Semi (18-wheeler) truck accidents are different from other kinds of motor vehicle accidents. State and federal laws establish strict guidelines for the operation and maintenance of semi trucks that don't apply to regular passenger vehicles. Semi truck owners are required to carry more extensive insurance coverage, the trucks are subject to a strictly controlled maintenance schedule, and drivers are required to track and limit their time on the road.
However, all these things are costly, and the large corporations that operate most semi trucks on the road are always looking for ways to increase their profit margin, and many of their cost-cutting techniques amount to negligence on their part that can increase the risks of severe injury accidents on the road.
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- Unrealistic schedules
- Tanker truck accidents
- Tire blow outs
- Truck driver fatigue
- Truck accidents due to weather
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Unrealistic Schedules Causing Trucking Accidents
Truck drivers are highly trained and experienced drivers who make their living by safely delivering their cargoes to their destinations. They don't make a fortune on any single delivery. They never want to risk an accident, because their living depends on being able to make another delivery tomorrow or next week or the month after, and an accident or traffic violation can mean a suspended license, which means the end of work forever.
Trucking and shipping companies, however, factor accidents and violations into their actuarial tables. They are prepared to take a certain amount of losses into account in setting up their schedules, and since their math runs into the billions of dollars, they can write off any particular driver with a nimble flicker of their erasers, and the damage caused to your life is just collateral damage.
Unrealistic schedules cause accidents by:
- Keeping fatigued drivers on the road
- Forcing drivers to drive at unsafe speeds
- Overloading trucks to get more cargo to destination faster
- Encouraging mechanics to perform only cursory maintenance
- Rewarding companies that forge records to conceal practices
There are billions of dollars at stake in the balance between what trucking companies pay to keep their trucks on the road and how quickly they can get cargo delivered.
Drivers Forced to Accept Unrealistic Schedules
The trucking industry is, like all industries, very competitive. Companies insist on unrealistic delivery times because they know drivers need work, so that even if one driver refuses, someone else will take the load.
Maybe one driver will be in a position to turn down a delivery with an unrealistic schedule, but others, especially drivers kept in a stable or pool by a large company, know they have to take the work to keep their job, or maybe they just have to take this job, today, to make a rent payment or get school clothes for their children.
Whatever the reason, the trucking company makes the rules of the road and drivers must comply. While government entities such as the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA), a division of the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA), seek to regulate the industry, industry lobbyists have again and again shown their power to shape the government's guidelines, including limitations on how long drivers can be on the road, called Hours of Service (HOS) rules.
Tanker Truck Accidents
Tanker trucks transport precious fluids via the major arteries of the country. These trucks are manufactured to carry loads of many sizes and goods of all types, from the milk and grain to make a child's breakfast to the benzene or liquid helium necessary for highly dangerous chemical manufacturing. They can be pressurized or non-pressurized, refrigerated or non-refrigerated, and are generally divided into several sub-tanks that distribute the load, prevent undue and dangerous sloshing, and allow for the simultaneous transport of several different types of fluid, such as unleaded, unleaded plus and premium unleaded.
Because over 70 percent of tanker trucks carry hazardous materials, this portion of the trucking is even more heavily regulated by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
Types of Tanker Truck Accidents
Spills can often occur while filling a tanker truck. Whether through operator error, adverse wind or other weather conditions, or a collision during filling, it is not uncommon for spills to occur. Any spill of liquid is possibly dangerous from the standpoint of workplace safety, whether simply from the likelihood of a slip and fall accident, or if the spilled fluid is a toxic or flammable chemical, workers can suffer burns or inhalation injuries.
Rollover accidents are also common for tanker trucks. They most often occur when a driver fails to slow down adequately when exiting the highway, and the momentum of the liquid cargo carries the trailer over. Liquid cargoes can also cause rollovers by sloshing back and forth under normal driving conditions on curvy or bumpy roads.
According to FMCSA statistics, hazardous material cargoes are 50% more likely to spill than nonhazardous cargoes. Since many trucks carry flammable liquids, these spills can lead to fires and explosions. They can also release toxic fumes. Overall, rollover accidents are three times as likely to be harmful when a tanker truck is involved. And, since 71% of all accidents involving hazmat trucks occur on rural highways, this means that many people in rural communities who sought safety from the toxic cities are nonetheless in danger from these chemicals.
Tire Blow Outs
If you have been driving a car and had a severe tire blowout on the highway, you know how out-of-control it can make your vehicle. Once a blowout occurs on a semi truck, there may be nothing the 18-wheeler driver can do to prevent an accident. However, before the blowout, there may be many things that might have been done to keep the blowout from happening.
Tread separation is a common cause of blowouts, hitting tires which appear to be in good condition. If the steel and rubber in a steel-belted radial tire are not properly bound together, they will separate, tearing the tire apart. Unfortunately, tread separation occurs mostly at high speeds an in hot weather, such as during the summer driving season.
The largest recall of tires for tread separation occurred in 2000, affecting tires used on SUVs, but other recalls have occurred, including tires for SUVs, RVs, and large passenger vans.
Rubber tires degrade over time under exposure to air and sun, even when not in use. Spare tires, often appearing fine but actually several years old, can fail unexpectedly. When tires are replaced due to wear, the spare is often skipped as a cost-saving measure, leading to spare tires much older than all other tires on the vehicle, tires that can blow out.
Because tires are not given a straightforward date stamp, but, rather, an age code unreadable to most drivers, a driver may not know how old the spare is when putting it on the vehicle. Or s/he may know, but because of the pressure of an unrealistic schedule, decides to use the spare at hand, rather than lose more time waiting for a replacement.
Sometimes vehicles are installed with tires that are entirely inappropriate for the weight and size and speed of the vehicle. Under these conditions, a new tire can fail suddenly and unexpectedly.
The wrong tire may be put on simply out of negligence or ignorance of the mistake. Or it can be used as a cost-saving measure because it is cheaper. Or it can be used because it is on-hand and trying to procure the right tire can hurt the delivery schedule for the shipping company.
Underinflated & Overinflated Tires
Tires are also rated with a specific inflation pressure. Overinflation of tires, often a quick-and-dirty fix for an overloaded truck, can lead to a tire blowout from internal pressure. Underinflated tires will flex, putting extra pressure on the sidewalls of the tire, which can then have a catastrophic failure.
Truck Driver Fatigue
Truck driver fatigue is a factor in over 40% of all accidents involving tractor-trailer trucks. Although truck drivers are well-trained and very experienced drivers, when they are fatigued, they can lose judgment and make mistakes. Tractor-trailer trucks are much more difficult to drive than other vehicles because:
- They are wider, with less margin for safety in traffic lanes
- They turn wider than other vehicles, requiring more forethought before maneuvering
- They are heavier, requiring longer braking distances than other vehicles
- They have bigger blind spots than other vehicles
- Heavy loads, sometimes poorly distributed, can make them unpredictable
- Their large cross-section to the wind can make them vulnerable to sudden, strong gusts
All of these factors mean that in order to be safe truck drivers must have their full mental faculty with them at all times. They cannot do this if they are fatigued, distracted, or under the influence of drugs or alcohol.
Hours of Service
In 1937, the government, concerned with the rising volume of traffic on the roads and the resulting accidents and fatalities, set Hours of Service (HOS) rules for all drivers. This forced drivers to work on a 24-hour day, with 10 hours of driving and at least 8 hours of rest between stints of driving. However, since then lobbyists from the trucking company have successfully reduced this requirement to a 21-hour schedule, with up to 11 hours driving and ten hours of rest, continually cycling, meaning that drivers can now drive up to 88 hours in 8 days.
Sleep Deficit = Profit Surplus
Under the new rules governing HOS for commercial drivers, drivers are encouraged to constantly drive and sleep only when necessary. The benefit for the trucking companies is that their loads get delivered sooner, making them hundreds of millions of dollars more a year.
On the downside, this schedule encourages drivers to try and sleep at odd hours and under varying conditions of noise and light. Because people are generally unable to sleep on command, the arrhythmic pattern encouraged by these rules lead to great difficulty for truckers, who often build up a sleep deficit, a deficit that cannot be erased in the mere 34 hours (less than 1 ½ days!) of rest required between 70-hour work weeks. This sleep deficit leads to mistakes that lead to accidents. Furthermore, to try to counter sleepiness, many drivers turn to drugs or alcohol to either wake them up or make them sleep as necessary.
Truck Accidents Due to Inclement Weather
Nationwide, roughly 20 percent of 18-wheeler accidents are in some way caused by bad weather. Considering the many thousands of 18-wheeler accidents that occur annually, this is still a significant number.
Alabama is likely on the high end of the national average when it comes to weather-related truck accidents. This is because what we lack in average yearly snowfall we more than compensate for with other extreme weather such as tornadoes, rainfall, hail, hurricanes, and wind. Alabama is one of the few places in the world that has two yearly tornado seasons, not to mention having the most annual thunderstorms of any state in the U.S.
The main problem lies in the demands and pressures of the truck driving industry keeping many truck drivers on the road during bad weather when they should not be. Many drivers continue driving through bad weather at speeds too high for conditions. Even if the driver is not directly involved with the accident itself, a speeding semi on a wet road can spray a significant amount of water onto other vehicles on the roadway, severely limiting their visibility and causing others to wreck.
Multiply this with the high rate of fatigue many truck drivers experience and it is accurate to say that 18-wheelers can be the most dangerous vehicles on the highway during a storm.
Problems with Current Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations
Truck drivers are required to reduce speed and exercise “extreme caution” when driving through hazardous weather conditions. If conditions make it so the vehicle cannot be operated safely at any speed, these same regulations require truck drivers to cease operation of the vehicle until the conditions pass.
The wording of these regulations is too vague to be effective. By the time many drivers determine what conditions are too hazardous, it is too late. All licensed truck drivers are book-trained on how to adjust to bad weather. However, no truck driver receives formal hands-on training on how to drive in hazardous conditions.
What To Do If You're Injured in a Truck Accident
To ensure these dangerous practices remain profitable, the large corporations that operate 18-wheelers and their insurance companies employ teams of expensive attorneys who work hard to limit the company's losses by limiting your compensation. To get even a fair shake when you've been injured, you need someone just as experienced to represent your interests.
If you or a loved one has been injured in an accident with a semi truck, read our law firms Truck Accident Questions page to get some guidance on how to respond to the trucking company's representatives, and get in touch with a lawyer of your own right away.
Learn more about our Mobile, Alabama rapid response truck accident attorneys. Contact our truck accident lawyers in Mobile and Baldwin County, Alabama, online or call today (877) 336-0776