Every year, over 5,000 people die in crashes involving large trucks; thousands more are seriously injured and maimed. Large trucks account for less than 5 percent of the registered vehicles in this country, yet they are involved in more than 10 percent of all fatal crashes. Most of these fatalities involve other motorists who were innocently sharing the road with these big trucks. The causes of this on-going safety hazard are well defined. The solutions may not be so easily obtained.
The causes of fatalities and injuries attributable to large trucks have been summarized by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to include:
- Driver Fatigue
- Faulty Brakes
- Faulty Underride design
- Faulty Conspicuity design
- Alcohol and Drugs
- Multiple-trailer trucks and handling problems
- Investigating a large truck crash
In 1990, tractor-trailers had a higher fatal crash involvement rate than either passenger cars or single unit trucks. Twenty four percent of large truck crash deaths occurred on freeways.
Government regulations restrict interstate truck drivers' work shifts to 15 hours including a maximum of 10 hours per day driving followed by a minimum of 8 hours off duty. Driver's are obliged to keep logs of their hours. Additionally, these regulations prohibit a driver from working more than 70 hours in 8 days. A direct correlation has been shown between long hours of over-the-road driving and crashes. As can be expected, these regulations are not well enforced and they have little if any effect on intra-state truck commerce. Various engineering groups are at work developing steering sensitive activities to provide in-cab tactile warnings in the event that a vehicle looses road contact or specific directionality. These computer systems may provide for both visual and oratory warnings through the steering wheel, radio and buzzer system already built into vehicles.
It is obvious to anyone who has observed a large truck that these vehicles require substantially more distance to stop than passenger vehicles. Truck brakes used repeatedly in one long application will heat up and can deteriorate. Many trucks also include brakes which are not "self-adjusting". It is quite typical to find that more than 50 percent of the large truck fleet is operated daily with serious brake defects including out of adjustment brakes. In some braking tests, it has been demonstrated that a loaded tractor-trailer will require almost three times the stopping distance when its brakes are hot as when they are cooled.
The design of large trucks with anti-lock brake systems has not been a top priority for American truck manufacturers. Yet, ABS is required on all tractor-trailers in the European Common Market countries. This safety system provides an excellent improvement to the handling of large vehicles under emergency conditions and in inclement weather. The failure to equip large trucks with ABS is, at this time, culpable and reprehensible conduct.
Faulty Underride Design
Safety literature published in this country and abroad has, since the late 1960's,has documented the roadway horror of underride accidents. A brief summary of the data is presented here.
Between 1980 and 1990, more than 5000 deaths and 180,000 injuries occurred--in the U.S.-- because of underride accidents--both rear and side underride.
In 1970, Appleby reported that:
"The head...is the human body region that most frequently sustains severe injury in underride collisions. The thorax and cervical regions are also primary areas for under-ride injuries".
In 1971, other safety engineers reported:
Testing of existing rear-end underride guards demonstrated no safety against this danger. Alternative designs were developed and tested successfully.
Solutions to this known danger have been reported as early as 1974 by Swedish researchers, who found that:
Before 1974, rear under-run crashes were responsible for between 13-14% of fatal accidents between heavy trucks and cars. This figure has been reduced to about 3% due to revisions in underride design protection in Sweden.
Through the 1970's and the 1980's, several safety organizations continued to report on the dangers associated with the absence of large truck underride protection.
* 1974-1978-- Calspan, Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, The Traffic Accident Research Unit, Dept. of Motor Transport, New South Wales.
This research revealed that most fatal and non-fatal underride collisions involved relatively moderate speeds and were avoidable with the redesign of underride guards. In 1981, it was reported that car collisions into the truck rear have a frequency of 12% but they represent about 20% of the fatal and serious injuries of car occupants. And, 70% of rear end crashes are below 25 mph, but even at this speed level the consequences are very often serious because of the inadequate design of the under-run barrier.
Underride accidents occur because the rear end or side of a truck or trailer is relatively high off the ground and there is too little structure under the trailer to resist the striking vehicle, or the structure present is not strong enough to accomplish that purpose. Only in the past four years has the U.S. NHTSA begun to require rear underride performance testing which has resulted in some improvement upon this unsafe circumstance.
Faulty Conspicuity Design
For over twenty years, safety researchers and large truck manufacturers have been aware that many accidents occurred because motorists do not see or do not appreciate the speed of large trucks on the road. More night time large truck accidents occur than in day time and that has been related directly to the lack of conspicuity of these vehicles. Studies have estimated that enhancing the conspicuity of trailers would reduce by fifteen percent the incidents of crashes into either the side or rear of trailers. Yet, only since 1993 has the federal government imposed visibility performance standards on new over-the-road trucks. This standard requires trailers to be equipped with either reflective sheeting or reflectors. Unfortunately, this regulation does not address the hundreds of thousands of large trucks that remain on the road and were built before 1993. The technology to address this problem has been available for more than two decades.
Alcohol and Drugs
Federal regulations require inter-state carriers and shippers to subject all new commercial drivers to drug and alcohol testing before employment, after an accident and on a random basis. Statistically, it has been reported that alcohol is less a problem in the truck driver population than the passenger vehicle driver population. However, the use of over the counter drugs by inter-state drivers is less well documented. Researchers have found that 33 percent of truckers killed in crashes tested positive for alcohol and other legal and illegal drugs.
Multi-Trailer Truck Problems
In Arizona, and in many other states, it is legal to operate multiple-trailer trucks. While it seems apparent that these rigs would have more handling/stopping problems than single tractor-trailers, little attention has been given to this circumstance. While one study in Washington State found a three fold greater risk of a crash with a "double" than a single, another study only found that doubles have an increased risk of a crash in inclement weather.
Investigating a Large Truck Crash
Like any other accident leading to serious or catastrophic injury or death, the investigation of a large truck crash requires a well developed team approach. The investigator must obtain all scene data including police records and photographs, and vehicle inspection reports generated by the police or the NTSB. The investigator or counsel should make every effort to obtain control or at least prevent any alterations to the truck until skilled experts can inspect it by way of photographs, measurements and testing. Analyzing the tires of the truck and its braking system post-accident may be critical. It is also vital that the truck driver's log and diaries be obtained. Equally important is a review of any "in-cab" electronics such as the tractor's speed governor, lights and emergency equipment. If the accident occurred at night, then a series of night time photographs of the truck should be taken with its running lights on and off.
It is equally important to document the physical evidence at the scene through photography, and if there are any significant witnesses, one should seriously consider traveling to the scene with the witnesses and interviewing them on videotape--so they can point out circumstances of importance.
Because large truck crashes may implicate parties beyond the driver and his employer, such as the manufacturer of the tractor or trailer, it is vital that the injured party's vehicle be secured for later inspections. Evidence of the extent of underride, as an example, can be easily calculated based upon damage to the passenger vehicle. Ambulance and medical records are important to ascertain the earliest signs and symptoms of injury to aid in determining the victims kinematics and mechanism of injury.
As long as over the road trucks operate on the same highways as the rest of us, there will be thousands of large truck accidents each year. While some of these tragedies are not preventable, there are many which will occur because of either operator negligence or product defect. Fair compensation can only be obtained if the attorneys investigating such incidents are well informed and prepared to delve into the multiple causative reasons why such injury and fatality occurs.