There is something absolutely terrifying about seeing a truck rolling over. And yet, with frightening regularity, trucks on Florida roads leave their wheels and end up on their sides and roofs. In the best case scenario, a rolled truck blocks traffic for a few hours, but its driver and others escape the accident unscathed. At worst, a rollover accident involving a truck kills and injuries multiple motorists and bystanders.
In this blog post, we take a close look at the phenomenon of truck rollovers; why and how they happen, what can be done to avoid them, and who has responsibility for paying compensation to those whose lives get turned upside down by a truck rollover accident.
How Common Are Truck Rollovers?
According to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA), which regulates commercial interstate trucking in the United States, there were more than 17,000 truck rollover accidents reported in 2017, where the rollover was the “most harmful event” in the accident. Rollover was the “first harmful event” in 4 percent of all fatal truck crashes that year, but represented the “most harmful event” in 6.5 percent of all fatal truck accidents and 8 percent of non-fatal truck crashes involving injuries. And in 2015, the insurance industry publication Claims Journal reported that rollovers caused a disproportionately high number of fatalities. “Rollovers were responsible for more than half of the deaths to [truck] drivers and their occupants in 2012”, according to the Claims Journal.
The Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles does not publish truck rollover statistics specifically. But research from the American Transportation Research Institute (ATRI) found that Florida is far from immune from truck rollover catastrophes. According to ATRI, as of the early 2000s, there were hundreds of such accidents on Florida roads every year, accounting for dozens of fatalities and hundreds of injuries.
What do these numbers tell us? They reflect that although rollovers represent a relatively small portion of overall truck accidents, they predictably cause serious and fatal injuries on American roads, and that Florida is no exception.
What Causes Truck Rollovers?
In the early 2000s, the FMCSA conducted a study of the causation of large truck accidents. Researchers A. James McKnight, Ph.D., and George T. Bahouth, D.Sc., then analyzed the FMCSA data and, in 2008, published findings about the causes of truck rollover accidents.
To begin with, they observed that “[t]he direct cause of any rollover is something that increases the roll moment about the longitudinal axis of the vehicle, generally either turning too quickly or allowing one side of the vehicle to drop or rise suddenly.” The study then identified the underlying causes for this rollover-inducing movement, and grouped them into the seven categories discussed below:
Speed as a Cause of Truck Rollovers
“Speed is the biggest contributor to rollover crashes, being involved in 45 percent of the crashes,” according to the study. When the front wheels of a truck are turning more quickly than the cargo the truck is pulling, rollover is prone to happen.
Truck rollovers happen because of speed or reckless driving particularly frequently at curves in the road. According to the study, 77 percent of speed-related rollovers happen at curves, such as on-and-off ramps, and more than 80 percent of those crashes happen because the truck driver simply misjudged the safe speed for entering and navigating a curve. (Similarly, unsafe speeds at intersections at which the truck must turn also often result in rollovers.) Speed also contributes significantly to truck rollover accidents when the truck’s cargo is not stable or properly loaded. Trucks have a high center of gravity. When cargo causes that center of gravity to shift, at speed, a rollover can result.
Inattention as a Cause of Truck Rollovers
The second-most-common contributor to truck rollovers, according to McKnight and Bahouth, is truck driver inattention, which ranges from simply taking one’s mind off of the road, to sleeping, to distractions such as CB radios and (these days) smartphones. Any time a truck driver’s attention drifts from the road ahead, the risks increase that the driver will react to a road hazard by making a “sudden change in direction” that precipitates a rollover.
(Lack of) Control as a Cause of Truck Rollovers
The researchers also found that mistakes by drivers in how they control a truck contributes significantly to rollover accidents. The biggest culprit in this category was over-steering when changing lanes or swerving harder than necessary to avoid a perceived hazard. These sorts of too-sharp changes of direction cause an imbalance that leads to rollover, similar to what happens when a driver enters a curve at an unsafe speed. Related to over-steering is overcorrection—in other words, correcting a lesser steering mistake with a greater one—which can lead to a rollover for the same reasons. Finally, under-steering can also cause rollovers, such as when the driver fails to steer a truck away from a road shoulder next to an embankment, causing the wheels to leave the road.
Visual Search Failures as a Cause of Truck Rollovers
The three categories above are somewhat specific to rollover accidents. The remaining four contribute to all types of truck accidents, rollovers included. First is a truck driver’s failure to perform an adequate “visual search” for traffic conflicts. This factor relates somewhat to inattention, but has to do specifically with not checking both ways at intersections or looking far enough down the road to perceive upcoming hazards.
Preoperative Factors as a Cause of Truck Rollovers
The study identified two particular factors that occur before the truck takes to the road that contribute to rollover accidents. One is a driver’s failure to assure the security of a load of cargo. As discussed above, a sudden and unexpected shift in cargo can contribute to a loss of control. The other factor is a pre-existing condition specific to the driver before he climbs behind the wheel—such as a medical ailment that makes him unable to operate safely, or a chronic lack of sleep.
Other Drivers as a Cause of Truck Rollovers
The study found that in some rollovers, truck driver behavior is not to blame. Rather, other vehicles on the road may collide with a truck, or operate erratically forcing trucks to take evasive action. In either case, a rollover can result.
Vehicle Condition as a Cause of Truck Rollovers
Finally, the study identified instances in which failures of vehicle parts and systems—brakes and tires, especially—failed and caused a rollover. Drivers may contribute to these conditions by failing to inspect their vehicles adequately before taking to the road, but oftentimes the responsibility for inspecting and maintaining a vehicle lies with someone other than the driver.
What Hazards Do Truck Rollovers Cause?
Truck rollovers lead to potentially deadly road and traffic conditions. As noted above, in the best case, rollovers lead to hours-long traffic tie ups. But oftentimes the hazards are far worse. Here is a list of some of the more common truck rollover dangers.
- Collision between the truck and other vehicles. A truck can roll over onto or slide on its side into another vehicle. It can also obstruct a roadway making it impossible for other vehicles to avoid.
- Harm to the truck driver. If a driver is lucky, only his trailer rolls over in an accident. When the truck cab also flips, the impact can crush the driver’s compartment and lead to catastrophic or fatal injuries for the trucker and any passenger in his vehicle.
- Spilled cargo, exposures, and explosions. Trucks carry a wide variety of cargo on Florida roads. When a truck rolls, it risks spilling that cargo onto the roadway. Spilled cargo can create all kinds of potentially deadly hazards. Hard goods can obstruct the roadway and pose a hazard for collisions. Liquid cargo can cause roadways to become slick. And toxic or flammable cargo can poison the air or ignite, leading to a deadly fire or explosion.
- Secondary vehicle-on-vehicle collisions. Even when no vehicle collides with an overturned truck, a rollover can lead to “secondary” accidents between other vehicles on the road. This may occur as a result of those vehicles swerving to avoid an overturned truck or its cargo, or because an overturned truck distracts other motorists and causes them to lose control of their vehicles.
Who Has Legal Liability for Damages in a Truck Rollover Accident?
As the discussion above details, rollover accidents have many different causes and lead to many different effects. A person who sustains injuries or loses a loved one in an accident involving a truck rollover may have rights to take legal action for compensation. But who has legal liability to pay that compensation? In truck rollover accidents, that is not always a straightforward question. The job of an experienced truck accident lawyer is to sort through the various parties involved in a rollover accident to identify those with potential legal liability and the ability to pay.
The Many Potentially Liable Parties
The common causes of truck accidents listed above support the view that in many (if not most) cases, the actions of the truck driver lead to the rollover. But that does not mean that the truck driver is the only party who may have liability for harm the rollover causes, or even that the truck driver will have liability at all.
The average commercial truck has multiple parties legally associated with it. There’s the trucker, the truck owner, the owner of the cargo, and the owner of the trailer (which is often different from the owner of the tractor), for starters. There’s also often a company that loads a truck, and an independent mechanic who regularly maintains it. And of course, there are manufacturers of trucks and truck parts.
Plus, not every rollover results from anyone or anything specifically associated with the truck. As we mentioned above, collisions with other vehicles or reasonable attempts to avoid them can also cause rollovers. So can some road conditions created by road crews and civil engineers. In short, there are lots and lots of parties whose actions may contribute to a truck rollover.
Any of these parties’ actions could contribute to a rollover. Which means any of them could have legal liability to victims of that rollover accident.
Lawyers Investigate Causation and Resources to Narrow the List
After compiling a list of potentially-liable parties, a lawyer confronted with the task of seeking compensation for a client injured in a truck rollover will typically try to narrow that list by eliminating anyone whose actions could not possibly have caused the particular rollover at issue. Then, the lawyer will narrow that list further by identifying which of the parties has the ability to pay compensation, either out of insurance proceeds or from assets.
At the end of this investigative process, the lawyer aims to have identified one or more parties who: (a) owed a duty of care not to harm the victim of the rollover accident; (b) breached that duty of care through that action or omission; and (c) caused the harm involved. This trifecta of elements of a claim can vary slightly depending on the circumstances, but it forms the backbone of most personal injury cases where a victim of someone else’s careless or reckless conduct seeks compensation.
Recap: Truck Rollovers Endanger Lives
Because truck rollovers are relatively rare, the odds are that most people will never have to face the aftermath of getting injured or losing a love done in one. But that’s most people. Anyone unlucky enough to encounter a truck rollover faces a high risk of injury or fatality. Knowing the common causes of truck rollovers can help you avoid an accident, but sometimes the accident finds you, as they say.
If you have questions about your legal rights after a truck rollover accident harms you or a loved one, consult with an experienced Orlando truck accident attorney today. There is no cost in sitting down with a lawyer for an initial meeting, and what you learn may help you pick up the pieces after a rollover disrupts your life.