Big Trucks and the Romance of the Open Road
Truck vs passenger car accidents always end in a disaster in which the people in the car are the losers. The crashes are disasters, which almost always cause catastrophic death and destruction.
There was a time I remember when truck drivers were called the “knights of the road”? They had a reputation for safety and for helping those stranded on lonely roadways. In those days, the truck drivers served a romantic notion of the open road while on their long journeys; carrying the freight of America from East, West, North and South. I still remember driving by trucks and reaching out the window to give the motion of pulling down on an imaginary cord, just to hear the trucker respond with that wonderful air-horn.
Then trains began increasing competition with trucking companies for freight transfer. The piggyback system ate into the profits of the long haul truckers. Why pay a driver benefits with gas and insurance when you could simply drive your trailer to a train, load it on and deliver by having a tractor meet it at the destination for delivery. Competition quickly became, and still is, the name of the game and public safety has increasingly become its casualty.
Why does there seem to be an increase in trucking crashes?
The obvious two factors are increasing competition and the fact that there are more truck drivers on the road and this results in the human risks to increase proportionally.
The Federal government through the commerce clause of the U.S. Constitution regulates the trucking industry. One important piece of legislation is the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Act (FMCSA). This act regulates many aspects pertaining to driver safety.
One of the very important aspects is the FMCSA hours of service rules and regulations. The sections of the FMCSA pertaining to Hours of Service can be found at 392.1 Scope of the rules in this part and 392.2 Applicable operating rules and 392.3 Ill or fatigued operator. Driver fatigue is the cause or a major contributing cause of the majority of truck crashes. It would seem that the enforcement of these rules would ease the problem of fatigued drivers.
Section 392.3 of the Act sets forth that:
“No driver shall operate a commercial motor vehicle, and a motor carrier shall not require or permit a driver to operate a commercial motor vehicle, while the driver’s ability or alertness is so impaired, or so likely to become impaired, through fatigue, illness, or any other cause, as to make it unsafe for him/her to begin or continue to operate the commercial motor vehicle. However, in a case of grave emergency where the hazard to occupants of the commercial motor vehicle or other users of the highway would be increased by compliance with this section the driver may continue to operate the commercial motor vehicle to the nearest place at which that hazard is removed.”
Section 395.3 of the Act sets forth that:
Subject to the exceptions and exemptions in §395.1:
(a) No motor carrier shall permit or require any driver used by it to drive a property-carrying commercial motor vehicle, nor shall any such driver drive a property-carrying commercial motor vehicle:
(a)(1) More than 11 cumulative hours following 10 consecutive hours off-duty; or
(a)(2) For any period after the end of the 14th hour after coming on duty following 10 consecutive hours off duty, except when a property-carrying driver complies with the provisions of §395.1(o) or §395.1(e)(2).
(b) No motor carrier shall permit or require a driver of a property-carrying commercial motor vehicle to drive, nor shall any driver drive a property-carrying commercial motor vehicle, regardless of the number of motor carriers using the driver’s services, for any period after —
(b)(1) Having been on duty 60 hours in any period of 7 consecutive days if the employing motor carrier does not operate commercial motor vehicles every day of the week; or
(b)(2) Having been on duty 70 hours in any period of 8 consecutive days if the employing motor carrier operates commercial motor vehicles every day of the week.
(c)(1) Any period of 7 consecutive days may end with the beginning of any off-duty period of 34 or more consecutive hours; or
(c)(2) Any period of 8 consecutive days may end with the beginning of any off-duty period of 34 or more consecutive hours.
In almost every truck crash case this firm has handled these laws are violated. The violations resulted in horrific crashes with victims horribly injured for life if not killed instantly. The trucking companies defend these cases even when it is hopeless.
The investigation of truck crashes requires special knowledge, skills, and handling:
A team of investigators and attorneys should be be dispatched to the crash site as soon as possible after the accident.
Both aerial and scene photographs are essential.
All evidence at the scene must be photographed, collected and preserved.
Scene schematics should be prepared with appropriate case specific designations.
Scene measurements and recordation of yaw marks on the road must be taken.
Witnesses interviewed by law enforcement should be evaluated and interviews followed up where needed.
All vehicles must be inspected and painstakingly photographed.
All vehicles should be inspected and evaluated by experts.
Letters warning against evidence spoliation must be sent to the trucking company demanding that they preserve any “black box data”.
Log books required to be kept are presumed to be false and careful inspection can uncover the fact that drivers are pressured to drive beyond the legal limits and can be connected with an unlawful or unreasonable dispatch schedule.
Inspect the trucks involved in the crash for equipment violations, which should have rendered them “out of service”.
It is unusual to receive anything but compelled cooperation from the defendant trucking companies or their employees and in most cases only the filing of a lawsuit will secure important documents before they are lost or destroyed.
Often I visit a scene where a family has been was devastated because a loved one has been seriously injured or killed in a truck crash. When are we going to finally do something to protect people over profits?
It seems our legislators increasingly want to protect business, including powerful trucking interests. Increasingly, it seems that the courtroom is the only place consumers can find an equalizer to corporate interests. Each day powerful interests pay the Chamber of Commerce and other lobbying groups to attack the protections provided to individual citizens. So when you read or hear about tort reform, reach for your constitution and call your legislator and tell them you do not want your family’s rights diluted in favor of corporate profits.