Commercial transportation is a dangerous endeavor. According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, in 2010 there were 112,379 non-fatal crashes involving large trucks and 12,763 non-fatal crashes involving buses.
There were 44,310 crashes with injuries involving large trucks and 6,854 injury-crashes involving buses.
There were 2,559 large trucks involved in accidents involving hazardous materials.
There was a reduction in the number of large-truck-related and bus-related fatalities between 2006 and 2010: Fatalities fell from 5,347 in 2006 to 3,619 in 2010. There was a similar decline in injuries related to truck accidents: From 99,937 in 2006 to 75,954. Some of that decline, however, is probably attributable to the decreased level of transportation traffic on the roads in a weaker economy. Unemployment among truckers has increased substantially over the same period of time.
This data, of course, excludes injuries and deaths from commercial light trucks, sedans, pickups, delivery vans, taxicabs, police cars, and the like.
What Causes these Accidents?
The Department of Transportation published a truck accident causation study in 2007. Their findings: The number one factor associated with truck collisions with cars was brake problems. A brake problem on the truck was found to be present in 27 percent of truck vs. car crashes. Only 2 percent of accidents involved brake problems on the car. The overwhelming majority of brake problems in crashes were on the truck.
An interruption in traffic flow was the number two factor, involved in 25 percent of truck-on-car crashes. 15 percent of cases involved travelling too fast for conditions, and 19 percent involved unfamiliarity with the roadway.
10 percent of truck operators involved in these accidents reported feeling under work pressure that may have contributed to the accident. Fatigue only accounted for 7 percent of truck drivers in these accidents (but 15 percent of car drivers.)[i]
Truck drivers were far less likely to have been under the influence of illegal drugs (0.4 percent) or alcohol (0.3 percent) than the drivers of cars in these accidents (7 and 9 percent, respectively.)
The same study also established the top ten “causative factors” for truck accidents. These are factors that were more than just possible factors associated with the crash. These factors were determined to be critical in the accidents studied.
- Illegal maneuvers
- Inadequate surveillance
- Traveling too fast
- Following too closely
- Misjudging the gap or the other vehicles’ speed
- External distraction
- Brake problems
The author of the study, Ralph Craft, recommended the following actions:
- Inspections, compliance reviews and education programs should focus more on the driver, rather than the vehicle.
- Fleet owners and managers should develop a formal system for rating drivers.
- Focus vehicle inspections on brakes, tires and lights.
These three items were found to be the most critical safety systems on large trucks.
This particular study predated the wide use of sophisticated GPS systems. But unfamiliarity with the roads was determined to be a contributing factor in many truck-on-car accidents. Today’s much-improved GPS systems should, in theory, make it easier on truck drivers. It is, for example, theoretically possible today for drivers to conduct a virtual “rehearsal” of the entire route, using GPS technology and maps and aerial photos easily available on the Web.
Judgments Can Be Substantial
The amount of liability potentially at stake for trucking and bus companies is substantial. In one case in Osceola County, Florida, a truck rear-ended a car, causing a severe brain injury to a child sitting in the back seat of the car. The award was for $2.45 million dollars.
Another case, with the same Florida law firm, involved the claim of wrongful death of a husband and father who was helping a victim of an earlier accident when he was run down by a truck in the median of I-75. The case resulted in $2 million in compensation for the deceased man’s family. [ii]
And in another case involving the death of two individuals in a truck accident in North Carolina, plaintiffs’ attorneys were disputing a claim by the driver that he had blacked out prior to the wreck due to a medical condition that caused him to lose consciousness from coughing. The plaintiffs were able to demonstrate that the vehicle was on cruise control, the CB radio was on, and the driver had received two phone calls – one via call waiting – right before the collision. The plaintiffs were also able to demonstrate that the trucking company knew, or should have known, about the trucker’s substantial medical and personal problems that contributed to him being a safety hazard. There were logbook violations, and the trucker was still on the road even though he was in a preventable crash only 11 days prior to the fatal incident. The driver and truck company settled for $7 million – to avoid a jury trial which could have been worse.
Minimum Limits May Be Inadequate
If you study the case histories of any law firm with more than a few years’ experience regularly representing plaintiffs in truck accidents, you will see that settlements and jury awards in the high six figure range is routine, and each decently sized law firm will have a few cases they brag about that resulted in awards or settlements for their clients in the million dollar range, plus.
If a driver happens to be involved in an accident that causes the death of more than one person – which can easily happen to any trucking firm, anywhere, anytime – expect a $2 million stake at a minimum. Perhaps more if the victims are young, sympathetic or if there is evidence of negligence on the part of the driver or your managers.
Your state limits may be inadequate to cover your true exposure. What would happen to your business if you were served with a $2 million judgment? If you would have trouble paying the award or settlement, or if you would be driven into bankruptcy because of it, you should be reviewing and increasing your coverage immediately.