Determining fault in truck accidents goes beyond figuring out whether the truck or the car driver had the last clear chance to avoid a collision. It is true that federal and industry data shows that in about 80% of cases, the driver of the smaller vehicle was primarily responsible.
However, that does not tell the entire story. Truck accidents are not inevitable, and both truck drivers and auto drivers can take steps to avoid being in the same place at the same time. What is really responsible for causing truck accidents, and how do drivers prevent them?
Physical Causes of Truck Accidents
Both truck drivers and car drivers should realize that an accident involving a big rig is going to be serious, and the outcome for the car will be much worse. However, drivers of smaller vehicles should recognize that they have the advantage over trucks. Trucks are more likely to be victims of natural forces that can cause accidents. Cars have the option to stay out of the accident zones that surround big rigs.
- Blind spots. Everyone knows that trucks have huge blind spots. What you may not realize is that those blind spots extend almost two lanes out from the right side of the cab, and a lane out on the left. Lingering in those blind spots means that the driver does not know you’re there if they need to change lanes. And that sticker that says “If you can’t see my mirrors I can’t see you” only applies to the rear of the truck.
- Height and length. The cab is nearly eight feet off the ground, and the trailer can be 30 feet long. The driver cannot see down easily, especially to the front and sides of the cab. In windy areas, the trailer acts almost like a sail, catching the wind and blowing the semi across the road.
- Multiple tires. When a car has a blowout, the driver knows it immediately. When a semi has a blowout, the driver might not realize it until they stop for the night. That’s the purpose of having all those extra tires. However, when one of those huge tires breaks free, it leaves big sections of rubber and steel in the roadway as the rest of the truck speeds away.
- Load failures can occur for a variety of reasons, none of them good for cars riding too close to trucks. Open-bed trucks may have insufficient or faulty restraints, and loads may come loose during sudden maneuvers to the side. Closed trailers may experience load shifts when going uphill, and the door can come open or simply fail when an improperly secured load breaks free. It is never a good idea to drive too close behind a truck.
Even if a driver is not using alcohol or drugs, they could be acting like they are. A study by the Governors Highway Safety Association (GHSA) found that staying awake for 18 hours has the same effects as having a blood alcohol level of .05%, or three drinks. This is higher than the federally allowable level for a commercial driver.
Driver fatigue is a result of monotonous work, insufficient sleep, and inadequate food. That is the very image of a truck driver who has just done 16 hours of long-haul driving, eating nothing but truck stop nachos and powering down energy shots. Although the Federal Motor Carriers Safety Administration (FMCSA) mandates breaks every 8 hours and requires sleep and rest periods, drivers paid by the hour have ingenious ways of bucking the system.
The effects of fatigue are insidious and affect all drivers. However, driving a semi leaves less margin for error. Drivers of smaller vehicles need to be aware of their surroundings and the cars and trucks they’re sharing the road with, and not assume that everyone is paying attention.
- Fatigue slows reaction times. Tired people have difficulty seeing what’s in front of them, and responding when they do see it. In the half-second it takes a tired driver to notice the car passing in front of them, they’ve already traveled another 300 feet.
- Poor judgment is a side effect of long-term fatigue. Drivers make decisions that in hindsight make no sense. Truck drivers know they’re supposed to take a break every eight hours, but if they’re already tired, they may opt to “power through” the last hundred miles just to get home.
- Long miles of monotony lead to road hypnosis and tunnel vision. Drivers stop seeing everything around them, and only look at the road. Everyone has done this when they miss an exit ramp on the highway. In a truck, it can mean failing to see a car drop in front of them even if they had time to brake.
- Micronapping. When the brain reaches a level of exhaustion, it will sleep. Studies have shown the brain can sleep even between blinks of the eye. Micronapping is thought to be the cause of numerous car accidents, train accidents, even airline accidents, when vehicle operators have been too long without restful sleep.
Determining Cause and Fault
Beginning in 2017, the FMCSA mandated that all commercial vehicles had to maintain electronic logging devices (ELDs) in their vehicles. These devices monitor vehicle performance, and track driver hours on- and off-duty. If you are involved in an accident with a big rig, you will need to obtain this information to help determine who was at fault.
Just because the smaller vehicle was at fault in the accident does not relieve the truck driver of liability. For instance, a car may have been carelessly riding in the truck’s blind spot when the driver swerved toward an exit. But a review of the ELD may show that the driver had not been taking required breaks every eight hours for the past week. Now fatigue may be implicated in the truck driver’s actions.
Fault in a truck versus car accident is not as simple as determining which vehicle struck the other first, or which could have avoided the accident. Anyone involved in an accident with a commercial vehicle should contact legal assistance for the best way to proceed. There are complex issues that need to be determined in assessing liability.