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Causes of Truck Accidents

Main Causes of Trucking Accidents

Large commercial trucks were involved in 37,515 accidents in Texas in 2018, according to the Texas Department of Transportation. In Texas, those accidents caused 536 deaths, 1,367 serious injuries, and 4,880 non-incapacitating injuries.

In Nueces County, where Corpus Christi is located, commercial trucks were involved in 394 accidents, causing 2 deaths and 11 suspected serious injuries. They also caused 24 non-incapacitating injuries. That’s more than 30 accidents every single month.

These statistics reflect the U.S. picture overall. Nationwide, over 4,100 fatalities were caused by truck accidents in the last year for which statistics are available.

What accounts for the large number of truck accidents every year? In part, the tally reflects the high number of trucks on the road. The American Trucking Association estimates there are 36 million commercial trucks licensed and registered in the United States.

But truck accidents are not inevitable. They happen because of preventable factors mistakes and oversights that end up harming others on the road. The car accident attorneys at The Patel Firm have made an overview of some of the most common causes of truck accidents. 

Unsafe Speed

It takes a lot of energy to crank a fully-loaded commercial truck up speed, and a lot of time, distance, and control to slow it back down. Many commercial truck accidents happen because truckers misjudge what constitutes a safe speed for their vehicle under various driving conditions.

One of the most common accidents resulting from unsafe truck speeds are rollovers on sharp curves, such as those you commonly encounter on highway ramps and rural roads. Trucks have a high center of gravity and carry heavy loads. This makes them prone to tipping over when entering a sharp curve at excessive speed.

Another typical truck accident resulting from unsafe speed is a collision in which the truck rear-ends a vehicle in front of it. Like any vehicle, the higher a truck’s speed, the less time the driver has to react to a road hazard, and the longer the distance the truck needs to come to a controlled stop. In heavy traffic or on roads with relatively poor visibility, excessive truck speed can leave a driver without enough time and distance to avoid a collision with stopped vehicles.

Big-rig jackknife accidents also result from unsafe truck speeds. In a jackknife, the cab of the truck swings around against its own trailer, resulting in a total loss of truck control. Speed contributes to jackknifing when the momentum built up by the trailer overwhelms the truck-tractor, essentially pushing it askew from behind. Jackknifes can also occur when a truck’s brakes are not properly balanced and apply uneven braking pressure at high speed.

Finally, excessive speed can also lead to runaway accidents, such as when a truck descends a long hill and picks up too much momentum for the driver to keep it under control. Just about any kind of collision or catastrophe can result from a runaway accident, from pileups to rollovers to run-off-road accidents.

Truck Driver Inattention

Driving a truck requires special skill. Texas requires drivers of commercial vehicles to carry a Commercial Driver License (CDL) rated for the type of vehicle the driver operates. Drivers have to clear many hurdles to obtain a CDL, including written and on-road testing and certifications of their abilities to drive safely.

One thing all CDL holders know is that driving a commercial truck requires constant situational awareness. Drivers must pay close attention to the speed and position of their vehicle, as well as to all of the other vehicles with which the truck shares the road. A moment’s inattention can result in disaster. Inattention can result from a variety of contributing factors, including using a phone or GPS, having a conversation, or impairment from fatigue, drug, or alcohol use (see below).

Blind Spot Inattention Is a Particular Danger

Keeping tabs on other vehicles is no easy feat. Trucks have large blind spots on all four sides. For a typical tractor-trailer, those blind spots extend:

  • 20 feet in front of the cab;
  • 30 feet behind the trailer;
  • One lane-width on the driver’s side; and
  • Two lane-widths on the passenger side.

Drivers use mirrors and, increasingly, side and rear cameras to help them “clear” their blind spots. But those tools are not fool-proof. To use them effectively, drivers need to keep constant track of other vehicles. When a driver loses sight of another vehicle in his blind spot, he can end up causing accidents such as:

  • Underrides, in which a smaller vehicle becomes trapped or wedged under the trailer of a big-rig truck when the trucker changes lanes or stops suddenly without realizing the smaller vehicle is in his blind spot;
  • Crowding/Run-off-road, in which a truck changes lanes or turns across a lane, crowding a vehicle in its blind spot and or forcing the vehicle to leave the road to avoid a sideswipe collision;
  • Rear-end accidents, in which the truck driver loses track of a vehicle in his forward blind spot and runs into it from behind.

Driver Fatigue

Sleepy or driver fatigue is a danger in any vehicle. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimate that 4 percent of all drivers nationally have actually fallen asleep while driving at some point in the previous month. But the CDC also points out that truck drivers may be at even more risk for this behavior.

According to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration Large Truck Crash Causation Study, about 13 percent of truck drivers were sleepy or fatigued when a crash occurred, citing sleep deprivation, long hours, and physical or mental stress that damaged performance, or strenuous activities.

Lack of sleep can cause impaired judgement and lapses in reflexes and coordination. In fact, the effect can be similar to alcohol intoxication. Twenty-four hours of lack of sleep has effects similar to those witnessed in a driver with a 0.10 percent blood alcohol concentration (BAC), which is more than the limit for legal intoxication.

Unfortunately, truck driving jobs lend themselves to lack of sleep and fatigue. While drivers of commercial trucks must follow Federal hours of service limits, these limits allow long driving shifts. Drivers are mandated to break for rest after 11 straight hours after 10 straight hours off. They shouldn’t driver after 14 hours, or more than 60 hours per week.

But these hours can leave plenty of room to become sleepy, fatigued, or tired. In addition, shifts may be planned in such a way that drivers used to sleeping during the night, for instance, suddenly need to sleep during the day. They may not be able to get sufficient sleep if that’s the case.

Some companies may also exert pressure on drivers to make runs in a certain time frame, and the times may not allow sufficient rest.

Drivers who aren’t rested may turned to substances to help them stay awake. Use of these substances, such as amphetamines, can also cause accidents.

Driving While Impaired

Commercial drivers are routinely tested for alcohol or illegal drug use. As a result, truck accidents caused by drug or alcohol use are relatively uncommon. But that doesn’t mean they never happen. And of course, drug and alcohol use by other drivers on the road can also lead to an accident involving a truck. Drug and/or alcohol use is a contributing factor in 40 percent of all traffic accidents in Texas.

Inadequate Maintenance and Mechanical Failure

Improperly maintained vehicles and vehicles with defective equipment can also cause catastrophic truck accidents. Truck owners should maintain vehicles in safe operating condition, drivers should inspect their trucks before every trip, and truck part manufacturers should only sell safe products. Sometimes, however, one or more of those parties gets careless or cuts corners. Two significant equipment/mechanical failure accidents causes are:

Tire Blowouts

Heavy (and sometimes unbalanced) loads and long routes make truck tires susceptible to extreme wear and sudden, catastrophic failure. A blowout makes a truck difficult to steer, increasing the risk of the truck running off of the road or rolling over.

Additionally, tire tread from a blown-out truck tire frequently becomes a dangerous obstacle in the roadway that can lead to accidents.

Brake Failure

Trucks need reliable brakes because of the potentially catastrophic consequences if they fail. Truck brake systems require constant maintenance to ensure they can bring a vehicle weighing up to 80,000 pounds, traveling at highway speeds, to a controlled stop. That’s a massive amount of energy to harness.

According to industry publication Transport Topics, there are at least two ways the standard air-braking system on a tractor trailer can fail. One is the failure of the system to deliver compressed air, leading to brake lock-up and a loss of control. The other is when an inexperienced driver keeps the brake pedal depressed for too long, overheating the brakes to the point of catastrophic failure.

Cargo-Related Issues

The purpose of trucks is to carry cargo from one place to another. Every day, workers across the nation load cargo onto trucks. Every single instance of moving cargo into a truck trailer or container represents an opportunity for someone to make a mistake in balancing and securing a load. Those mistakes lead to accidents when a load shifts and makes the truck impossible to control, or when cargo escapes its container onto the road.

Sudden Shifts in Inadequately-Secured Loads

Have you ever ridden a bicycle with a fussy toddler in a kid’s seat attached to the back? If so, then you there’s a good chance you’ve had the unnerving experience of feeling a shift in weight that affects your ability to ride straight.

Now imagine that same feeling, only the shift in weight involves thousands of pounds of cargo. Truckers in this predicament struggle to maintain control. Rollover accidents and collisions are common.

Escaping Cargo

Cargo that falls or leaks from a truck can create a serious hazard for other motorists and the general public. We have all had the experience of driving behind a dump truck leaking gravel that bounces off the road, scratches our paint jobs, and cracks our windshields. And that is the least of the problems loose cargo can cause. Larger items falling from a truck can cause major collisions. And tanker trucks that leak potentially hazardous liquids risk exploding or releasing toxic fumes.

Lack of Training or Improper Hiring Practices

The trucking industry currently finds itself mired in a severe labor shortage. As a group, long-haul truckers are older on average than the general working population, so the labor shortage will likely continue to worsen as drivers retire.

A lack of experienced drivers puts trucking companies under pressure. Some cut corners by hiring less-experienced drivers. Others cut back on training programs that keep drivers off the road. In lowering the overall quality and training of the trucking workforce, trucking companies raise the risk of truck accidents caused by driver inexperience, such as:

Bridge and Overpass Clearance Accidents

Bridges, overpasses, and similar pass-through structures have specific clearance heights, which is usually posted on the bridge or overpass. Trucks vary in height and width. Inexperienced drivers run high risks of choosing to drive routes with clearances too low for their truck to fit through, resulting in accidents.

Backing up and Turning Accidents

It takes significant skill to back a tractor-trailer truck up successfully and safely. Likewise, drivers need training to learn how to navigate turns so as not to run their trailer off the road surface and/or crowd out vehicles and others in adjacent lanes. Drivers lacking these essential abilities risk harming others.

Who Has Legal Responsibility for a Truck Accident?

With such a wide variety of potential causes, legal liability for truck accidents can fall on a wide variety of parties. Truck drivers, their employers, maintenance crews, loading dock workers, and parts manufacturers represent just some of those parties with potential legal liability for damages in a truck accident.

To learn more about who may have legal liability for your truck accident, contact an experienced Corpus Christi, TX truck accident attorney today.

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