Drivers of large trucks and commercial vehicles, as well as the companies they work for, owe a duty to other motorists on our roadways to operate their trucks in a reasonable and safe manner. That means they must ensure that drivers are properly trained, adequately rested, and maintain a safe driving history. When they fail to act safely, they are required to answer for the damages they cause.
The average passenger car weighs roughly 5,000 lbs. and a tractor-trailer truck weighs up to 80,000 lbs., so it easy to see which vehicle is going to bear the brunt of the impact. Serious injuries and death can easily result from moderate-impact trucking accidents. In these collisions, truck drivers typically escape unscathed, while the occupants of the passenger cars suffer severe injury and are often left permanently disabled.
Special Federal and State laws apply to the operation of tractor-trailers and other commercial vehicles. The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations (FMCSR) cover trucks and commercial vehicles involved in interstate commerce. These regulations cover a wide range of topics including hours a driver can go before taking a break, use of cell phones, drug and alcohol testing, weight restrictions, vehicle markings, qualifications of drivers and the inspection, and maintenance of vehicles. The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration website and resources are available here.
In addition to establishing specific rules for the operation of tractor trucks, the FMCSR set minimum liability insurance limits that a motor carrier must carry in case of a wreck. All carriers subject to the FMCSR must have at least $750,000 available in case of a wreck. In the case of large passenger vehicles and buses, the amount increases depending on the number of passengers. For motor carriers transporting hazardous materials, the company must have $5,000,000 of insurance available.
Common Causes Of Truck Wrecks
Inadequate Training & Driver Qualifications
Before a driver is allowed behind the wheel of a tractor truck or other commercial vehicle, that driver must undergo specific training to learn how to safely operate a commercial truck. A trucking company or motor carrier must ensure that its drivers are properly trained before they entrust their vehicles to those drivers. This is required by Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations and state laws to protect the public. Unfortunately, many truck drivers do not receive or maintain sufficient training or the truck companies do not require regular on-going training. Many drivers and companies only do the bare minimum to meet their legal requirements and keep their licenses. The results of putting poorly trained truck drivers on the road can be catastrophic.
In addition to safety training, a tractor truck driver must be physically and medically able to safely operate a commercial vehicle. For this reason, federal and state laws require commercial truck drivers to undergo continuous medical evaluations. Unfortunately, many drivers obtain their medical certificates under questionable circumstances or without a thorough evaluation. One condition that affects many drivers but goes undisclosed is obstructive sleep apnea.
Driver Fatigue – Hours of Service Limits
The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations (FMCSR) laws place very specific limits on the amount of time a truck driver is allowed to drive before taking a break and going off duty. These laws require drivers to take a 30 minute rest break after driving 8 hours. Additionally, there is an 11 hour maximum driving time for a driver coming off of at least a 10 hour off duty rest period. These rules are in place to protect everyone. A driver who goes beyond these limits is not alert enough to safely operate a tractor truck and trailer. A tired driver is a dangerous driver and he will not be able to perceive a danger and react like a well rested driver.
Truck drivers spend long hours on the road logging thousands of miles. Oftentimes, drivers become complacent and get distracted. Typical distractions include cell phones, eating while driving, smoking, radio, and one of the many other electronic devices typically found in a tractor truck. While drivers may get away with some distractions, it only takes a split second to lose control.
Poor Equipment Maintenance
Truck companies are required to maintain their trucks and equipment in safe working order. The truck companies must document all maintenance. In addition to the truck company, truck drivers must perform a full inspection of their tractor truck, trailer, and equipment before beginning a trip. Examples of equipment that must be regularly inspected and maintained include brakes, tires, headlights, trailer lights, and conspicuity markers. When a tractor truck and its equipment are not properly maintained, the equipment can and likely will fail when the truck is carrying a maximum capacity load at road speeds. Equipment failures can be fatal. If a wreck occurs because of a truck’s brake failure, tire blowout, or the like, don’t assume that nobody is at fault. Chances are the truck was not adequately maintained.
Truck Driver Texting
Texting while driving is now illegal in most states. It’s illegal in every state for all drivers of commercial trucks. The penalties for violating this can be severe. Despite these laws and the known hazards of texting and driving, truck drivers still text and drive every day. If you drive on the interstates enough, you can probably spot one of these drivers driving next to you. Beware and get away if you do see this. Many truck companies institute policies to prevent their drivers from texting and some do not allow their drivers to have their cell phones in the truck. Many do not have such policies and turn a blind eye to their drivers.
Speeding Truck Drivers
Oftentimes, truck drivers have incentives to speed. Many, if not most, truck drivers are paid by the miles traveled, instead of by the hour. Even if they are not paid by the mile driven, truckers are usually on strict timelines set by the shippers and truck companies that do not adequately consider delays and sufficient driver rest times. The result is a big rig tractor truck going dangerously fast for the conditions.
Tractor trucks speeding at night is an even bigger hazard, especially in rural areas and roadways with little lighting. Trucking industry standards and safety rules require a truck driver to be able to stop his truck within the distance of his headlights. Commercial trucks can weigh up to 80,000lbs and require well over 500 ft of stopping distance. Typically, a tractor truck driver driving at night should be able to see at least 250 feet using his low beams and 500 feet with high beams. That means that a safe driver will use high beams when it is safe to do so and will reduce his speed when he has to use his low beams. In other words, when using his low beams, the truck driver must slow down enough to be able to stop within the 250 feet he can see ahead. When truck drivers go too fast for the distance they can see ahead, this is known as “overdriving the headlights.” Despite these safety rules, drivers frequently ignore them and overdrive their headlights, especially along rural sections of highways and interstates late at night.
Unsafe Driving Practices
Several other unsafe driving habits are commonly associated with tractor truck wrecks, including:
- Improper or frequent lane changes;
- Following too closely;
- Failure to check blind spots;
- Poor space management;
- Improper backing;
- Cargo overloading;
- Improperly securing cargo; and
- Improper parking and stopping