Each day, trucking companies across the United States send thousands of truck drivers out on the road to haul large loads of cargo. Semi trucks, flatbeds, and tanker trucks all offer exceptional convenience when it comes to transporting goods and materials cross-country. However, they can also pose a significant hazard to others on the road when trucking companies fail to take important safety precautions.
Many factors contribute to the too-common truck accidents that plague American roads. Some of those fall to trucking companies to prevent. In this blog post, we examine the circumstances in which a trucking company has legal liability for accidents involving trucks it owns, and for the injuries and losses those accidents cause. If a semi truck accident has caused harm to you or a loved one, contact an experienced truck accident injury attorney to learn about your rights.
A Brief Look at Truck Accident Statistics
The causes of a large truck accident include:
- Driver distraction;
- Driver fatigue;
- Driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol
- Shifting loads;
- Poor truck maintenance; and
- Speeding/driving too fast for road conditions.
Many of the factors that most commonly contribute to truck accidents involve truck driver behavior. Ultimately, that trucker has responsibility for every action he takes behind the wheel. A truck driver who engages in risky driving behaviors may face substantial financial and legal consequences. However, the driver is not always alone in that regard. Trucking companies, too, may share in the drivers’ legal liability.
The Responsibilities Borne by Trucking Companies
For starters, if a trucker works for a trucking company as its employee, the law may require the company to answer for any actions the trucker took within the scope of his employment, including mistakes that caused a crash. However, trucking companies do not employ all truckers. Some drivers act as independent contractors even when they drive equipment owned by a trucking company. Some own their own trucks, but pull trailers owned by a trucking company. Each of these arrangements comes with its own legal complexities.
Here are some of the ways that a trucking company may have legal liability for damage caused by a semi-truck accident.
Failing to Maintain Vehicles Belonging to the Company
Keeping up with maintenance on big trucks carries substantial costs. Even minor problems with the vehicle, however, may lead to severe problems on the road, many of which can cause accidents.
Responsible trucking companies know that despite the expense, they must keep up with the maintenance on all of their vehicles to prevent accidents, including by:
- Replacing the tires when needed. Many factors contribute to when truck tires need replacement, including the type of tire and the type of cargo the truck needs to haul. Big trucks that haul cargo over rough roads may also need their tires replaced more frequently. Also, even when tires have not reached their maximum mileage, if the driver picks up a nail in a tire, that tire may need mending or replacement as soon as possible.
- Maintaining the engine and transmission. Regular tuneups keep an engine and transmission running smoothly. These tuneups also give mechanics a chance to look over the vehicle and identify any potential problems.
- Taking care of needed repairs. Minor fender benders or even road hazards can cause damage to big trucks beyond normal wear-and-tear. Regular maintenance identifies and fixes minor damage before it grows into a major danger for causing an accident.
- Making sure the windshield wipers work smoothly. In poor weather conditions, truckers need functioning windshield wipers to maintain safe visibility. Many truck drivers even choose to keep additional windshield wipers in their vehicles to ensure that they can replace them quickly if needed.
- Testing signal lights and headlights to ensure they function properly for every run. Headlights illuminate the road ahead in the dark and during heavy precipitation. Signal lights let other drivers know a trucker’s intentions in traffic. By law, trucks must have functioning headlights and signal lamps, and failing to keep them in working order puts everyone on the road at risk.
- Keeping up with technology. Many of today’s trucks come equipped with technological features like blind spot cameras and accident detection systems. Truck drivers who rely on these systems every day, however, need those systems to stay up and running, making regular tech maintenance just as important in preventing accidents as any other kind of routine service.
- Maintaining the brakes. Big trucks take considerably more distance to come to a stop as compared to passenger vehicles. If the brakes go out on a big truck, disaster can easily follow. Trucking companies must perform regular brake maintenance to make sure their trucks can stop when needed.
Failing to Adhere to Truck Driver Hours of Service Regulations
Legally, truck drivers have fourteen hours out of each day to complete their shift. During those fourteen hours, they can spend only 11 hours on the road. The remaining time is for bathroom breaks, food breaks, and even a quick nap, if needed. Drivers may also drive for only eight consecutive hours before taking at least thirty minutes away from the wheel of the vehicle.
The law also limits the number of hours a driver can spend behind the wheel of a truck over the course of a week. If a trucking company has trucks on the road every day, each driver can put in 70 hours of drive time over the course of eight days, on a floating schedule. If the company does not have trucks on the road every day of the week, each driver can put in only 60 hours over the course of seven floating days. These limits help protect the health and safety of drivers as well as decreasing the risk of driver distraction.
Some trucking companies may attempt to get their drivers to exceed the hours of service permitted. Tight deadlines and worker shortages give trucking companies an incentive to cut corners, if they can get away with it. Companies sometimes pressure their drivers to skip breaks, falsify driving logs, and to drive more hours each day than the law allows. Companies may also attempt to get around the 60/70 hour limits described above. Unfortunately, ignoring these regulations can substantially increase the risk of driver fatigue, which in turn can lead to a catastrophic semi-truck accident.
Taking Risks With Their Truck Driver Workforce
Truckers drive for a living. They spend long hours on the road away from family and friends. It is not an easy life, under even the best of circumstances.
Unfortunately, some trucking companies refuse to adopt policies that would decrease the risk of one of their truckers getting into an accident.
Truck drivers should have the option to remain off the road when ill. A cold can decrease a driver‘s abilities by around 50 percent. More serious illnesses can make it even more difficult to operate a standard motor vehicle, much less a big truck. Worse, many medications, including over the counter cold and flu medications, can substantially interfere with focus and concentration.
Unfortunately, many trucking companies do not have work policies in place to protect their drivers when ill. Some drivers may not get sick days, causing them to push on with hauling a load even when they should take a day off. Other trucking companies may require drivers to meet deadlines or risk losing their jobs, sick or not. As a result, many truck drivers continue to drive even while ill, putting themselves and the public at risk.
Truck drivers should never feel pressure to drive under the influence of drugs or alcohol. Truckers have a legal and moral obligation to avoid drinking when they know they have to drive. Sometimes, however, drivers may misjudge how long it will take them to get sober again after a night of indulgence. In other cases, the trucking company may call the driver in to work unexpectedly. Drivers should always have the option to say no if they feel they cannot drive safely after drinking or using drugs (legal or illegal).
Drugs and alcohol cause a wide variety of driving impairments, including:
- Difficulty with fine and gross motor skills, which can challenge the driver’s ability to safely operate the vehicle
- Difficulty with decision-making
- Poor reaction times
- Impaired vision, which can make it harder to judge the presence of other vehicles and pedestrians around the truck
Drunk drivers put themselves and innocent motorists in harm’s way. Every trucking company should have broad policies in place to prevent drivers from driving under the influence. Unfortunately, not all do.
Truck drivers should have the ability to judge weather conditions and determine whether they can safely drive. Truck drivers receive extensive training aimed at helping them control large big rigs on the road. Many young or inexperienced truck drivers, however, may not have the experience needed to safely navigate in poor weather conditions. If a driver encounters weather conditions in which he feels it unsafe to drive, including snow and ice or heavy rain conditions, the trucking company should empower him to choose not to drive during those hours without losing his job, even if it means cutting a deadline closer than anticipated.
Failing to Ensure That Drivers Have Adequate Training
Getting a commercial license requires substantial training. Some trucking companies have their own driver training programs. Others rely on truck driving schools to provide drivers with the training they need. No matter how trucking companies choose to handle driver training, however, they should always ensure that drivers have adequate training before sending them out on the road.
- An understanding of how to manage the particular vehicle the driver gets assigned. Some vehicles have specific requirements and quirks, and the truck driver should receive enough training to manage that vehicle competently on the road.
- An intensive study of how to handle many weather conditions. Driving on a sunny day poses significantly fewer hazards for any driver than attempting to drive in rain, on snow and ice, or during times when the sun shines directly in the driver’s eyes. Properly training new truck drivers should include ensuring they have the experience needed to operate a big truck in all weather conditions, especially those they will most likely encounter while performing their job duties.
A trucking company that does not ensure its drivers receive adequate training may end up with drivers at-risk of causing accidents. Trucking companies that do not provide that training directly should always evaluate new drivers before sending them out on the road, especially if hauling potentially hazardous cargo.
Failing to Monitor Drivers’ Capabilities and License Status
Even the most cautious truck driver can cause an accident. Some truck drivers, however, consistently fail to exercise appropriate caution behind the wheel. A trucking company that continues to employ a trucker with a reputation for driving recklessly or with a history of accidents may share liability when that driver causes an accident.
Trucking companies should:
- Remain aware of driver tickets. A trucker receiving a high number of traffic citations should serve as a warning sign to trucking companies of a potentially-reckless driver who should have his driving privileges revoked.
- Keep up with accident statistics. Ideally, trucking companies should keep track of any accidents caused by drivers off the clock as well as accidents caused while working for the company.
Before employing a new driver, the trucking company should check the driver’s record. The company should also monitor all of its drivers’ records and take steps to discipline or remove drivers who fail to meet the company’s safety standards on an ongoing basis.
In many cases, when big trucks cause accidents, the trucking company shares the blame. Contact a truck accident attorney as soon as possible after your truck accident to learn more about who faces legal liability for your injuries.