Most Common Causes of 18-Wheeler And Commercial Vehicle Accidents

According to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA), there are 3,341 fatal traffic accidents and 60,000 injury-causing traffic accidents involving large commercial trucks every year. Texas leads the nation when it comes to large-truck involvement in fatal crashes. The most common causes of big-truck accidents are discussed below.

I. Driver Fatigue

How Driver Fatigue Causes Big-Rig Accidents

Everyone has a wake/sleep cycle ("circadian rhythm") that affects a person's level of alertness and cognitive abilities. When a person gets inadequate sleep, natural drowsiness intensifies, and this may adversely affect one's driving abilities. Trucking accidents that are caused by a fatigued driver falling asleep at the wheel are inexcusable. Victims of these types of accidents can potentially hold both the driver and his or her trucking company liable for damage sustained.

Truckers Who Drive At Night

The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) conducted a study and an important conclusion: The "time of day" affects driver alertness more than the number of hours driven. Most people who have a "normal" schedule (that is, those who are awake during daylight hours and sleep at night), grow drowsy at night, especially after midnight.

According to FMCSA, this drowsiness may be enhanced when drivers have been on the road for an extended period. Regardless of how many hours of sleep or off-duty time they have nighttime drivers are statistically more likely to fall asleep at the wheel and become involved in fatigue-related accidents than truckers who drive during the day. Other studies have found that driving during nighttime and early morning hours has more to do with crash rates than hours of sleep or hours off duty.

Drowsy Driving Vs. Drunk Driving: Which Is More Dangerous?

A recent study found that the effects of driving while sleep deprived or tired are more severe than the effects of driving while intoxicated. Another study conducted by the AAA Foundation found that drowsy driving is responsible for approximately one out of every six fatal car accidents. Stated another way[,N(T&O1] : drowsy driving is responsible for 17 percent of all fatal car crashes. Factoring in the size and mass of commercial trucks, the outcome of drowsy driving crashes can be disastrous.

II. Improperly Loaded Vehicles

Regulation Of Commercial Vehicles And Overloading

The federal government tightly regulates the loading of commercial vehicles because overloaded, heavy vehicles are more prone to becoming involved in fatal injuries and crashes. A fully loaded commercial vehicle can already weigh up to 80,000 pounds. Overloading these vehicles can have serious implications. Improperly securing a load also makes a commercial truck more prone to jackknife accidents. Jackknife trucking accidents often occur when a load shifts, throwing the trailer off balance. Rather than following behind the truck, a simple tap on the brakes can cause the truck's trailer to slide perpendicular to the truck's cab.

According to the North American Cargo Securement Standard, (Section 2.3) these conditions must be met before someone can drive a commercial motor vehicle:

These components of a commercial motor vehicle's structure and equipment must be secured:

  • Tailgate
  • Doors
  • Tarpaulins
  • Spare tire
  • Other equipment used in the vehicle's operation
  • Cargo securing equipment

No truck component, object or cargo can:

  • Obscure the view of the driver ahead or to the right or left sides (drivers of self-steer dollies excepted)
  • Prevent the free movement of the driver's legs or arms
  • Obstruct the driver's access to emergency equipment of accessories
  • Prevent the ready exit of any person from the vehicle's cab or driver's compartment

How Well Must Cargo Be Secured?

So that it does not:

  • Leak
  • Spill
  • Blow off the vehicle
  • Fall from the vehicle
  • Fall through the vehicle
  • Otherwise become dislodged from the vehicle
  • Shift upon or within the vehicle to such an extent that the vehicle's stability or maneuverability is adversely affected

If improperly loading a big rig is so dangerous, why do it? Truckers do this because of pressure from their employers. Their goal is to get as much cargo to the destination as fast as possible. When profit comes before safety, serious accidents can occur.

III. Failed Vehicle Maintenance

Truck Accidents Involving Improper Maintenance

According to FMCSA:

"Vehicle maintenance (e.g., brakes, lights, other mechanical defects and load securement) is one of the seven Behavior Analysis and Safety Improvement Categories (BASICs) for motor carrier safety measurement. In January 2014, FMCSA published the Carrier Safety Measurement System (CSMS) Effectiveness Test by BASICs study. This published study showed that motor carriers targeted for interventions due to vehicle maintenance have a 65 percent greater future crash rate than the national average."

Ongoing Maintenance Of 18-Wheelers

Trucking companies are responsible for the ongoing maintenance of their vehicles. This can include things like:

  • Brake replacement
  • Tire rotation, maintaining appropriate air pressure and replacement
  • Head and tail light replacement

Trucking companies are on strict deadlines to get their cargo to the desired destination in as little time as possible. Unfortunately, this desire is often directly opposed to safety and maintenance. When profit comes before safety, people often get hurt. If you were involved in a truck accident caused by something like brake failure, you may have a claim against the driver and the trucking company.

IV. Off-Tracking

Even in the best of conditions, it is challenging to operate safely in traffic, even when driving conditions are good and visibility is clear. This is due to the sheer size and weight of commercial vehicles and semitrailer trucks.

One of the most difficult skills for drivers to master is the avoidance of "off-tracking." When a tractor-trailer or commercial vehicle, enters a curve, the centerline of the trailer axle begins to trace a path that is different from the centerline of the tractor front axle. This difference in paths, which also coincides with the difference in paths between the inside front tractor wheel and the inside trailer wheel, is called the off-tracking of the vehicle. This typically occurs when a driver attempts to make a wide turn when there isn't enough space to properly do so safely.

V. Air Brakes And Driver Reaction Time

A semitruck can weigh up to 80,000 pounds. Most passenger vehicles weigh between 3,000 and 4,000 pounds.

Let's compare the stopping distance of a typical passenger vehicle to that of a semi. In ideal conditions, a car weighing 4,000 pounds, traveling at a speed of 65 miles per hour will take 316 feet to stop. On the other hand, a fully loaded semi weighing 80,000 pounds traveling at the same speed and in the same conditions will take 525 feet to stop.

Determining Stopping Distance

Total stopping distance: That's how long a vehicle will travel from the instant a driver sees a hazard, presses the brake pedal and the vehicle comes to a complete stop. There are three components to total stopping distance:

  1. Perception distance - This is the distance a vehicle will travel during the time the driver perceives a hazard and decides to slow down or stop.
  2. Reaction distance - This is the distance a vehicle will travel between the time the driver decides to brake and presses the brake pedal.
  3. Braking distance - This is the distance a vehicle will travel between the moment the driver presses the brake pedal until the vehicle comes to a complete stop.

Brake Lag

When it comes to braking, there is another critical factor: brake lag. Tractor-trailer trucks use air brakes rather than the hydraulic brakes used on regular passenger vehicles. Hydraulic brakes work much faster than air brakes. With air brakes, the air pressure must build until it is sufficient to begin the braking process.

Most Frequent Truck Driver Violations In 2017*

1. Operating vehicle not having the required operable lamps, 488,895 violations of code §393.9

2. Log violation (general/form and manner), 170,721 violations of code §395.8

3. Driver's record of duty status not current, 71,004 violations of code §395.8F1

4. Speeding 6-10 miles per hour over the speed limit, 66,930 violations of code §392.2SLLS2

5. Driving beyond 8-hour limit, 51,149 violations of code §395.3A3II

6. Operating a property-carrying vehicle without a valid medical certificate, 45,749 violations of code §391.41AF

7. Speeding 11-14 miles per hour over the speed limit, 30,743 violations of code §392.2SLLS3

8. Lane restriction violation, 28,770 violations of code §392.2LV

9. Driving beyond 11-hour limit in a 14-hour period, 19,190 violations of code §395.3A3PROP,

10. Speeding 15 or more miles per hour over the speed limit, 16,299 violations of code §392.2SLLS4

*Data Source: FMCSA, Motor Carrier Management Information System (MCMIS), data snapshot as of January 26, 2018.

VI. What Should Be Done Immediately After An Accident With An 18-Wheeler Or Commercial Vehicle?

1. Do not move your vehicle, contact the local authorities and seek medical attention.

2. If possible, gather witnesses contact information and begin taking photos and gathering evidence.

3. Request a police report and seek professional legal consultation.

When You Are Involved In An Accident With A Commercial Vehicle, Time Is Of The Essence

There are significant differences in accidents involving a regular vehicle versus one that involves a commercial vehicle. First, the most noticeable difference is the sheer damage that can be caused by a truck that weighs in upward of 40 tons. In addition to the size and weight of the vehicle, there is also a team of individuals that will come to the defense of truck drivers and the company responsible.

Following an accident, some commercial truck drivers first call their company's risk management team, prior to alerting authorities or seeking medical attention for individuals who have been injured. There have been instances where the trucking company's defense team make it to the accident site while law enforcement authorities are still conducting their investigations.

Unfortunately, this type of response gives the defense team a huge advantage and can affect witness statements and the alteration or outright disappearance of critical evidence. Today's commercial vehicles have multiple electronic sensors that are tied into computer systems for data collection and transmission. You must have a legal team and experts with the knowledge, tools and software to identify, gather and preserve as much information as possible to maximize your ability to recover. Such systems include:

  • Electronic control module (ECM)
  • Dash cam or digital video recording system
  • Wingman or similar onboard radar system (VORAD)
  • Electronic log systems
  • Global Positioning System (GPS)
  • Cellphone data

VII. Physical And Emotional Effects After An Accident

Delayed Response To The Accident

Following a car accident, it is wise to seek immediate medical attention, however sometimes this initial visit may not identify all physical or psychological injuries incurred. Often, when someone is involved in a traumatic experience, their internal "fight or flight" protective mechanism, takes over and releases adrenaline into the body. While this reaction is natural and helpful in the moment, it is also temporary and can mask the pain resulting from significant injuries incurred during the accident.

Common delayed injuries include:

  • Whiplash
  • Neck pain and stiffness
  • Headaches
  • Lower back pain
  • Shoulder pain
  • Numbness
  • Dizziness
  • Difficulty concentrating or remembering
  • Irritability, sleep disturbances or fatigue
  • Abdominal pain or swelling
  • Changes in personality or physical function

It is imperative that any person involved in an accident, not only seeks immediate treatment but also is seen by a doctor for any lingering injuries not initially identified. It is also important to understand that mental pain and anguish should be treated with the same urgency as physical injuries. Consider taking detailed notes about your injuries and keeping a daily journal regarding your medical care and treatment.

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