As everyone knows, you need a driver’s license to operate a motor vehicle. Car accidents sometimes involve unlicensed drivers, but rarely.
Not so, however, when it comes to truck accidents. Drivers of commercial motor vehicles (CMVs)—principally large trucks and buses—must have special qualifications to take the wheel. New York State law requires all CMV operators to hold a commercial driver’s license (CDL), for instance. However, that is just the tip of the iceberg. Many truck configurations require specialized training, and certain classes of truck cargo require a driver to carry endorsements on their CDLs.
Unfortunately, truckers do not always hold the qualifications they need to haul a load, and trucking companies do not always check to make sure they send qualified drivers out on a run. In this blog post, we review the problem of unqualified truck drivers and the risks they pose to other motorists. If a truck accident involving an unqualified trucker has caused you or a loved one harm, contact an experienced truck accident injury attorney today to learn about your rights.
The CDL: Ensuring Qualifications
Commercial truck drivers must learn about safe driving practices as part of obtaining a CDL. By design, the training required to receive a CDL supplies truckers with the knowledge and know-how they need to drive safely. For instance:
- Braking. Large trucks use pneumatic air brakes that operate differently from the brakes in passenger vehicles. Truckers receive training in how to use these brakes so that they can bring trucks to a safe stop in various driving scenarios and road conditions, and avoid accidents for which trucks face a particular risk, like rollovers and jackknifes.
- Truck configurations. Drivers also receive training in operating particular sizes and classes of CMV. A box truck and a tractor trailer, for example, may look alike, but they handle quite differently, and a truck driver must receive specific training for how to drive each. New York State, for example, has three classes of CDL, Class A, B, and C, covering different types and configurations of commercial vehicles.
- Cargo. Truckers seeking a CDL must also learn about how to load and secure cargo to make sure it does not shift dangerously while the truck is in motion. A sudden shift could cause an accident. Drivers who want to haul some classes of cargo, such as hazardous materials or oversized loads, must also receive special safety and handling training for that cargo, because of the even higher-than-usual risks some loads may pose to the public.
These are just a few of the areas in which truckers must receive training to receive a CDL. The procedure for obtaining a CDL resembles that for obtaining a car driver’s license. The applicant must pass a written test to qualify for a learner’s permit first. Then, the applicant practices for a road test under the supervision of a driver holding the same type of CDL the applicant seeks. Finally, the applicant must pass a road test. This procedure ensures that CDL holders have proven, on-the-road ability to operate a truck safely.
Qualifying as a Driver: Federal Requirements
While states issue CDLs, fully qualified truck drivers must also meet requirements established by the federal government. These qualifications primarily focus on truck drivers’ physical condition and well-being.
First, truck drivers and learner’s permit holders alike must pass a physical examination to obtain a U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT) Medical Examiner’s Certificate. The purpose for requiring the certificate is to screen truck drivers for health conditions that could make them prone to having a health emergency behind the wheel that causes a catastrophic accident. A heart condition, for example, could make it more likely for a driver to pass out while driving and could prevent a driver from receiving the required certificate.
Second, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) requires periodic testing of drivers for alcohol and other substances that can impair driving and judgment. Trucking companies must not allow drivers who fail or refuse the test to continue driving. Truck drivers disqualified by these tests can follow a reinstatement protocol after completion of a safety program on alcohol or substance abuse.
Drivers must also complete training on the symptoms of alcohol abuse and substance abuse. Companies that do not enforce this requirement are subject to a $10,000 fine.
Third, FMCSA requires companies to limit drivers’ service hours to ensure they receive adequate rest and driving breaks. These rules aim to minimize drowsy and fatigued truck driving, a condition that can lead to accidents. Up to 13 percent of commercial truck drivers involved in a crash exhibit symptoms of fatigue, according to FMCSA’s Large Truck Crash Causation Study.
Driving while excessively fatigued is just as dangerous as driving drunk, and impairs drivers in exactly the same ways.
The hours of service rules require that truckers take an extended break after 11 consecutive hours of driving, if the 11-hour period follows 10 straight hours off, and may not drive for more than 8 hours straight without at least a 30 minute break, Drivers need to stop driving after 14 straight hours on the clock. The service limit is 60 hours in one week and 70 hours in eight days.
Due to the dangers of drowsy and fatigued drivers, companies have every incentive to follow these requirements. Unfortunately, in some cases, a trucking company may put profits over safety by scheduling drivers for over-long shifts, or imposing deadlines that effectively force drivers to violate rules to make on-time deliveries.
While qualified drivers know all of these requirements, unqualified drivers may not. As a result, they may lack physical qualifications to drive, suffer impairment by alcohol or drugs at a higher rate than qualified drivers, or drive while fatigued more often.
How Can I Know if an Unqualified Driver Causes an Accident?
If you’ve been in a truck accident caused by an unqualified driver, how will you know?
The short answer is: You might not, at least, not right away. However, if a truck accident results from a truck driver’s error or from an unsafe feature of the truck itself, then that may serve as a red flag that the driver lacked the proper qualifications.
A rollover accident involving a truck that took an exit ramp too quickly, for instance, can happen because of poor driving skills, bad driver judgment, or an unstable load. A driver with proper training should not commit these errors or haul improperly-secured cargo. A driver’s lack of qualifications, then, could explain the accident.
That is why, in the aftermath of the accident, experienced truck accident injury lawyers know to investigate whether the driver had obtained the proper training to operate the size and class of truck involved. A lawyer might obtain this information from many sources. First, law enforcement will usually respond to the scene of a large truck accident. Officers will likely interview the truck driver and review the driver’s license status. The police report the officers prepare would typically indicate any lack of qualifications.
A lawyer might also seek to learn about the driver from public records, such as those maintained by state or federal agencies. If the trucker works for a trucking company, the attorney may also seek records relating to the driver’s performance history from that employer, too.
In other words, if you get into a truck accident, do not worry too much right there at the scene about trying to figure out the trucker’s qualifications. So long as you seek help from an experienced truck accident injury attorney as soon as possible, you will have a good chance of finding out whether the trucker had any business behind the wheel.
Why a Trucker’s Qualifications Might Matter for You
Finding out that the trucker involved in an accident that injured you or a loved one would probably make you angry. Does it have any significance in whether you can recover compensation for your injuries?
Yes, it probably does. Here’s why.
People who sustain serious injuries because of a truck accident caused by someone else’s carelessness or recklessness may have the right to take legal action against that at-fault person for money damages. Lawyers for truck accident victims often spend a significant amount of time investigating an accident to identify facts that prove someone acted carelessly or recklessly (or, to use a legal term, negligently).
In many cases, evidence that a trucker lacked the necessary qualifications to operate a truck that crashed could go a long way in proving the truck driver’s negligence and thus, his legal liability to you for your injuries. That is because taking the wheel of a truck without proper training and certification puts others in extreme danger. It is difficult to imagine an act more obviously careless and reckless than a trucker trying to operate massive, potentially-deadly machinery without knowing how it works.
However, that is not all. Evidence that a truck driver took the wheel without the requisite qualifications could also saddle the driver’s employer with legal liability for the accident. Trucking companies have a basic legal obligation to make sure their drivers have the necessary qualifications to operate the company’s trucks. So, if a driver for a trucking company gets into an accident while lacking qualifications, that could serve as powerful evidence that the company failed to live up to its legal obligations.
In other words, your lawyer may have an easier time than usual proving other people’s legal liability to you for damages if it turns out that an unqualified trucker drove the truck in the crash that hurt you. That fact might not seal-the-deal, necessarily, but it could spur the parties with legal liability to come to the table more quickly to offer you the compensation you deserve.
How a Truck Accident Lawyer Can Help
Victims of large truck accidents face a whirlwind of difficulty. Severe injuries cause them physical, emotional, and financial pain. Many know they will need help paying for medical bills and making up for lost time at work, but do not necessarily know where to turn for sound advice.
An experienced truck accident injury lawyer’s job is to work with truck accident victims to help them obtain the compensation they deserve for their injuries.
Lawyers do this by:
- Investigating truck accidents to learn about how they occurred, whose decisions and actions contributed to them, and what parties have legal liability as a result. One area experienced lawyers frequently investigate is whether truck drivers had the qualifications necessary to operate the truck that crashed.
- Negotiating with parties who have legal liability for an accident (usually through their attorneys or insurance representatives) to achieve a fair and reasonable settlement of a client’s truck accident injury claims. As noted above, learning that an accident involved an unqualified trucker can give an attorney a powerful negotiating position.
- Litigating (filing and pursuing legal actions) in court, and taking the case to trial if necessary to recover the compensation a client should receive under the law.
These broad categories encompass just some of the services lawyers often provide for their clients. Every case has its own unique details and needs. The important thing to understand is that an experienced truck accident attorney serves only the interests of the injured client, no one else’s.
Get the Help You Need After an Unqualified Truck Driver Hurts You in an Accident
Truckers should never, ever climb behind the wheel of a vehicle without proper training and licensing. Unqualified truck drivers pose an unacceptable, and totally avoidable, risk to the public. If their actions and lack of training cause an accident, a truck accident lawyer can hold them accountable.
Do not wait to seek the legal help you need after a truck accident, whether or not you know an unqualified driver caused it. Contact an experienced truck accident attorney today for a free case evaluation.