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The Key Factors in Trucking Accidents on American Roads and Highways

Offered by Fried Goldberg LLC

Statistics highlight the critical need for accountability and justice, but systemic failures by motor carriers should not be overlooked.

Large truck accidents are a significant and growing problem in the United States. According to the National Safety Council, in 2021, 5,700 large trucks were involved in fatal accidents. This represented an 18% increase since the previous year and a 49% increase over the previous decade. And while some of that increase can be attributed to a growing population and corresponding numbers of vehicles on the road, the involvement rate of large trucks has also increased significantly over the same period.

It’s clear that a truck accident can cause death and devastating life-threatening injuries. What may be less obvious is the reasons why large truck crashes happen in the first place. The most comprehensive look at causation is the Large Truck Crash Causation Study, which was conducted by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA). The FMCSA’s findings shed light on a truth that truck accident lawyers have understood for a long time: truck accidents are the result of driver error. 

What the Large Truck Causation Study does not address, however, is that systemic failures in trucking company hiring, supervision and training of drivers also factor into the causative picture.  

Types of truck driver errors that contribute to truck accidents

According to the FMCSA study, 87% of truck accidents are caused by driver-related factors. The remaining causes are vehicle-related (10%) and environment-related (3%).  Again, systemic failures in hiring, supervision and training are ignored by the study.

Driver-related factors are further broken down into four categories: decision, recognition, performance and non-performance.

Driver decision errors

Driver decision errors are errors in judgment the truck driver makes that lead directly to loss of control of the truck or to a collision with another vehicle. Some examples of driver decision errors include:

  • Driving too fast for the conditions.
  • Following too closely.
  • Misjudging the speed or location of another vehicle.
  • Making illegal or aggressive maneuvers.
  • Assuming another vehicle is going to turn, yield, or stop.
  • Failing to wear a seatbelt, which is important to keep the driver at the wheel and in control of the vehicle.

There are several ways negligence can contribute to these errors in judgment.

At the driver level, drivers sometimes simply make careless mistakes or exercise poor judgment.  The Large Truck Causation Study does a good job explaining these errors.  Speeding, rushing through an intersection where the traffic signal is turning red, making a left turn when the gap is not quite big enough are all examples of such conduct. 

In addition, truckers who are under the influence of drugs or alcohol have – among other problems – impaired judgment, which can lead to reckless or careless decisions behind the wheel.

Driver recognition errors

Recognition errors are a category of mistakes that involve failure to properly assess and understand a situation on the road.

Truck drivers are trained to keep a 12-15 second lookout ahead for hazards.  This extended eye-lead time is necessary because it takes so much longer for trucks to slow down or otherwise take evasive action. Timely recognition of a hazard is a key safety requirement.

Perhaps the most significant factor in driver recognition errors is distracted driving. Truckers may be distracted when using their cell phones and other electronic devices behind the wheel, talking to a dispatcher, eating and drinking, or simply adjusting the radio. Because large trucks are so heavy, unwieldy, and have a long stopping distance, it only takes a moment of inattention to cause a serious wreck.

Other types of recognition errors include failing to check the truck’s blind spots before changing lanes and failing to read road signs and alerts. Note that in order to legally operate a heavy truck in the United States, drivers must be able to read English well enough to understand road signs.  Real-world experience investigating and handling truck crash cases bears out that driver recognition errors are a major contributing factor to many crashes. 

Driver performance errors

Driving a truck is not like driving a car.  The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations set out basic special driving knowledge and skills that all CDL licensed truck drivers must know to operate safely. 

“Inadequate performance” is a category of errors that involve the driver simply not operating the truck skillfully enough to avoid a collision. Some examples of inadequate performance include:

  • Oversteering (turning the steering wheel too hard) during lane changes, on slippery roads, or in reaction to hazards.
  • Improper braking technique, such as hitting the brakes too hard or failing to distribute energy between all the brakes, which can cause the truck to jackknife.
  • Making sudden maneuvers instead of turning the truck smoothly.
  • Generally poor control of the vehicle.

There are several factors that can contribute to performance errors. First, driver training and experience are key. Second, truckers who are impaired by substances or fatigue have slower reaction time, which may cause them to panic and overreact when they do notice a hazard or change in road conditions.

Driver non-performance errors

Non-performance is perhaps the most serious category of driver errors, because it involves completely failing to carry out one’s duty to operate the truck safely and effectively. Examples of non-performance errors include driving under the influence of alcohol and drugs or falling asleep at the wheel.

The non-performance category also includes disabling medical conditions such as a heart attack or seizure. Seizures are particularly noteworthy from a legal perspective because the U.S. Department of Transportation has regulations specifically barring people with an epilepsy diagnosis or seizure history from driving a truck, unless they have been seizure-free for 8 years and are granted an exemption by USDOT. A driver who has had a single, unprovoked seizure can apply for an exemption if they have been seizure-free for four years. In addition, if the driver takes anti-seizure medications, then the medication plan must be stable for two years, meaning no changes in the medication, dosage, or frequency during that time.

Trucking Company “systemic failures” also contribute to truck accidents

While the Large Truck Causation Study is helpful in defining types of driver errors that contribute to truck crashes, it fails to take into consideration the causative impact of any systemic issues. A careful analysis of why truck crashes happen should include trying to understand why the driver mistake was made in the first place instead of simply focusing on the mistake itself. A thorough evaluation would look at causative factors for both the driver and the motor carrier.

Trucking companies have important safety duties when it comes to hiring, training, and supervising drivers, and when they fail in these duties crash risk increases. Corporate safety cultures can encourage safe practices or can either overtly or tacitly encourage dangerous practices.   

Experience has shown us over and over again how systemic failures at the trucking company level are indeed contributory. It starts with the motor carrier safety culture. Experience shows that companies with strong safety cultures have fewer crashes. While many trucking companies care a lot about safety, too many still pay lip service to safety.

Hiring competent drivers with good safety backgrounds and attitudes is of paramount importance. There is a legitimate driver shortage these days. While this causes challenges, trucking companies should never skimp on the hiring process. Orientation and onboarding of new drivers should include refresher training and reminders about safe truck driving operation. 

Driver supervision is also mission critical. Good conduct needs to be reinforced and bad conduct needs to be corrected. Real time monitoring of driver performance with telematics and dash cam videos is now the industry standard. Continued refresher driver safety training is an important component to a trucking company safety program. Failures of trucking companies to adhere to their duties are often overlooked as contributing factors to terrible crashes.

Vehicle-related contributing factors

Vehicle-related contributing factors play a role in approximately 10% of truck accidents. Within this category, brake failure is easily the most common cause. Because of the weight of commercial trucks, the brakes must be properly maintained in order to reliably slow or stop the vehicle and avoid a collision.

Other vehicle-related factors include engine problems, overloading, improper balancing of cargo, and defective lights or blinkers.

The importance of thorough investigation in trucking litigation

As with any motor vehicle accident, it’s critical for truck accident victims and their attorneys to get to the bottom of what happened and hold the responsible parties accountable. However, the level of investigation involved in a trucking accident is far greater than in a crash involving two cars. That’s because truck drivers are subject to many more rules and regulations than other motorists, and various records must be reviewed to understand all of the possible contributing factors. Some of those records include:

  • The Hours of Service (HOS) log, which records mandatory rest breaks and other information about the driver’s hours on and off duty.
  • The event data recorder (EDR) which includes information about the truck’s speed and direction of travel, whether the brakes were applied, and whether the airbags deployed.
  • The truck driver’s hiring, training, and supervision records.
  • The truck’s maintenance records.
  • Witness testimony from individuals who witnessed the accident itself or saw the trucker prior to the accident.

Frustratingly, much of this information is the trucking company’s property and is not easy for the victim and their attorney to access. Moreover, there are both legal and practical deadlines that apply to this information; for instance, the HOS log can be destroyed after six months unless an attorney intervenes to preserve it beforehand.

In addition to securing this information, a truck accident attorney needs knowledge and experience to piece together the evidence and understand what happened. At the ground level, the physical dynamics of crashes involving tractor-trailers are different from other motor vehicle accidents. Knowledge of the trucking industry, safety regulations, and corporate compliance is just as important to understand not only what happened, but why it happened.

Talk to an experienced truck accident attorney today

In short, understanding the cause of a truck accident is far from straightforward. It requires specialized knowledge and experience, in-depth investigation, and attention to detail. That’s why truck accident victims and their families need dedicated truck accident lawyers who have the experience to properly investigate and litigate trucking claims.

If you have been injured or lost a loved one in a truck accident, you need your own advocate to get to the bottom of what happened and why. Talk to an experienced truck accident lawyer today.

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