Commercial Truck Collisions: A Guide for the Injured and Their Families
By Adam J. Langino, Esq.
Truck collisions are brutal. Unfortunately, they are more common than ever. In 2019, 5,237 large trucks and buses were involved in fatal crashes, a 2-percent increase from 2018.[i] From 2009 to 2019, there was a 47 percent increase in the number of fatal crashes involving large trucks or buses.[ii] “From 2009 to 2015, injury crashes increased 62 percent to 97,000 (based on GES data).”[iii] “From 2016 to 2019, according to NHTSA's CRSS data, large truck and bus injury crashes increased 13 percent (from 112,000 in 2016 to 127,000 in 2019).”[iv]
The unladen weight (i.e., carrying an empty trailer) of a semi-truck can vary between 10,000 and 25,000 pounds. [v] Depending on how powerful the engine is, how much it's designed to tow, and whether it's a sleeper cab, an unladen truck may be even heavier. For example, “an unladen 53-foot trailer weighs about 10,000 pounds, accounting for a total unladen weight of about 35,000 pounds.” A semi truck’s laden weight is how much it weighs when fully loaded. Different loads weigh differently. As you can imagine, a semi-truck carrying furniture weighs differently than one carrying water bottles. In the U.S., the “maximum legal weight for a fully-loaded semi in the United States is 80,000 pounds.”[vi] As you may expect, the forces involved in a semi-truck collision often result in catastrophic injuries due to their weight. The following article explains some rules governing truck safety, some safety tips for vehicle drivers, and some information about what to do after a truck collision.
Safety Rules for Truck Drivers
Trucks are large, heavy, and difficult to operate. That is why truckers require a special license to operate them. Commercial truck drivers must have a CDL (commercial driver’s license) to drive commercial trucks or transport hazardous materials. There are different licenses and endorsements for different types of trucks. CDLs are typically issued by the State in which the driver resides. “When an individual applies for a CDL or attempts to renew or update his or her CDL, the State must perform a check of its databases, and of the Commercial Driver's License Information System (CDLIS), and the National Driver Registry (NDR) to ensure that the driver is not disqualified in that State or another jurisdiction, or does not possess a commercial license from more than one jurisdiction.”[vii] The State must also review the applicants driving record from all the states where the driver was previously licensed in the past ten years.[viii]
The federal government has safety rules for truckers too. The U.S. government’s rules are regulated by the U.S. Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (“FMSCA”) and only apply to truckers transporting goods between states. The rules are wide-ranging, covering topics such as fatigue, noise emissions, routing, insurance, training, driver qualification, hours of service, and inspections.[ix]
Fatigue is a reoccurring problem for truck drivers. Unfortunately, many truck companies force their drivers to be on the road even when tired. A 2007 U.S. Department of Transportation study found that 13% of commercial motor vehicle drivers were considered tired at the time of their crash. [x] A 1996 study by the FMSCA found that driver alertness was more related to the time of day than how long the driver had been driving. [xi]
To combat driver fatigue, the FMSCA has strict rules governing how long a trucker is allowed to be on the road before taking a break.[xii] The fatigue rules are complicated. For instance, there are different rules for semi-trucks carrying property versus passengers, or semi-trucks with sleeper berths, and exceptions for short-hauls. However, very simply, a truck driver may drive a maximum of 10 – 11 hours after 8 – 10 hours off duty.[xiii] Further, truck drivers may not drive after 60 – 70 hours on duty in 7 – 8 consecutive days.[xiv]
Truckers transporting goods interstate must also meet specific minimal medical qualifications. A specially certified medical examiner must perform the driver’s medical examination. The FMCSA requires truck drivers to pass a physical exam every two years. In short, the medical examiner is looking to see if the applicant has any medical history or clinical diagnoses of any condition likely to interfere with their ability to drive safely.[xv] If the applicant does, they are not medically qualified to operate a commercial vehicle in interstate commerce.[xvi] Some medical conditions, like sleep apnea, are not disqualifying if they are successfully treated. On the other hand, some medical conditions are automatically disqualifying. For instance, a driver diagnosed with narcolepsy, regardless of treatment, is not medically qualified to drive because of the likelihood of excessive daytime drowsiness.[xvii] Some medications are automatically disqualifying too. For example, even if prescribed, a driver cannot test positive for marijuana, amphetamines, or opiates, including codeine, hydrocodone, or oxycodone.[xviii]
Safety Rules for Truck Driving
Commercial trucks are large and heavy vehicles, and therefore their operation presents unique safety challenges. For example, due to their weight, the average stopping distance for a loaded tractor-trailer traveling at 55 mph is 196 feet, compared with 133 feet for a passenger vehicle.[xix] Because of these unique challenges, the U.S. FMSCA prescribes safety tips that all truck drivers should follow.
For example, the FMSCA suggests commercial truck drivers check their blind spots every 8 – 10 seconds to be aware of other vehicles.[xx] That is because a commercial truck has large blond spots around all sides of its vehicle.[xxi] The federal government estimates that most trucks have blind spots reaching twenty feet in front of the vehicle and thirty feet behind.[xxii] There are also significant blinds spots on a truck’s left and right sides.[xxiii]
The FMSCA also requires truck drivers to be aware of long stopping distances.[xxiv] “Large trucks and buses need the length of up to two football fields to stop safely.”[xxv] For truck drivers, following other drivers too closely are more likely to result in collisions. A federal study reported that 5 percent of truck crashes occurred because the truck driver followed the lead vehicle too closely.[xxvi] A safety rule for truck drivers is to leave at least one second of distance for every 10 feet of vehicle length while traveling below 40 miles per hour.[xxvii] For traveling over 40 miles per hour, a truck driver should leave an additional second.[xxviii] For a typical tractor-trailer, this results in 4 to 5 seconds of distance between the truck driver and the lead vehicle.[xxix]
Further, the FMSCA requires truck drivers to make wide turns carefully. Trucks and buses cannot make sharp turns or maneuver as quickly as cars.[xxx] Additionally, a truck’s trailer turns on a different track than its cab. For example, in a right-hand turn, the trailer will typically stay closer to the right curb while the truck’s cab will move forward first before turning right.[xxxi] Due to these turning challenges, truck drivers must be extra diligent in making wide turns.
I am sorry if you are reading this because you or someone you love has been injured in a trucking collision. I hope that you found the above helpful. As you can see, crashes involving trucks have different considerations than those involving other motor vehicles. That is why it is critical to retain an experienced lawyer to help you navigate these types of claims. Over my career, I have handled many truck collision claims, and I am licensed to practice law in Florida and North Carolina and co-counsel claims in other states. If you would like to learn more about me or my practice, click here. If you want to request a free consultation, click here. As always, stay safe and stay well.
[i] “Large Truck and Bus Crash Facts 2019.” FMCSA, FMCSA, 16 Dec. 2019, https://www.fmcsa.dot.gov/safety/data-and-statistics/large-truck-and-bus-crash-facts-2019.
[v] Hawley, Dustin. “How Much Does a Semi Truck Weigh?” J.D. Power, 4 Feb. 2021, https://www.jdpower.com/cars/shopping-guides/how-much-does-a-semi-truck-weigh.
[vi] Hawley, Dustin. “How Much Does a Semi Truck Weigh?” J.D. Power, 4 Feb. 2021, https://www.jdpower.com/cars/shopping-guides/how-much-does-a-semi-truck-weigh.
[vii] “States.” FMCSA, https://www.fmcsa.dot.gov/registration/commercial-drivers-license/states.
[ix] See 49 C.F.R. § 300 – 399
[x] U.S. Department of Transportation Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration. (2007).The Large Truck Crash Causation Study. (Publication No. FMCSA-RRA-07-017). (Table 2). Washington, D.C. Retrieved May 21, 2008, from: http://www.fmcsa.dot.gov/safety/research-and-analysis/large-truck-crash-causation-study-analysis-brief
[xi] U.S. Department of Transportation Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration. (1996). Commercial Motor Vehicle/Driver Fatigue and Alertness Study. Available at: http://ntl.bts.gov/lib/jpodocs/repts_te/1623.pdf
[xii] See 49 C.F.R. § 395.1 – 395.15.
[xiii] “Summary of Hours-of-Service Regulations.” FMCSA, https://www.fmcsa.dot.gov/regulations/hours-service/summary-hours-service-regulations.
[xiv] Summary of Hours-of-Service Regulations.” FMCSA, https://www.fmcsa.dot.gov/regulations/hours-service/summary-hours-service-regulations.
[xv] “Driving When You Have Sleep Apnea.” FMCSA, U.S. Department of Transportation , 19 Feb. 2014, https://www.fmcsa.dot.gov/driver-safety/sleep-apnea/driving-when-you-have-sleep-apnea.
[xvii] “Is Narcolepsy Disqualifying?” Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, United States Department of Transportation, 31 Mar. 2014, https://www.fmcsa.dot.gov/faq/narcolepsy-disqualifying.
[xviii] “Is Narcolepsy Disqualifying?” Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, United States Department of Transportation, 31 Mar. 2014, https://www.fmcsa.dot.gov/faq/narcolepsy-disqualifying.
[xix] “CMV Driving Tips - Following Too Closely.” FMCSA, U.S. Department of Transportation , 11 Feb. 2015, https://bit.ly/3N7ASn5
[xx] “TIPS for Truck and Bus Drivers.” FMCSA, U.S. Department of Transportation, 8 June 2016, https://www.fmcsa.dot.gov/ourroads/tips-truck-and-bus-drivers.
[xxi] “Large Blind Spots.” FMCSA, U.S. Department of Transportation, 8 June 2016, https://www.fmcsa.dot.gov/es/node/72496.
[xxii] “Large Blind Spots.” FMCSA, U.S. Department of Transportation, 8 June 2016, https://www.fmcsa.dot.gov/es/node/72496.
[xxiv] “TIPS for Truck and Bus Drivers.” FMCSA, U.S. Department of Transportation, 8 June 2016, https://www.fmcsa.dot.gov/ourroads/tips-truck-and-bus-drivers.
[xxvi] U.S. Department of Transportation Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration. (2007).The Large Truck Crash Causation Study. (Publication No. FMCSA-RRA-07-017). (Table 2). Washington, D.C. Retrieved May 21, 2008, from: http://www.fmcsa.dot.gov/safety/research-and-analysis/large-truck-crash-causation-study-analysis-brief
[xxvii] “CMV Driving Tips - Following Too Closely.” FMCSA, U.S. Department of Transportation , 11 Feb. 2015, https://bit.ly/37vDiwr
[xxx] “Wide Turns.” FMSCA, U.S. Department of Transportation, 8 June 2016, https://www.fmcsa.dot.gov/es/node/72506.