Liability for an 18-Wheeler Accident
Everything you buy is brought to you by a truck. And with economic growth, there are more and more things being purchased and transported. That means there are more and more trucks out there, which means there will be more semi truck accidents. But relatively speaking, truck drivers are safer than passenger car drivers. Commercial trucks are involved in 2.4% of all car accidents. More than 80% of those accidents are the fault of the non-commercial driver. Trucks are 3 times less likely to be in a wreck than a regular motor vehicle. Yet, even though the statistics seem to point to the relative safety of truck drivers over passenger car drivers, the severity and mortality of a truck accident is extremely high for passenger car drivers.
If you have been involved in a collision with an 18-wheeler, there are far more factors and things to consider than with a basic automobile incident. This is because there are specific regulations that cover a commercial vehicle under both Federal and Texas State law.
What qualifies as a “commercial vehicle” depends upon the size and weight of the vehicle and what is being transported (people, property, hazardous chemicals, etc.) An 18-wheeler is a commercial vehicle, and as such, both the driver and carrier must comply with the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations (FMCSR).
These regulations are quite broad and cover every aspect of driving a truck, and thus it’s difficult to list every potential violation that might lead to liability of the driver or the trucking company. Nevertheless, here are some general areas.
- Vehicle Safety Check: Mechanical failures such as tire blow-outs can result in catastrophic collisions, and thus a driver is required to do a walk-around inspection of his tractor-trailer every day before he drives his truck.
- Excessive Hours: There are specific rules that limit the number of hours that a semi truck driver can drive. Up until the last few years, truckers would keep track of their hours using hand-written log books, and they would sometimes falsify these log books so that they could drive more hours. Recently, most companies have gone to a satellite tracking system that shows how hours, distance and speed of each day’s trip.
- Incompetence: In order to drive a tractor-trailer, a driver must obtain a commercial driver’s license (“CDL”), which has higher requirements than a basic drivers license. Many drivers will go to a truck driving school which educates the drivers both in the classroom and behind the wheel.
However, merely obtaining a CDL does not mean that the driver is ready to drive a semi. It just means that they can start to become “qualified” to drive a commercial truck. Measuring the competency and training the driver is the trucking companies’ responsibility.
- Distraction: CDL drivers can drive 50-70 hours a week. That’s a long time to be driving, and boredom can certainly set in. Unfortunately, distractions available on mobile phones and devices can result in terrible collisions.
- Hiring Incompetent Drivers: As stated above, having a CDL does not mean a driver is qualified to drive a truck. Thus, a motor carrier is required to make sure that the driver is competent and qualified. The FMCSR require a carrier to compile a “Driver’s Qualification File” (“DQF”) that includes a variety of things such as obtaining a driving record from the state, medical exam forms, contacting prior employers, completion of a driving test, etc. If the DOT inspects the carrier, the carrier can then prove that it made sure that a driver was “qualified” to drive an 18-wheeler.
Good help is hard to find, and a real problem for the trucking industry is thatthere is a large shortage of drivers, and the issue is expected to double in the next decade.
- Failing to Train: It’s acceptable for a carrier to hire a new CDL driver, but they just cannot give that driver a truck and let him go. What a carrier has to do is train the driver to make sure he is “qualified.” This can be done through both classroom/online training, as well as road trips with experienced drivers who can monitor and mentor the new driver. At good companies, safety meetings and training happen on a reasonably regular basis.
- Failing to Monitor: A trucking company is required to track its drivers’ driving hours, which has gotten much easier lately due to satellite tracking. A carrier must also update the DQF file every year.
Companies in General
There are approximately 2 million semi trucks in the United States. There are approximately 3.5 million drivers. There are approximately 1.2 million trucking companies/carriers in the United States. Of that amount, 90% have fewer than 6 trucks, which means that most carriers are “small” carriers.
Larger trucking companies will have a safety department and a safety manager, whose only job is safety. Generally, these companies tend to hire better and more qualified drivers, and to train and monitor those drivers.
At the other end of the spectrum are small companies that have a few trucks, and no safety managers. These companies can even be owned and operated by a person that has never driven a truck before. (Yes, you too can start your own trucking company! All that has to be done is to get a DOT number, hire a few drivers, and you’re in business!) These smaller companies are likely not to have a qualified safety manager and might not understand the DOT/FMSCR requirements. They hire less qualified drivers. They are involved in more accidents.
Some of these smaller fly-by-night companies eventually get shut down by the DOT, after which the company will change its name slightly and apply for a new DOT number. They then start operations just as before. These carriers are known as “Chameleon Carriers,” and they pose a big problem to the driving public.