Trucking Law and Fatalities Involving Commercial Trucks

July 23, 2019 Truck Accident Blog

Fatal Collisions Involving Commercial Trucks and the Law

The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration keeps statistics on collisions involving commercial trucks, and the fatality rates tend to be higher than in accidents involving any other kind of vehicle, which makes sense considering the size and weight of these 18-wheel rigs. When an accident does happen, the injuries tend to be extremely severe, and hospital bills and lost income from disabilities can reduce the quality of life for victims and cause hardships for family members. According to the FMCSA, in 2005, 5,231 fatal crashes were reported per 100 million vehicle miles, and in 2017, there were 4,889 commercial trucks and buses involved in collisions that caused fatalities.

Causes of Fatalities and Commercial Vehicle Hazards

There are around 2 million tractor-trailers operating in the United States at any given moment. Understanding the cause of fatalities as well as greater awareness and defensive driving can help drivers navigate around these large vehicles. The drivers of small passenger cars are often unaware that these huge trucks are unable to stop as fast as other vehicles. People often cut in front of these massive trucks and then slam on the brakes, for example. Dangerous driving by individuals in cars can put a truck in an impossible situation. The truck driver may or may not be able to maneuver around small cars when they brake quickly. Other road conditions may contribute to fatal accidents, including rain, snow, ice, extensive construction, hill grades and prolonged night driving.

Commercial Trucks’ Total Stopping Distance

The size and weight of a truck contribute to its long stopping distances. A typical tractor-trailer can weigh around 40 tons, and it can take around 600 feet to come to a stop if it is traveling at approximately 60 miles per hour. To put that into perspective, cars typically need around 305 feet to come to a stop after initiating the brakes, but a tractor-trailer requires around 525 feet. This basic difference in perception can contribute to fatal collisions. A commercial truck will need the equivalent of one-and-a-half football fields to come to a complete stop. In addition, faster speeds require even more distance. When you think about all these road conditions happening simultaneously, it is easy to see how a truck can get involved in an accident and cause more damage than other vehicles.

The Department of Transportation, or DOT, keeps records on the total number of fatalities recorded each year. The administration also shows a detailed breakdown of the various factors that contribute to fatal collisions. The factors reveal that:

  • Distracted drivers are always dangerous, but they are especially hazardous in commercial trucks because of the sheer size and weight of the vehicle. Distracted driving includes texting, driver fatigue, driving too fast in bad weather and driving under the influence of medication or other substances.
  • Brake problems and other mechanical failures can cause the truck driver to lose control of the vehicle.
  • Weight distribution conventions are often ignored, and drivers might misjudge the effect of the load being carried if the weight is improperly distributed through the axles. A shift in the load on a curve can send the truck into a ditch, for example. Any vehicles close to the truck are at risk.
  • Drivers who are excessively fatigued may pose a risk to everyone around them on the road. Managers will often put pressure on drivers to keep driving past the 11-hour limit, which is a federal regulation.
  • Improper use of the braking system can contribute to fatal accidents on the road. Commercial vehicles are equipped with an air brake system for the wheels, but the engine brake is the main method of slowing down when the vehicle is moving at fast speeds. The use of the engine brakes prevents the drum brakes from overheating, which can make the driver lose control.

Major Factors in Truck Accident Fatalities

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Trucks cause more deaths than other road vehicles mainly because of their weight, which can be as much as 80,000 pounds. During 2013, there were 338,000 crashes that involved a commercial truck, and in 3,906 of them, there were fatalities. The Department of Transportation estimates that there are around 10 fatalities every day. One study showed that alcohol and drug use only account for around 3% of collisions involving a truck. Driver fatigue and problems with the braking system account for a very large portion of accidents, yet liability is always contested. Truck accident lawyers know how to analyze collisions and create a legal strategy to help protect your rights.

The When and Where of Semitruck Fatalities

The location of the truck is a contributing factor in addition to the fatigue of the driver, road conditions and the condition of the truck. For example, only 5% of the fatalities occurred on interstate highways during a test year, and 84% of the deaths happened during normal business hours during the week. Furthermore, 64% of the deadly crashes took place on rural roads. These statistics suggest that the location and time of the accident are contributing factors. In addition, the body of the truck might affect the survival rate of drivers relative to the other cars involved in the crash. For example, during the same year, 691 truck drivers survived a collision while there was a total of 3,906 fatalities involving car drivers or passengers. Awareness of these factors can help drivers understand high-risk conditions.

Pervasive Trends in Liability

Laws for trucking determine the responsibility of various parties involved in an accident. There are several conditions that will contribute to an accident, and an analysis of the events leading up to the incident is necessary. Even though the driver is immediately involved in the accident, there are other parties who could be found liable.

When determining who’s liable for an accident, it’s important to keep in mind that:

  • The truck driver is responsible for the duties and rules that are described in the CDL manual.
  • The truck and trailer owner can be liable for faulty maintenance, neglect and other areas where direct control is exercised.
  • Manufacturers can be held liable for faulty parts.
  • Shippers and dock workers who load the truck might be liable in cases where the cargo was improperly loaded onto the truck.
  • Hazardous cargo may contribute to the number of fatalities and severity of injuries for the survivors.

The trucking company exercises direct control over the driver’s actual working conditions, so this tends to affect the issue of liability. Driver fatigue is a major factor in deadly crashes, but tiredness may also be caused by conditions over which only companies have control, for example. Trucking companies often hire their own lawyers to help minimize this liability, and they may also attempt to shift the blame to the driver or others involved.

Our Truck Accident Firm

Our lawyers are knowledgeable about trucking law and are here to protect the legal rights of victims of collisions involving commercial vehicles. Although trucking companies are required to carry insurance, they will often fight to reduce the amount they have to pay. Contact one of our legal representatives in New Brunswick at (732) 247-3600 or in Somerville at (908) 448-2560 to learn more.

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