Car accidents and truck accidents share many similarities. Either may be caused by speeding, reckless driving or failing to keep a proper lookout for other vehicles on the roadway. There are, however, certain conditions inherent in the driving of a truck that distinguish truck accidents from other vehicle collisions.
For example, the braking system on a semi tractor-trailer is different from that of a car. Heavy trucks use compressed air to make the brakes work. Although air brakes are a safe way to stop large vehicles, it takes one-half second or more for the air to flow through the lines to the brakes, which impacts the stopping distance for the vehicle. The air brake lag distance at 55 mph on dry pavement adds about 32 feet to the stopping distance. A truck driver traveling 55 mph under good traction and brake conditions must contend with a total stopping distance of over 300 feet, a distance longer than a football field. The additional time required to slow or stop a large truck impacts the speed at which the truck may be safely driven and the awareness the truck driver must have for the condition of traffic on the roadway.
Given the distance required to stop a large truck, the limited ability to see other traffic from the cab and the difficulty maneuvering a tractor trailer, the truck driver's conduct and response to conditions on the road are regulated and taught to drivers across the country. Certain industry wide "countermeasures" have been established and are taught to truck drivers so that they may appropriately respond to various traffic conditions. The focus of the countermeasures is improved safety management, preventive maintenance and defensive driving. The countermeasures address negotiating curves, passing, turning left and right, crossing intersections, using and changing lanes and pedestrian interaction. Whether the appropriate countermeasures were taken by the driver of a truck involved in an accident must be evaluated on a case-by-case basis.
Additional regulations that govern truck drivers are issued by the Office of Motor Carriers within the United States Department of Transportation. These regulations require specific driver documentation and conduct. Preventive maintenance and inspection, driver documentation, brake performance, tire inflation, tire wear and deterioration, wheel retention and deterioration, steering system performance, full trailer coupling, vehicle lighting and conspicuity, payload characteristics and cargo procurement are all specifically regulated. The conduct of the driver, condition of his vehicle and the circumstances surrounding the collision must be promptly reviewed and evaluated to determine whether the truck driver's conduct conforms with the applicable rules.
If the driver of the truck was negligent and his negligence caused you injury, he may be liable for the damages you suffered. The truck driver's employer and in some cases the entity that leases the vehicle may also be liable for the negligent conduct of a truck driver. The terms of the lease and the nature of the relationship between the driver and the party that retained and compensates him must be examined to determine their potential liability.
Federal safety regulations impose a duty on a carrier to secure the load safely. Different types of loads have their own requirements for being properly secured. A trucking company is not liable for defects that are not apparent upon a reasonable inspection of the load. The company is also not liable for sealed loads. A shipper may be liable, however, where it improperly loaded its own truck, its employees negligently instructed the truck driver on the manner in which the cargo should be secured or if the truck driver was given false assurances as to the safety of the load. It is important to determine the identity of the party involved in loading the trailer if it is suspected that the cargo was not appropriately loaded. The circumstances surrounding the loading of the vehicle and the identity of those involved in the loading should be determined as quickly as possible after the accident occurs.
The incompetence of a truck driver may give rise to liability for the party who hired him or retained his services to transport a load. The question is whether the employer exercised "reasonable care" in hiring or retaining the driver. Did the employer make a reasonable investigation of the driver? What did the employer know or what should have been known prior to hiring the truck driver? Once an employer knew or should have known that a driver was unfit, was it reasonable for the employer not to investigate or take corrective action such as discharge or reassignment? Federal regulations require a reasonable investigation of a driver's qualifications at the time the driver is hired. The regulations require that the driver must be able to do the following:
Research completed by the National Transportation Safety Board suggests that driver fatigue and lack of sleep is the number one cause of truck crashes, a greater danger than either alcohol or drugs. It is estimated by the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration that driver fatigue may be responsible for as many as 240,000 motor vehicle accidents in the U.S. annually. If the fatigue of a driver causes him to weave or fall asleep at the wheel, both he and his employer may be held liable for the personal injuries and damages that result.
Fault for driver fatigue that causes an accident may be attributed to the driver's employer under certain circumstances. In determining whether an employer contributed to the driver fatigue, the following may be considered:
Driving while fatigued is a violation of federal regulations and may be evidence of negligence. Careful evaluation of the circumstances surrounding a collision may reveal that driver fatigue played a role in the accident.
The driver may admit to police or witnesses that he is fatigued. Such statements may be reflected in the Traffic Crash Report completed by police at the scene. A driver may also make a similar statement to the dispatcher. A driver may appear fatigued when observed by police or other witnesses. Review of the truck driver's log may also be useful in establishing the amount of time on the roadway and to assess the likelihood of fatigue. Motor Carrier Safety Regulations regulate the permitted hours of service and require the driver to keep a log of their "duty status".
A wide range of sources must be analyzed to determine whether driver fatigue is a factor in causing an accident. It is important that you involve a lawyer in this process to speak with the witnesses to the collision, review the driver's log, obtain records associated with the maintenance of the vehicle, review the materials associated with the hiring of the driver and evaluate the potential avenues of recovery that are available.
The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration regulates the amount of insurance a carrier must maintain. For vehicles weighing more than 10,000 pounds and hauling only non-hazardous materials, minimum liability coverage in the amount of $750,000.00 is required. If hauling hazardous materials, the required minimum liability coverage increases to between $1 million and $5 million, depending upon the type of material transported.
The federal and state regulations governing the conduct of a truck driver and his employer are complex. We have experience handling complex trucking accident cases.