For most of us it is common sense: A collision with a tractor-trailer truck is more likely to result in a fatality or catastrophic injury. Yet certain driver behaviors, manufacturing defects and other issues only compound on the obvious danger. While a large truck’s size and inability to stop suddenly make it clearly dangerous to other passenger vehicles and motorcycles on the road, what is easily seen is not always easily remedied. Protecting the population from the dangers of truck accidents has been the focus of government regulation, advocacy groups and the truck industry itself for years. The success of those efforts has improved road safety, but there is still more to be done.
Fortunately, the number of fatalities involving large trucks has gone down consistently the last several years. In 2009, the most recent year data is available, 3,215 people were killed in truck accidents, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). For advocates of highway and road safety, that is 3,215 too many. On average, approximately 4,000 people are killed and 100,000 are injured every year, according to the advocacy group Citizens for Reliable and Safe Highways.
This article will discuss common reasons for truck accident fatalities and injuries in the U.S., as well as what measures can be taken to prevent further danger. The article will also discuss remedies available to those who are suffering because of an accident with a large truck.
Truck driver fatigue has been the subject of regulation for over 70 years. With time constraints and a heavy workload, truck drivers can feel pressure to work long hours. However, those long hours add to driver fatigue, making the roads a more dangerous place.
In order to combat fatigue, truck drivers are limited in the number of consecutive hours they can work. The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) most recently changed the maximum HOS regulation in 2003. Among other provisions, the FMCSA reduced the maximum consecutive on-duty time to 14 hours. Perhaps not coincidentally, since that time truck accident fatalities have lowered by as much as 30 percent, the American Trucking Association reports.
Unfortunately, driver fatigue is not the only cause of driver error. Reckless driving, improper maintenance and driving while intoxicated (DWI) have all contributed to the fatality rate in recent years.
The NHTSA has also begun a prolonged campaign to end another insidious type of driver behavior that frequently causes accidents. Concern over distracted driving has recently grown in the public awareness, and well it should – a University of Utah study found that drivers on cellphones behaved similarly to a driver with a blood alcohol content (BAC) of .08, the legal limit for DWI. According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), drivers who use a hand-held device are four times as likely to get into an accident while driving that causes injury.
The Governors Highway Safety Association reports 34 states, D.C. and Guam ban texting while driving, with some also banning all use of hand-held cellphones. Furthermore, in 2010 the FMCSA banned commercial motor vehicle drivers from texting while operating in interstate commerce.
Unfortunately, distracted driving continues to trouble roads. Research by the NHTSA found that 48 percent of commercial vehicle drivers have had a “close call” while using some sort of device while driving. Distracted driving is not just limited to cellphone use, but also eating, grooming and adjusting the radio or other car settings. When commercial vehicle drivers do not pay attention when driving, the chance for a tragic accident increases dramatically. In fact, 16 percent of all fatal crashes on U.S. roads included distracted driving (5,474 people, according to Department of Transportation statistics).
Driver behavior only exacerbates the inherent danger of all trucks. In order to reduce danger, all large trucks must meet federal weight and size limitations, and states will often have individual rules and regulations trucks must comply with as well. These regulations can often be seasonal, and it is up to the driver and trucking company to comply with all rules. Currently, federal regulations restrict the size of large trailer-trucks to 80,000 pounds or less. This regulation has been in place since 1991. While legislation has been introduced to increase the maximum allowable weight of trucks, fears over the danger to others on the road and damage to the highway system have prevented any such legislation from passing.
In addition to size limitations, trucks must have certain safety features in order to comply with federal law. One such safety feature is the under-ride guard, which prevents passenger cars from sliding underneath the trailer and risking driver and passenger decapitation, or severe brain or neck injury. An under-ride guard will halt a car’s progress underneath the trailer and prompt the car’s front-end safety features, such as air bags, making the likelihood of survival much greater.
The IIHS recently studied under-ride guards for tractor-trailers. Unfortunately, the results of the study indicated that under-ride guards may not be adequately protecting passenger cars in accidents. According to the IIHS, even in relatively low-speed crashes (30 mph) under-ride guards could fail to protect passenger cars while still meeting federal safety standards. Even for the strongest under-ride guards, around half of the rear of the trailer was vulnerable to severe under-ride. This means that unless a car struck the trailer exactly in the center, under-ride was a significant risk. It appears stronger under-ride guards are needed to increase the safety of collisions with the rear and sides of a trailer.
If a truck has a manufacturing error, a lack of maintenance or is not up to regulation, when that error results in an injury the party responsible is liable for whatever damages arises out of that wrongful act or negligence. This includes violating federal regulations such as HOS requirements or not having a truck meet weight restrictions or regulations for carrying hazardous materials.
In addition, if a driver is negligent, under the theory of “respondeat superior” (Latin for “let the superior answer”) a company can be responsible for the negligent or wrongful driving of its employee. This is true only so long as the employee is acting within the scope of his or her employment. This allows those injured by a truck driver’s negligence or wrongful act to recover for injuries resulting from the accident with the trucking company itself, not just the driver.
From manufacturing defects to driver error, a plethora of issues contribute to large truck fatalities and serious injuries. With the devastating effects that result in a truck collision, an injured driver or passenger should seek compensation for medical bills, lost wages and other associated costs.
If you have been injured by a collision with a large truck, contact a personal injury attorney. If a loved one has been tragically killed by a driver’s negligence, a violation of regulations or any otherwise preventable reason, you can hold those responsible accountable with a wrongful death claim.
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