defective due to a lack of warning signs informing the truck driver of a sharp turn ahead (such as in the case of an off-ramp) or a downhill grade and the need to shift into a lower gear to prevent a runaway truck. If a governmental agency, such as a city, county, or state, is in charge of designing and maintaining the defective roadway, it is essential that you see a lawyer as soon as possible, as a claim for damages must be filed with the appropriate governmental agency within six months of the accident or your claim may be forever barred.
Roads may also be dangerous due to icy or wet surface conditions, the negligent design of off-ramps (such as being too sharp and not having any caution signs warning truckers to reduce their speed to a certain limit so they can navigate the turn safely without overturning), highway conditions and signals, lighting, and weather conditions. These factors can also be important in determining the parties liable for the collision.
Apart from mechanical problems that may arise with a truck or trailer through ordinary wear and tear, some accidents involving large trucks are the result of a defect in the design or manufacture of the truck. For instance, the truck’s gas tanks may be placed in an unsafe location, increasing the danger to the driver and other motorists from a breach of the gas tanks, causing them to rupture and catch fire, inflicting serious injuries or even deaths.
A defect in the manufacture of the truck is usually due to the carelessness (“negligence”) of a worker at the truck maker’s plant or at a company that modifies the truck’s chassis for a special use. For instance, a welder may not do a proper job of welding two metal plates together, causing the plates to separate while in use, resulting in injuries or deaths. Accident reconstruction experts are frequently able to pinpoint a defective weld or other problem with the truck. (See Chapter 21, “Defective Products,” for a more detailed discussion of a defect in design or manufacture.)
One issue that often arises in large truck cases is whether the driver of the truck was an employee of the company whose load she is transporting, or whether the driver is an “independent contractor.” If the driver is an employee of the company and causes an accident due to her carelessness (“negligence”), then the company she works for is on the hook for all damages caused thereby under the legal theories of “respondeat superior” and “vicarious liability.” However, if the driver is an independent contractor, such as a driver who owns her own tractor and is free to carry anybody’s goods, then ordinarily only the careless driver may be held legally responsible (“liable”) for the injuries or deaths she causes due to her mistakes or her failure to keep the tractor in good working condition.
The company whose load was being carried is generally not liable for any injuries or deaths when the driver is an independent contractor. However, the company can be held liable if it was negligent in its choice of this particular independent contractor driver. For instance, if the driver has a history of accidents or traffic violations, the company may be held liable for the injuries and deaths caused by the negligence of the driver while carrying the company’s product. Or if the driver had little or no experience in driving this type of truck configuration or the company’s employees carelessly loaded the truck, such as in a manner resulting in it being top heavy, the company may be held legally responsible for injuries caused by the inexperienced driver or the truck’s overturning because of the improper load. The company can also be liable for the carelessness of the independent contractor driver when it retains a certain degree of supervision or control over the driver. The company that owns the trailer can also be held liable if the trailer had worn or defective tires or other mechanical problems that contributed to the accident.
In many accidents involving large trucks and another vehicle, unsafe practices of the other driver are the cause of or a contributing factors to the accident. For instance, the driver of a car may try to pass a large truck on the right, not realizing that the truck has moved to the left in anticipation of making a wide right turn. Of course, if the truck driver does not properly signal his intention to make the turn, the conduct of the other driver may not be considered careless. Other examples of accidents that may not be due in part to anything the truck driver did or the condition of the truck include the other party: (1) driving alongside or behind a large truck in its blind spot so that the truck driver cannot see the vehicle, (2) changing lanes abruptly in front of a truck or merging improperly into traffic, which may cause the truck driver to maneuver or brake quickly, resulting in the truck’s jackknifing, and (3) making an unsafe left turn by not yielding the right-of-way to an oncoming truck. However, if both parties were at fault, then the legal doctrine of “comparative negligence” comes into play, which reduces, but does not extinguish, the injured party’s right to recover monetary damages for his injuries and related expenses and losses. (See Chapter 2 for a complete discussion of your rights when both drivers are at fault for the accident.)