The trucking industry has boomed in this country as more people shop online. There has never been a higher demand for truck drivers, and many companies are facing critical shortages. The result is that the existing truck drivers are pressured and overworked. Even with federal rules that mandate rest, drivers may still drive while fatigued. When they injure other drivers and their passengers, a negligence lawsuit can force drivers and their trucking company to pay for victims’ losses.
The truck driving profession lends itself to fatigue. Drivers are under time pressure to make deliveries to their destination, and they may be carrying time-sensitive cargo. Often, they will spend long stretches on the road. Even if they follow federal trucking accident rules, they may still end up fatigued behind the wheel. Other drivers end up paying the price for a truck driver who thinks that they can make it.
Many Truck Drivers Operate Their Vehicle While Fatigued
Surveys of truck drivers reveal alarming statistics. One in every three truck drivers admits to nodding off or falling asleep behind the wheel. Seven percent of truck drivers say that they drive drowsy every day. These are just the drivers who admitted this to a questioner. The real numbers are far higher. Combined with truck drivers’ overall poor health, lack of sleep means that they are responsible for very dangerous vehicles with less than optimal readiness.
Truck drivers cannot make it to their destination on caffeine and determination. Proper rest is an essential part of their job. If it means that they miss a deadline, this is what is best for everyone else. However, truck drivers often do not think this way.
What Contributes to Truck Driver Fatigue?
Truck driver fatigue can happen for reasons other than just a lack of sleep.
Other contributing factors include:
- Physical illness – truck drivers often do not feel that they can take a day off due to sickness and will keep trying to drive through until they feel better
- Medications – many truck drivers are on medications for health conditions. These can make them drowsy and fatigued, and they can dull their senses.
- Alcohol/drug use – even if truck drivers are not openly drinking behind the wheel, excessive alcohol use during their breaks could cause them to be fatigued while driving
- Driving at odd times – truck drivers may still follow hours restrictions, but they may drive at odd hours of the night to take advantage of less traffic on the road and maximize the amount of travel they can do during their hours.
In general, truckers have an incentive to drive as much as they can. Their pay is by the mile. If they lose time in traffic, it comes out of their pocket. This is why you see many truck drivers on the road at night. They have a limited amount of time to drive, and they want to earn as much money as they can. However, this leads to fatigue. No matter how rested the driver is, nighttime driving can still cause them to nod off behind the wheel.
Drivers Rush Because of Time Pressure and Their Bottom Line
Drivers often face a choice of violating a federal rule or displeasing the company that is paying them. In many cases, finances win over safety. Truck drivers may end up ignoring rules to make it on time because they do not want to be late. This is where everyone else on the road suffers.
Trucker fatigue is about much more than a higher likelihood of falling asleep behind the wheel.
Of course, it is a major problem, but other risks include:
- Slower reaction times to challenging road conditions
- The inability to perceive changing road conditions
- Poor decision making behind the wheel
- Lack of focus and concentration wandering
All of this presents a serious danger to others. Fully loaded trucks are behemoths, to say the least. They can weigh up to 80,000 pounds, and they are difficult to drive under the best of circumstances. They need skilled operators who have all of their wits about them. However, truckers who are not well-rested are at a higher risk of accidents.
Fatigued Driving Is as Dangerous as Drunk Driving
Statistics show exactly how risky fatigued trucking is. One study has likened the effects of driving 20 or more hours without sleep to operating a vehicle with a blood alcohol content of 0.08. This is the same as drunk driving. Without 24 hours of sleep, it is the equivalent of a 0.10 blood alcohol content.
For commercial truck drivers, fatigue is a contributing factor to one in every eight accidents. This translates to an average of 13,000 truck accidents each year. Most truck accidents occur on long-haul trips, and that is exactly when drivers will feel most fatigued.
Federal Rules Try to Prevent Fatigued Driving
Lawmakers put in place federal laws to combat trucker fatigue. They are limited in the amount of time that they can spend behind the wheel.
The federal rules are:
- After spending ten hours off duty, drivers may not drive for more than 11 hours
- The 11 hours of driving can only happen over 14 hours
- Drivers cannot operate the truck for more than eight hours without taking a 30-minute break
- A driver’s limitation is 60 hours over seven days or 70 hours over eight days
These are civil rules. If trucking companies break the rules, the government may take enforcement action against them. The government relaxed some of these rules during COVID to ease supply shortages, but once again it limits drivers’ time on the road. Truckers and trucking companies do not like these rules because it curtails how much they can drive and how quickly they can ship items. Sometimes, they cut corners to avoid following them.
Getting the Evidence You Need to Prove Your Claim
When a fatigued driver injures you in an accident, one of the first things you need to do is get your hands on the truck’s operating logs. Most trucks will have a black box that will contain key data on the truck’s hours of operation. This could also report on things like the truck’s speed and when the driver applied the brakes before the accident.
Trucking companies only need to preserve the black box data for a limited time. Even during that time frame, some trucking companies may find a way to “lose” the data. This is why you need a lawyer to immediately move to obtain the evidence. They could send a spoliation letter to the trucking company, directing them to preserve the information in advance of potential litigation.
Outside this, there are operation logs in older trucks that track the number of hours that a trucker operates the vehicle. Here, you rely on self-reporting, and your lawyer may have to prove that what is in those logs does not match what happened. Trucking companies could get in major trouble (including possible punitive damages) if anyone finds falsified operation records. Your truck accident lawyer may be able to piece together the hours of operation based on where the truck accident occurred and when the driver set out with the cargo.
Rule Violations Could Help Your Case
Violating a federal trucking regulation may be evidence of negligence on its own that could help prove your lawsuit. There is a category of negligence called per se negligence that covers when drivers violate the law. If you prove that someone violated a law, it would largely end the process of determining negligence, and you could move to the damages phase of the lawsuit.
Even when truck drivers technically follow the federal limitation about hours of operation, they may still be fatigued behind the wheel. Each driver must get the rest that they need, even if it means that they drive less than the maximum. Every truck driver knows their own body and its reaction to fatigue. Many of them can find a time to stop and rest, even if they can still legally drive.
How Fatigued Drivers Can Be Negligent
Fatigued drivers can still be negligent, even if they are following the federal rules. The regulation just gives an outside limitation on the amount of driving time. Fatigued drivers can still be negligent when they are not breaking the law. Fatigue can cause them to make mistakes, no matter how many hours they have driven.
These can include:
- Failing to stop when a driver brakes in front of them, and they rear-end the car
- Drifting out of their lane and making colliding with another car
- Not seeing into their blind spots when they change lanes
- Illegal lane changes
To prove the truck driver legally caused your crash, you must show that they acted unreasonably under the circumstances. Any one of the above could be an example of acting unreasonably. It goes without saying that reasonable truck drivers can stay in their lane and not rear-end cars in front of them. Proving negligence is a matter of the facts and circumstances of the accident.
How Truck Accident Attorneys Can Help You
However, to get an insurance company or a jury to reach this conclusion, you will need some evidence of what happened to cause your crash. This will be a two-part job for your truck accident attorney. When you struggle to deal with serious accident injuries, you cannot gather the evidence on your own. Moreover, you may not even know how to approach the trucking company to get what you need. There is a legal process that you must follow.
First, the attorney will compile evidence from the scene of the accident and its aftermath. This can include things such as speaking with witnesses and reviewing the police report from the accident. Second, the attorney will obtain evidence from the trucking company’s records. This can include the black box data, the driver’s records, and the truck’s maintenance records. Truck accident cases are about the evidence and not just what happened during the crash.
Holding the Trucking Company Liable for the Driver’s Actions
Even if the individual truck driver decided to disregard the rules or commit an act of negligence on their own, the trucking company can be legally responsible for any damage they cause. When the trucker gets out on the road for a company, they become an agent of the trucking company. This means that the trucking company is legally responsible for its negligence under the respondeat superior legal theory.
The importance is that the trucking company has a large insurance policy to pay for all the damage. In individual car accidents, the insured driver will likely have nowhere near the amount of insurance coverage, so you would be hard-pressed to recover more than the policy maximum. If your verdict is for more than the policy maximum, you can go after the trucking company’s assets. This is why truck accident recoveries tend to be higher than the average motor vehicle accident settlement or jury award.
If this particular trucker’s fatigued driving was part of a widespread pattern, or if the company tried to destroy relevant evidence, you may even be able to get punitive damages. This can further increase the size of your jury award.
Truck accident cases require an experienced attorney due to the many complexities involved. First, you must deal with physical injuries that the truck’s size can make more extensive. Second, the potentially larger size of the truck accident settlement means that the insurance company will be more difficult before they write the check. Third, you need someone with specialized knowledge of trucking regulations, so they can move quickly to secure any evidence that the trucking company broke the rules.