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Truck and Tractor-Trailer road accidents: An overview of trucking accidents

Posted by attorney James Chalat

In 2008, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation, 68 fatalities occurred in Colorado due to an accident involving a large truck.

Nationwide, one out of nine traffic fatalities in 2008 resulted from a collision involving a large truck. In 2008, 380,000 large trucks (gross vehicle weight rating greater than 10,000 pounds) were involved in traffic crashes in the United States; 4,066 were involved in fatal crashes. A total of 4,229 people died (11% of all the traffic fatalities reported in 2008) and an additional 90,000 were injured in those crashes.

Large trucks were much more likely to be involved in a fatal multiple-vehicle crash – as opposed to a fatal single-vehicle crash – than were passenger vehicles (82% of all large trucks involved in fatal crashes, compared with 58% of all passenger vehicles) during 2007. In 30 percent of the two-vehicle fatal crashes involving a large truck and another type of vehicle, both vehicles were impacted in the front. The truck was struck in the rear 3.2 times as often as the other vehicle (19% and 6%, respectively).

In 2007, half (50%) of the two-vehicle fatal crashes involving a large truck and another type of vehicle, both vehicles were proceeding straight at the time of the crash. In 9 percent of the crashes, the other vehicle was turning. In 9 percent, either the truck or the other vehicle was negotiating a curve. In 8 percent, either the truck or the other vehicle was stopped or parked in a traffic lane (6% and 2%, respectively).Most of the fatal crashes involving large trucks occurred in rural areas (64%), during the daytime (67%), and on weekdays (80%). During the week, 74 percent of the crashes occurred during the daytime (6 a.m. to 5:59 p.m.). On weekends, 63 percent occurred at night (6 p.m. to 5:59 a.m.)

The primary causes of truck accidents include:

  • Excessive speed
  • Poor driving
  • Improperly loaded cargo
  • Driver fatigue
  • Unsafe road conditions
  • Equipment defects (tires, brakes)
  • Truck design defects
  • Poor maintenance
  • Inadequate or obstructed signage
  • Road construction

Drivers of large trucks and other vehicles involved in truck crashes are ten times more likely to be the cause of the crash than other factors, such as weather, road conditions, and vehicle performance according to a 2006 study released by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA).

Driver-Related Factors

The top problem for any truck driver is the constant race against at time. This pressure encourages two of the most dangerous conditions for those sharing the road with the big rigs - excessive speed and driver fatigue. More than one-fourth (26%) of all drivers of large trucks involved in fatal crashes in 2004 had at least one prior speeding conviction, compared to 19% of the passenger car drivers involved in fatal crashes. The NHTSA blames driver fatigue for 31% of all truck driver fatalities.

Increased Stopping Distance

The unique features of large rigs also contribute to many accidents:

  • Stopping distance for a truck is dramatically greater than a car - for a speed of 65 mph it takes a car about 162 feet to stop, but a semi-truck needs about 420 feet to stop.
  • For bobtails (trucks without a trailer) and empty trucks, the stopping distance is even greater because the lighter load has less traction.
  • Heavy trucks are designed with brakes, tires, springs and shock absorbers optimized with the weight of a full load.

Under riding

One of the most deadly type of accident results when trucks lack adequate safeguards on the rear of the truck to prevent vehicles from "underriding." A car underrides a truck when the truck brakes quickly and the car fails to stop before plowing into, and under, the semi - typically shearing off the top of the car. Underrides kill approximately 1,000 persons each year, and all of them are car occupants - only about 2% of those occupants survive the accident. These accidents occur because trucks stop or slow suddenly and the driver of the car is unable to avoid rear-ending the truck. Those traveling in passenger vehicles must drive defensively when sharing the roads with the increasing numbers of semi-trucks, to avoid the awful consequences of large truck accident.

According to the federal motor carrier safety administration, big trucks are also regularly operated with safety defects. In both 2007 and 2008, more than one of every five trucks that were inspected was placed out of service for deficiencies that prevented it from continuing to operate (FMCSA 2008, Commercial Vehicle Safety Alliance (CVSA) 2008). The recent Large Truck Crash Causation Study released by FMCSA found that 29 percent of the trucks studied had brakes out of adjustment (FMCSA 2006).

Accidents involving rental trailers and moving vans have a much higher incidence than those involving household vehicles for two reasons:

These vehicles are typically being driven by inexperienced drivers, unfamiliar with the turn radius and handling characteristics of the vehicle. Also, inexperienced drivers can incorrectly load cargo into the vehicle, resulting in a dangerously unbalanced load. Some rental companies routinely cut expenses by reducing maintenance on fleet vehicles, resulting in unsafe vehicles that are rented to unsuspecting consumers.

Other motorists are not the only victims of a moving van or rental trailer accident. Due to their unfamiliarity with the truck and the weight of the cargo, inexperienced drivers may not be able to stop quickly enough for a pedestrian or bicyclist. Hitting a pedestrian can be devastating, causing serious injury or death.

Failure to Put Chains on a Commercial Vehicle

Drivers of commercial vehicles who ignore the chain law can be fined $500, plus a surcharge, for not putting chains on their vehicles when required. A driver can be fined $1,000 plus a surcharge if the vehicle is not chained when the law is in effect and, as a result, blocks the highway.

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