Trucks have a critical role in our economy, transporting a number of goods, including food and fuel, within states and cross state lines. In any given year, trucks transport around 11.84 billion tons of freight (primary shipments only), which represents 72.5% of total domestic tonnage shipped in the United States. In order to drive a “big rig” tractor trailer or semi-truck, drivers must obtain a special license called a commercial driver’s license, or CDL.
Trucks are large and heavy vehicles, with semi-trucks often weighing 40 tons, or 80,000 pounds. The average car weighs about 4,000 pounds. Due to the size of trucks, truck drivers cannot slow them down or break as fast as cars. The average break time for trucks is 20 to 40 percent slower and may be even slower if the road conditions are slippery, icy or the truck’s brakes are not properly serviced. Since trucks are higher than many cars, underride accidents may occur, in which cars may slide underneath them. The Truck Accident Highway Traffic Safety Administration released its latest report about accidents involving large trucks in 2021. Some of the key takeaways from that report include the following:
- For large-truck accidents, from 2018 to 2019 there was a 17 percent increase in the number of injured large-truck occupants, and a 19 percent increase in the number of nonoccupants injured
- In 2019, 5,005 people were killed in large truck crashes
- 71 percent of the truck accident fatalities in 2019 were occupants in vehicles that were not large trucks
- 77 percent of fatalities caused by large truck accidents occurred during the weekday, specifically between 6 am and 6 pm, Monday through Friday
- 2 percent of truck drivers involved in large truck crashes had blood-alcohol levels above the legal limit. This statistic is much lower than crashes involving drivers of other kinds of vehicles, including 29 percent for motorcycle drivers, 20 percent for passenger cars and 19 percent for light trucks
- Based on 2019 data, drivers of large trucks were less likely than drivers of other kinds of vehicles, such as passenger cars, to have previous vehicle driver suspensions or revocations
Common causes of truck accidents
Truck accidents typically have multiple causes, which include driver training and experience, truck design and manufacture, highway conditions, weather conditions and traffic signaling. Other issues may happen just before the time of the accident, including a driver’s decision, a tire blowout or snow. According to the Federal Motor Safety Carrier Association, experts who reconstruct truck crashes rarely cite a single factor as the result.
Due to their size and weight, trucks have a stronger impact when they hit something, and these accidents often involve some of the most catastrophic injuries. According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, large trucks account for nearly 1 in 10 highway deaths even though large trucks account for 4 percent of the 268 million vehicles on the road.
Fatigue and distracted driving
Truck drivers drive long hours in order to deliver goods on schedule. While laws and regulations require companies to allow truck drivers to rest a certain amount of time in between shifts, not all companies follow these rules. Driver fatigue ends up becoming a cause of truck accidents. Like any other driver, truck drivers are subject to distractions while on the road, and distracted driving remains another cause of accidents. Truck drivers may spend hours on the same road, sometimes in rural areas, in which boredom may lead them to take their attention off the road momentarily. Just a second of attention off the road may have disastrous consequences. In fact, fatigue is listed as one of the top ten associated factors that resulted in large truck accidents.
Alcohol and drug use
Drugs and alcohol can significantly impair a driver’s ability to maintain safety precautions while operating a vehicle. Trucking companies perform drug tests on drivers as part of employment and are also required to perform drug tests after a traffic accident fatality involving their employee and truck. Yet, prescription and over-the-counter drug use may still contribute to an accident, according to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration.
A truck driver may make an error while driving, including going above the speed limit, changing lanes without checking the blind spot, driving too close to another vehicle and going around a curve too fast.
While bad weather may be dangerous for any vehicle on the road, heavy rain, snow, sleet or winds may be disastrous for trucks. Truck drivers must drive even slower in poor weather conditions because of the truck’s size and reduced capacity to brake as fast as cars. Even though truck drivers go through training and experience requirements, sometimes skidding, hydroplaning or jackknifing may occur.
Common truck mechanical problems
Big-rigs are in need of constant maintenance to ensure they meet operational requirements. Equipment problems and manufacturer error may also contribute to truck accidents. Common mechanical problems that may lead to truck accidents include the following:
- Failure to maintain tires
- Failure to maintain the brakes
- Removal of the front brakes to reduce the replacement expense of tire and brake wear and tear
- Defective steering system
- Improper cargo loading, leading to truck rollover
- Improperly attached trailer
- Broken lights, such as taillights or headlights
What happens during tire failure accidents
Tractor-trailers typically have eighteen wheels, with tire maintenance being another critical aspect of the truck’s safety on the road. While truck fleet managers and the drivers themselves perform regular checks on the tires to ensure there are not any irregularities, such as wear and tear, cuts, cracks, bulges, or penetrations, tires may still blow out on the road, leading to a dangerous situation for the truck driver and nearby vehicles. Sometimes, companies fail to inspect their tires properly, putting the truck driver at risk of a tire issue on the road. Last, poor roads with potholes and uneven payment may still lead to tire blowouts.
Proper truck maintenance is essential to prevent crashes. Maintenance deficiencies will lead to a truck’s braking system having a lower level of braking force. This lower level could still allow a truck to stop at a slower speed, such as the speed in a stop-sign zone, but in emergency situations, a higher level of braking force is needed. The maintenance deficiency becomes apparent in these situations that require a high force deceleration, and the truck driver is unable to stop the vehicle as expected. Though the brakes are working, the lower-level force may be perceived by the truck driver as not working at all, leading the driver to make other driving decisions, such as a quick turn, that then leads to further disaster.
Break imbalance may also cause accidents such as jackknifing and trailer swingout. Jackknifing happens when the breaking force is higher in the tractor’s driver axles as compared to the trailer axles. This happens in both emergency and low traction situations, and the driver’s axles lock up while the trailer’s axles continue rolling. When this occurs, the driver’s axles lose stability and direction, causing the unbraked trailer to rotate around. Trailer swingout occurs when the trailer’s brakes are locked with a higher force, and the tractor drags the trailer as a result, causing the trailer to swing out.
Common injuries in big-rig accidents
Big-rig accidents can lead to injuries of all kinds, many of them more serious than accidents involving two passenger cars, and often, they are fatal. Some of the most common injuries that occur are:
- Back and neck injuries
- Spinal cord injuries
- Head and brain injuries
- Internal injuries
- Amputation and disfigurement
- Cuts and bruises
- Broken bones and fractures
Truck accident lawsuits
Truck accidents lead to thousands of deaths and injuries each year. If your spouse or family member has been killed in a truck accident, you may consider a wrongful death lawsuit. Often, truck drivers have workers’ compensation coverage in the case of injury or death. However, if gross negligence was involved and a truck driver or another vehicle’s occupant has been severely injured or killed, the family may want to consider a personal injury lawsuit, such as a wrongful death legal claim to recover compensation.
Due to the severity of truck accidents, those involved may seek damages for any injuries associated with the accident. Damages may include economic, non-economic, and punitive damages. Truck accidents often do not have a single cause and many parties may be liable. Due to this complexity, it is best to consult with a lawyer about your options.
Economic damages may include the following:
- Medical costs, care for acute and chronic injuries may include emergency room visits, hospital bills, rehabilitation costs, doctors’ visits and any medical care provided in the home
- Unpaid bills, costs that have accumulated as a result of a loss of earned income may be considered economic damage
- Property damage, any personal items that were damaged as a result of the crash may be considered damages during the lawsuit. Additionally, if two large trucks are involved in an accident and the vehicle not at-fault has damaged property, such as cargo or a trailer of goods or livestock, property damage may also be part of the damages awarded in a lawsuit. However, typically, an insurance company will provide compensation to cover these damages.
- Legal costs, including any legal fees associated with the personal injury lawsuit will be covered by the defendant should the plaintiff win the lawsuit
Non-economic damages may include non-quantifiable losses such as:
- Pain and suffering
- Loss of enjoyment of life
- Loss of consortium
Who is liable for a truck accident?
Truck accidents may include multiple parties who are liable. All of the following may be liable:
- The truck driver
- The owner of the truck or trailer
- The trucking company
- The cargo loader
- The company that made the truck’s defective equipment
- The truck’s manufacturer
- The local government or contractor responsible for highway maintenance and design
If the truck driver was distracted, using alcohol or other substances that violate the law, or engaged in reckless driving that led to the accident, the accident victim may sue the truck driver for negligence. Truck companies may also be liable for the accident. Even if the truck driver is an independent contractor, the truck company may still be liable for damages associated with the accident. Federal regulations provide that the company that owns the trucking permit is responsible for all accidents involving the truck that has the company placard or name on the vehicle.
The cargo loader may also be liable for the accident. If a loader used incorrect straps, placed too much in the trailer, or did not use enough tie downs to keep the cargo loaded safely, then the loader may be held liable for the accident. Poor maintenance along with defective equipment may cause an accident. The individual and company responsible for maintaining the vehicle may be held liable, along with the manufacturer of any equipment malfunction that contributed to the accident. If a road is proven to be dangerous and is defective, the local government responsible for maintaining the road may be liable for the accident.
Steps to take if you have been involved in a truck accident
If you have been in an accident involving a big-rig and are not in need of immediate medical attention, follow the steps before leaving the scene.
- Check on all involved in the accident to see if they are “okay” or injured;
- If anyone is injured, call 911 right away;
- Protect your rights by contacting your attorney;
- Wait for the police to arrive, unless you feel you need to go in an emergency vehicle to the hospital
- Give your report on the accident to the police or trooper; and
- Seek medical attention as soon as possible, and most certainly within 14 days from the date of the accident