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Sharing the Road with a Tractor Trailer

driving-beside-a-tractor-trailerThe primary mode for moving freight in the United States is the trucking industry.  According to the American Trucking Association, in 2003 large trucks hauled the majority of all freight transported in the U.S. – more than billion tons.  Trucking revenues totaled $610 billion last year and revenues are forecasted to nearly double by the end of 2015.  While commercial trucking growth is good news for the trucking companies and the nation’s economy, it is bad news for the cars, vans, and SUVs that share the road with these potentially lethal giants.

Large truck-related fatal and injurious crashes are a significant public health problem in the United States today.  Every 16 minutes, a person is killed or sustains injuries in accidents involving 18 wheelers, tractor trailers or semi-trucks.  The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety reports that in crashes involving large trucks and other vehicles, 98% of the fatalities occur to the people in passenger vehicles.  As the commercial truck population accelerates to meet anticipated economic demand, and the number of passenger vehicles continues to grow, how will the nation’s motorists fare in competition for the road.

What Causes Large Truck Accidents?

Any vehicle with a gross vehicle weight of over 10,000 pounds is considered a large truck and is governed by specific federal safety regulations and laws.  The government requires that truck drivers qualify for commercial licenses and are subject to limited drug and alcohol testing. Unfortunately, many truck safety advocates question the effectiveness of the licensing and testing programs.  From 1992 to 2002, the number of large trucks involved in fatal crashes has increased by up to 10% due to driver fatigue, unsafe vehicle operation, large, unstable loads or defective equipment. Accidents involving semi-truck, 18-wheeler, and large trucks present many unique issues including:

  • Hours of Service.   Driver fatigue and drowsiness are conditions that result in reckless behavior such as failure to keep in the proper lane and running off the road.  Tired truckers are of such concern that in April of 2003, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) instituted new hours of service regulations to curb truckers’ problems with fatigue.  While these laws have helped reduce the number of accidents, the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board still blames driver fatigue as a probable factor in 20-40% of truck crashes.
  • Intoxicated Drivers.   Over a period of one year, a study of truck driver fatalities was conducted by The National Transportation Safety Board and The National Institute on Drug Abuse in eight states. Comprehensive drug screenings were performed on blood specimens taken from 168 fatally injured drivers. One or more drugs was detected in 67% of these fatally injured drivers and 33% of these drivers had detectable blood concentrations of psychoactive drugs or alcohol.
  • Driver error. Big-rig operators are responsible for the safe operation of their vehicle.  When semi-trucks travel at rates exceeding 55 mph, they are speeding and the likelihood of a jackknife or rollover significantly increases.
    • “Underrides” refer to passenger vehicles that slide under another vehicle, with the majority of these incidences happening between large trucks and passenger cars.
    • “no-zones” or blind spots exist in the front, back and sides of a big rig truck.  Recognizing these “no-zones”, the trucking industry has advised that for safety’s sake the driver of a passenger car should not be in front, back or in two lanes beside a large truck.  Otherwise, when vehicles are in these blind spots, the truck may make a wide right turn into the passenger car.
    • “Squeeze plays” involve trucks making wide right turns.  When a passenger vehicle is caught between a large truck and the curb – they are caught in a “squeeze” that can have serious consequences.
    • “Off-track” occurs when a truck turns at high speed and swings into an adjacent lane unexpectedly.  Unlike passenger vehicles, transport trucks require up to 40 percent more space to stop.  Following too closely results in inadequate stopping distance between large trucks which then rear-end vehicles in front.  It is not difficult to imagine the devastating results that occur when a car, van or SUV is hit from behind with over 10,000 lbs. of moving metal.
  • Substandard inspection.   According to FMCSA, there were over 2 million roadside inspections of trucks.  Of those inspections, 23.2% of the vehicles were found to have serious violations. Despite the best efforts, defective and unsafe trucks continue to be a leading cause of catastrophic accidents on the nation’s highways.
  • Longer Combination Vehicles vehicles are tractor-trailer combinations with two or more trailers that weigh more than 80,000 pounds.  These trucks are at increased risk of jack-knife (the rig jackknifes when the drive axel brakes lock up); roll-over, sway, and loss of control.  Greater lengths, heights and weights make these trucks perform and handle differently than tractor semi trailers or twin trailers.  LCVs are more dangerous due to their tendency to sway and leave the lane they are traveling in, as well as requiring increased passing distance.
  • Hazardous Materials (hazmat).   Revenue from hazardous materials shipments has increased to $10 billion with more than 800,000 shipments every day.  Hazardous materials (hazmat) in trucks are usually flammable liquids, such as gasoline. Each year about 200 hazmat trucks are involved in fatal crashes and 5,000 in nonfatal crashes.

Protecting the Victims

We will never know how many motorists have been “lucky” enough to have escaped a catastrophic encounter with a big rig.  How many passenger vehicles are confronted daily by aggressive, fatigued truck drivers pulling a 13 hour shift in order to make a professional wage and meet tight deadlines  How many semi trucks on the highway are operating despite failed roadside inspections  Which drivers have cheated on their Hours of Service logbooks  Even with these frightening scenarios and statistics, powerful trucking industry lobbyists continue to call for the weakening of truck safety rules and regulations to reap a higher profit.

When truck collisions do occur, trucking companies involved in the accident often send representatives to the accident scene.  These agents work to handle everything at the scene of the accident so that they can limit or mitigate their company’s liability.  Many times trucking, hauling and leasing companies dispute whose insurance will provide for victim compensation.  These companies’ representatives know that the ideal time to confront an accident victim is immediately following the event.  In the aftermath of a truck accident, the traumatized victim will need to make important decisions that will impact their future.  Grieving, anxious and injured people are pressured by trucking and insurance companies’ tactics.  Too often the victims and their families struggle through the difficult after effects of truck collisions alone.  By working with an experienced attorney, victims can have some control and participation in ensuring that their rights and interests are protected.

Improving the Odds

The following suggestions may help motorists to improve the odds when sharing the road with large commercial trucks:

  • Keep visible.  Stay out of the “no-zones” – the truck’s blind spots.  When behind a truck, stay far enough back to see both of the truck’s side mirrors.
  • Maintain a safe distance to ensure that there is enough space and time to brake.
  • Drive defensively.
  • Use signals to turn or pass and avoid sudden moves such as swerving to pass.
  • Keep lights on and windshield wipers working on rainy days.

There are no easy answers to providing a productive and safe environment for everyone who shares the road; however making the safety of motorists a priority over profit is an important step in the right direction.  If shipping costs rise in order to ensure safer transportation of goods and services, it is a small price to pay to save lives.

If you or a loved one have been injured in a commercial trucking accident, you need the experienced truck accident lawyers of Munley Law to protect your rights. Large trucking companies have their own investigators and attorneys fighting for them, you need someone on your side. Contact us today for a free consultation.