Chapter One What Are the Common Causes of Truck Crashes and Why Are They So Dangerous?
Truck crashes are extremely dangerous and cause tremendous damage, as can be seen in this photo from one of my cases. It’s unfortunate that most truck crashes are due to driver error and are preventable. In this chapter I will discuss some of the common causes of truck accidents and the reasons why they are so dangerous.
Driver fatigue is one of the leading causes of truck crashes. Truck drivers have high-stress jobs that involve high pressure. Trucking companies typically require drivers to deliver freight to far-away destinations within short periods of time. Consequently, truckers drive long distances with short breaks and little sleep. Long-distance routes keep truck drivers behind the wheel for several days at a time and small sleeper cabs result in low-quality sleep. Drivers are therefore slower to react and have diminished concentration. Some truck crashes even result from drivers falling asleep behind the wheel. While laws regulate the number of hours drivers can work per shift, some trucking companies do not comply and encourage their drivers to exceed the permitted hours.
Another major cause of truck wrecks is improper training. Too many truck companies fail to provide adequate behind-the-wheel, supervised training. We have handled many cases involving little or no training following a driver getting their Commercial Driver’s License (CDL). I have had drivers testify to no training, too little training, or one driver saying the majority of his training revolved around product handling, and he only received about a week of supervised behind-the-wheel time. Sometimes drivers fail training tests and are not re-educated on the driving problem they have, or drivers fail a portion of their CDL test. Unfortunately, some trucking companies rush through the training process so that they can get their drivers on the road quicker. They look to hire young and inexperienced drivers who they can pay less, and then send them out on the road without proper training. Other companies fail to properly investigate their employees’ driving records and hire unqualified drivers. Shortcuts to save money usually cost more in the long run.
Speeding, distracted driving, and substance abuse are also among the lead causes of truck crashes. In an effort to meet tight deadlines, truck drivers often speed or drive too fast for weather conditions. They bear down on smaller vehicles from behind and cause them to swerve into other lanes. Truckers often become bored on long routes and are tempted to look at their phones. Moreover, a recent study shows that approximately thirty percent of truck drivers admitted to taking illegal substances on the job. It is not uncommon for drivers to take amphetamines and stimulants to stay awake while driving. We know all of these rule violations because we see them on the road. How many close calls or bad wrecks have you personally seen?
The other leading cause has to do with the mass of trucks. Over the road and even local delivery trucks usually weigh between 60 and 80,000 pounds. Compare this to your 3,350-pound sedan. So, trucks take longer to stop, decelerate slower, and have more inertia and force (Force = mass times acceleration). Many Rules of the Road and good training instructions require truck drivers to be watching 15 seconds ahead of themselves, to keep an extra distance from the vehicle in front of them, stop sooner, go slower in inclement weather, use both their braking systems, drive defensively and be prepared to stop at turning traffic lights and thick traffic.
So why are truck crashes so dangerous? Well, again because of the sheer size and weight of tractor-trailers. Trucks are substantially heavier than other vehicles. The NHTSA defines a large truck as any truck with a gross vehicle weight rating greater than 10,000 pounds. However, large tractor-trailer trucks can weigh up to 80,000 pounds. On the other hand, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimated that the average weight of a car in 2018 was 4,094 pounds, with compact cars weighing on average 2,919 pounds. This means that large tractor-trailers can weigh about 20 times more than cars.
With such a great weight disparity between large trucks and cars, it should come as no surprise that smaller cars are at a serious disadvantage in collisions. In fact, according to the EPA, every 1,000-pound disadvantage increases the risk of fatality by forty-seven percent. When a large truck and car collide, the car sustains significantly more damage and its occupants are more likely to be injured or killed than the truck driver. As mentioned in the Introduction, data published by NHTSA shows that seventy-one percent of people killed in truck crashes in 2018 were occupants of other vehicles, not the truck.
Another factor that makes truck crashes so dangerous is that the enormous weight of large trucks requires greater braking distances to come to a complete stop. So reacting sooner to stopped cars and red lights, giving more space to the vehicle in front of them, and watching the road 10 to 15 seconds in front of them, are requirements for safe drivers. These are not an option. A tractor trailer’s enormous weight also causes them to accelerate slowly, and truckers often misjudge the amount of time it takes to make turns or merge with traffic.
Trucks are also tall, making them unstable compared to cars, especially when their trailers are loaded improperly. Improper loading can cause top-heavy cargo to shift in transit, which can lead to the truck overturning or losing control. Additionally, the height of trucks makes them more vulnerable to rollovers from swerving, hard cornering, and strong gusts of wind. When trucks take evasive maneuvers, they can yaw and slide sideways, causing reduced traction.
Finally, the last physical aspect of trucks that makes them different is their length. Their substantial length creates large blind-spots for the truck driver on all sides of the vehicle. These large blind-spots are often referred to as “no-zones.” While truck drivers are trained to pay close attention to traffic entering and leaving the “no-zones,” this often does not happen. Additionally, the length of trucks requires truck drivers to make wide swing turns which can catch other motorists off guard. Cars caught in these blind spots get hit –
whether from a truck changing lanes, taking a turn, or backing up. Smart drivers pass trucks quickly and do not linger in their blind spots. It is kind of sad that car and motorcycle drivers have to always be vigilant for dangerous truck drivers not minding their blind spots.