At the start of the 2019-2020 school year, parents in Orange County noticed new signs and the addition of a second crossing guard at an intersection near an elementary school. It was the site where a 10-year-old boy was struck and killed by a tractor-trailer while leaving school on his bicycle last spring. The boy’s mother expressed both anger that the sign was not placed at the dangerous intersection years ago as well as hope that the sign and the presence of additional crossing guards will save other children. In the meantime, the truck driver who caused the accident had still not been located, in spite of the family offering a reward for information.
Tractor-trailer accidents, whether they involve passenger cars, other tractor-trailers, pedestrians or bicyclists, tend to be catastrophic. This is due mostly to the sheer size of a tractor-trailer, though other factors—such as blind spots and maneuverability—also increase the risk of severe injury or even death to those that cross its path. If you’ve been injured or have lost a loved one due to a tractor-trailer accident, an experienced attorney can help you understand your legal options and the compensation that may be available to you.
Risky Business: The Dangers of Big Rigs
Commercial motor vehicles are an important part of the U.S. economy, transporting 68 percent of the products we use to the stores we buy those products from. There are nearly two million active semi trucks and 5.6 million semi trailers in the country. The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration reported that there were around 107,000 injury crashes involving large trucks in the United States.
Many of these crashes were caused by driver error and health or sleep issues. However, there are inherent features of the tractor-trailer that make it particularly susceptible to deadly crashes. Here is a look at a few of those dangerous factors:
- Size: A fully loaded tractor-trailer can weigh up to 80,000 pounds. They’re tall vehicles, with a large amount of space beneath them. The average car weighs no more than 4,000 pounds and can easily slide beneath a truck. These two factors place the occupants of passenger vehicles at increased risk of severe injury or death in accidents involving tractor-trailers. In fact, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety notes that around 68 percent of fatalities in truck accidents are people in passenger cars.
- Poor braking capabilities: Brakes can only do so much with a vehicle that size. It takes 40 percent more time and distance for a tractor-trailer to stop when there is an obstacle in the roadway than what is required for a passenger vehicle to come to a safe stop.
- Blind spots: Semi trailers are generally 53 feet long, though some semis can pull more than one trailer at a time and are, therefore, even longer. What this amounts to is large blind spots directly in front, behind, and to each side—particularly the right hand side. The drivers of passenger cars must use caution when driving in the vicinity of a big rig, as the truck driver may not be able to see them. If you’re wondering if you’re driving in the blind spot of a tractor-trailer, a good rule of thumb is that if you cannot see the truck driver’s reflection in his or her side mirror, then it’s likely that you’re in the blind spot and the driver can’t see you either.
- High center of gravity: Another feature involving the size of a tractor-trailer is its high center of gravity, which increases the chances of the truck rolling over when it is involved in an accident. This can be a deadly issue for other drivers on the roadway, particularly in heavy traffic.
- Frequent maintenance required: Trucks travel hundreds of thousands of miles. Because of this, regular and vigilant maintenance is required. Malfunctions to the brakes, tires, steering, or other parts of the truck can also increase the risk of accidents.
- Improperly loaded or shifting cargo: Tractor-trailers may be carrying thousands of pounds of cargo at any given time. If this cargo is not loaded and secured properly, it can shift during transport, making the vehicle more difficult to control and creating an imbalance that poses a higher risk of the truck jackknifing or overturning.
- Dangerous cargo: In addition to heavy cargo, commercial trucks also frequently transport hazardous materials, including chemicals that can spill out in an accident and cause both environmental and health concerns.
- Slow start: Not only does it take a tractor-trailer more time and distance to stop, but more time and distance are needed to get up to the speed needed to keep up with the flow of traffic, as well. This is particularly true when the tractor-trailer is merging onto a highway or interstate. If the driver underestimates the time it will take him or her to accelerate, or the speed of the other vehicles on the roadway, the risk of being rear-ended by another vehicle while merging increases.
Critical Errors and Critical Reasons
Several years ago, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration studied the data from 963 tractor-trailer accidents in 17 states to try to determine the most common causes of accidents involving large trucks. The data collected was categorized by critical reason and critical event.
- Critical event: What action or event put the truck and another vehicle or vehicles on a course that made a collision unavoidable? The top actions or events included running out of the travel lane, either into another lane or off the road, which accounted for 32 percent of the tractor-trailers that were assigned a critical event; loss of vehicle control due to driving too fast for conditions, cargo shift, vehicle systems failure, or poor road conditions, 29 percent; and colliding with another vehicle in the truck’s lane of travel, 22 percent.
- Critical reason: 59 percent of large trucks that were coded with a critical reason as to why the crash occurred. There were four reasons assigned, including performance errors such as the driver panicking, over-correcting, or used poor directional control; non-performance, which involves the driver falling asleep or becoming disabled or impaired by a physical condition such as a heart attack or a seizure; decision, which involves the driver misjudging the speed of other vehicles on the roadway, driving too fast for conditions, or following another vehicle too closely; and recognition, which involves the driver becoming distracted or otherwise failing to adequately observe the situation around him or her.
The study revealed that decision was the most common critical reason assigned to truck drivers involved in crashes, accounting for 38 percent of the crashes. The next most common critical reason was recognition, with 28 percent, followed by non-performance, with 12 percent, and performance, with 9 percent.
Many accidents have more than one single cause or reason for happening, however. Researchers found hundreds of associated factors that contributed to crashes involving commercial trucks. The ten most common factors include:
- Brake problems
- Traffic congestion
- The use of prescription drugs,
- Traveling too fast for conditions
- Unfamiliarity with the roadway
- Roadway problems
- Stopping for a crosswalk or a red light
- Over-the-counter drug use
- Inadequate surveillance for potential hazards
Truck driver fatigue is a major concern. So much so that the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration passed regulations regarding how many consecutive hours a driver can drive before taking a break, how many hours they can drive per day, and how many hours they can drive per week. Drivers are required to log their hours electronically so inspectors can readily view their time spent on duty when the need arises. While falling asleep poses the biggest fatigue risk for causing an accident, fatigue makes driving a tractor-trailer dangerous for other reasons as well. These reasons include:
- Impaired decision making. Fatigue affects a driver’s ability to make good decisions, much like alcohol or medication would
- Lack of emotional control. Fatigue makes a person angry. Anger also impacts an individual’s ability to make good decisions and increases the chance of aggressive driving behaviors.
- Increased reliance on stimulants. Truck drivers sometimes use prescription, illegal, and over-the-counter stimulants to stay awake while they’re behind the wheel. Unfortunately, reliance on stimulants often causes the symptoms of driver fatigue to worsen or masks the driver’s cues as to when they need to stop and take a break.
- Disruption of the circadian rhythms: The circadian rhythm is the body’s instinct to sleep during nighttime hours. Unfortunately, these hours are often when truck drivers choose to drive. The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration’s study revealed that the time of day in which a truck accident occurred is often more telling than how many hours the driver has driven.
- Sleep inertia: Studies have shown that the most common time for a truck driver to be involved in an accident is within an hour after he or she has woken up. This is particularly true when the driver has slept in a sleeper berth. Researchers believe that this is due to sleep inertia, which temporarily impacts the driver’s short-term memory, vigilance, cognitive functioning, reaction time, and ability to resist sleep.
How to Avoid an Accident With a Tractor-Trailer
Unfortunately, you can not prevent all accidents. There are times when the situation is out of the truck driver’s control, or out of the control of drivers of other vehicles who are on the roadway with the tractor-trailer. Some of those situations include:
- Defective parts. Truck drivers are often not aware that they have purchased a defective part for their truck that will not perform as it was intended.
- Road conditions. Truck drivers have no more control over poorly placed crosswalk signs, obstacles blocking visibility at the intersection, or debris on the road.
- Other drivers: An accident between a truck and another vehicle can sometimes be caused by the actions of the driver of a third vehicle.
That said, there are some things that the drivers of passenger cars can do to avoid having an accident with a tractor-trailer. Here are a few tips:
- Avoid the truck’s blind spots. Don’t drive directly in front, behind, or alongside a large truck, as the driver may not be able to see you. If you must drive alongside the truck to pass it, don’t stay alongside it for an extended length of time.
- Pay attention to the truck’s turn signals. Be aware that the driver may not see you and may turn in front of you.
- Understand how hard it is to stop a truck. Don’t cut a truck off or pull out in front of it or otherwise drive aggressively around it.
- Be courteous in inclement weather. Poor visibility and slick roads make travel difficult for all vehicles. If the weather is bad, give large trucks extra space.
- Never pass a truck on the right-hand side. The blind spot on the right side of the truck is greater than that on the front, back, or left-hand side. Additionally, as passing generally takes place on the left-hand side, the truck driver may not be looking for you to be passing on the right.
- Leave extra space for tire blow-outs. There are a lot of miles put on the tires of tractor-trailers and those tires are forced to haul heavy loads. Tractor-trailers experience frequent blow-outs, which can cause debris on the roadway. Giving a truck extra space allows you extra time to react and respond to the debris created when a tire blows.
- Because tractor-trailers are slow to accelerate, you should get out of the lane of travel that a truck is merging onto, if possible. This allows the truck space to get into the lane and consider accelerating until it is traveling with the flow of traffic.
- If you need to pull over on the side of the road, make sure you are completely off the road so that drivers of tractor-trailers and other vehicles have enough space to pass by without hitting your car.
- If you encounter a truck driver who is driving aggressively or carelessly, pull over to remove yourself from the truck’s path and contact the local authorities to report the incident.
If you were injured or lost a loved one due to a truck accident, an experienced truck accident attorney can help you understand your legal options.