Being involved in a car accident is one of the most terrifying experiences one can have. Even more terrifying: being involved in an accident with a semi-truck. As noted by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, a fully loaded semi-truck weighs 20-30 times more than a passenger car and it features a ground clearance that is high enough for smaller vehicles to slide underneath it. Further, semi-trucks require up to 40 percent more distance to come to a safe stop than a passenger car and even more distance if the roads are wet. If you’ve been injured in an accident with a semi-truck, an experienced personal injury attorney can help you to determine if you are eligible for compensation.
What, Exactly, Is a Semi-Truck?
Up to 68 percent of the goods we purchase in stores are transported and delivered by commercial motor vehicles. These vehicles are often referred to as semi-trucks, semis, semi-trailers, tractor-trailers, big rigs, or 18-wheelers. According to Popular Mechanics, as of 2016, about 2.8 million semi-trucks were registered in the United States These trucks are designed to pull trailers that have no front wheels and can only be used if connected to the tractor part of the truck.
Federal regulations allow these trucks, when loaded, to weigh up to 80,000 pounds, which is spread out over the eighteen wheels that move the vehicle. In 1997, the government began requiring all semi-trucks to come with anti-lock brakes, which has significantly reduced a type of accident known as a jackknife in which the trailer swings around to form an acute angle with the truck.
How Many Accidents Take Place With Semi-Trucks?
According to data provided by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA), the agency tasked with governing commercial motor vehicles in the United States, about 350,000 accidents involve large trucks each year and about 116,000 cause injuries. More than 4,000 people in this country lose their lives due to accidents with semi-trucks each year, with around 17 percent being the truck drivers themselves, and 68 percent being the occupants of passenger cars and 14 percent being pedestrians, bicyclists, and motorcyclists.
When the accident is a two-vehicle accident involving a semi-truck and a passenger car, 97 percent of the time the fatality is an occupant of the passenger car. The number of fatal accidents involving commercial vehicles has increased by about 42 percent in the past ten years. 11 percent of all motor vehicle accident fatalities in the United States involve a commercial truck.
In Florida, more than 30,000 accidents involving heavy trucks occurred in 2017, resulting in 27 fatalities, 126 incapacitating injuries, and 371 non-incapacitating injuries.
How Do These Accidents Happen?
Like any motor vehicle crash, an accident involving a semi-truck can happen for a variety of reasons. The accident can be caused by either the truck driver, by the driver of another vehicle, or by other factors. Here is a look at some of the common reasons these accidents occur.
Caused by Another Driver
- Driving in the truck’s blind spot. Semi-trucks, due to their extreme height and length, have substantial blind spots on all four sides. A blind spot is a place where the driver is unable to see you through the window or in his or her side mirrors. These areas are called no zones. Driving in the no zone for a long time can place you at risk of an accident because the truck driver may forget or not see that you are there. How do you know if you’re traveling in a no zone? If you can’t see the driver in his or her side mirrors, then the driver cannot see you, either.
- Turning in front of, merging in front of, or changing lanes in front of a truck. Semi-trucks are not able to stop as quickly as other vehicles. If you underestimate how fast the truck is going when you pull in front of it, you are in danger of being rear-ended by it.
- Tailgating, which not only puts the driver in the truck’s blind spot, but also increases the risk of an accident in which a passenger car actually rides beneath the truck.
- Distractions inside or outside of the vehicle that draw the driver’s attention away from the roadway.
- Failing to pay attention to a truck’s turn signals. Drivers place themselves at risk of being in an accident with a semi-truck when they attempt to drive to the right of a truck that is making a right-hand turn.
- Failing to slow down to allow a truck to change lanes or merge.
- Failing to pull completely off the road if you need to stop for any reason, so that the truck doesn’t have enough room to maneuver past your car.
Caused by the Truck Driver
- Speeding. Large trucks are harder to control than small cars and the faster they go, the less control there is.
- Fatigue. Truck drivers travel hundreds of miles a day, often through boring terrain, for many hours at a time. It is common for them to drive at night, which disrupts the body’s natural nighttime sleeping cycle. Fatigue not only puts a driver at risk of falling asleep behind the wheel, but also makes them less attentive and slows the ability for the driver to react to hazards. The FMCSA reported that, in 2017, 35 percent of all fatal crashes and 22 percent of all injury accidents involving commercial trucks took place between the hours of 6 pm and 6 am.
- Impairment by alcohol or drugs, including prescription, illegal, and over-the-counter medications. Alcohol and drugs erode the skills needed for driving, such as the ability to complete two tasks at once, to respond quickly and appropriately to hazards, to properly scan the roadway, and to control the vehicle. In 2017, 252 truck drivers who were killed in semi-truck accidents tested positive for at least one drug, the FMCSA reported.
- Traffic congestion, when coupled with distraction or other factors, can lead to an accident involving a semi-truck.
- Poor vehicle maintenance. Because these vehicles are so massive in weight and travel such long distances, regular maintenance is required. Vehicle malfunctions including blown tires, steering issues, worn brakes, or faulty electrical systems can result in the driver losing control of his or her vehicle.
- Tailgating. If the semi-truck is following another vehicle too closely and that vehicle suddenly stops, the truck driver may not have time to stop the semi safely.
- Distractions. Because they travel alone for so many hours, many drivers are tempted to entertain themselves by texting, browsing the internet, looking at social media, talking on the phone, eating or drinking. Distractions increase the risk of accidents for all drivers as they draw the driver’s hands from the wheel, eyes from the road, and attention from the task of driving.
- Improperly loaded cargo. Cargo must be properly loaded and secured to prevent it from shifting during transport. Shifted cargo can create an imbalance that makes the truck harder to control and increases the risk of a rollover.
- Unfamiliar roadways. The job of transporting goods often requires truck drivers to navigate cities that he or she has not traveled to before. This can increase accident risks if the driver is unaware that he or she has gotten on a one-way road or exit ramp going the wrong direction or misses a turn and drives carelessly in an attempt to get back to it. Another example of how an unfamiliar roadway may cause a semi-truck accident is when there is a new road alignment due to road construction, which may cause the driver to inadvertently enter the lane of opposing traffic. In 2017, 30 percent of work zone fatal crashes and 12 percent of work zone injury crashes involved at least one commercial truck, the FMCSA noted.
- Poor training. A shortage of truck drivers has led to increasing demands on the ones doing the job. These demands sometimes cause companies to put drivers on the road solo before they’re ready. While truck drivers are required to complete courses to obtain their commercial driver’s licenses, these courses offer little by way of real-life experience and how to respond to situations that arise.
Caused by Other Factors
- Inclement weather. Slick roads increase the distance that the driver needs to stop the truck safely. Fog can hamper visibility. Wind can make the truck harder to control.
- Obstacles on the roadway, such as animals, people, previous accidents, or debris. In 2017, the FMCSA reported that the critical pre-crash event for 73 percent of semi-trucks involved in fatal crashes was another vehicle, person, animal, or object in the truck’s lane or encroaching into it.
- Defective truck parts. Manufacturers are obligated to provide parts that do what they’re intended to do if used properly. However, sometimes they do not uphold this duty. Defective parts on an 80,000 truck can come with deadly consequences.
- Other drivers on the road. Sometimes an accident between two vehicles is not the fault of either driver involved in the accident, but on the driving behavior of someone else. Aggressive driving, in particular, can cause accidents between vehicles whose drivers are merely trying to reach their destination safely.
According to a study from the FMCSA, semi-truck accidents that are caused by the truck driver are caused by one of four critical reasons. The four critical reasons that the FMCSA uses when reporting accident data include:
- Non-performance: Non-performance reasons include the driver falling asleep or suffering from a medical condition such as a heart attack or seizure that causes him or her to lose consciousness. Non-performance issues are present in around 12 percent of semi-truck accidents where the truck driver is at fault.
- Recognition: The driver was distracted by something inside or outside of the vehicle or otherwise inattentive. Recognition errors are the critical reason for around 28 percent of driver-caused accidents.
- Decision: The driver decided to drive too fast, follow someone too closely, or misjudged the speed of traffic. Decision was the critical reason assigned to 38 percent of driver-caused accidents that were evaluated in the study.
- Performance: The driver overreacted, panicked, or exhibited poor directional control. Performance issues were the critical reason for 9 percent of the accidents caused by semi-truck drivers.
Improving Truck Safety Through Technology and Training
With an increase in truck accidents and regulations that prevent them, trucking companies are turning to technology and training to lower the number of preventable accidents, according to a report from Work Truck Online. Some of these efforts include:
- Safety training for new and older truck drivers alike.
- Telematics, which electronically monitor the truck driver’s behavior with tasks like acceleration, braking, and speeding. The trucks are equipped with these devices which then deliver reports of a driver’s behavior to his or her employer. The use of this technology has already been found to reduce the instances of speeding among commercial truck drivers. Telematics can also monitor fuel usage and optimize routes.
- The provision of safety back-up cams to reduce the most common accident among semi-trucks: backing into objects or other vehicles when parking. The newer cameras also come with split-screen and quad-view so that drivers can see what is around them on all sides. The cameras also may come with recording capabilities.
- Trucks equipped with lane departure warnings, lane change alerts, alerts when something is in the truck’s side blind spot, and forward collision alerts with pedestrian avoidance.
- Apps that can allow one person to perform trailer lighting checks.
- Customized trailering checklists.
- Electronic stability monitoring.
- Hands-free phone technology.
- Rollover airbags.
One industry professional quoted in the report offered the warning that, in spite of all this new technology, driver training truly is an important aspect to reducing semi-truck accidents, as it provides truck drivers with a professional culture that can be promoted throughout the fleet and the industry.
If you were in an accident involving a semi-truck, you likely have legal questions that deserve answers. An Orlando Truck Collision attorney can help.