According to the latest data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, large trucks are more likely to cause death than an injury; large trucks were involved in eight percent of crashes causing a fatality, but only three percent of crashes involving injury. A recent horrific wreck involving a tractor-trailer in Kentucky highlights the dangers of these vehicles on our nation’s roadways.
In March 2010, an Alabama semi-driver operating for Hester Inc. crossed the median of I-65 and hit a van carrying a Mennonite family. Eleven of the family members were killed, as was the driver, and only two small children survived.
The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating the accident to determine the cause. Several theories are in play including driver fatigue, driving under the influence, and a driver medical condition. The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration has also instigated a review of Hester Inc. and will review drivers’ hours of service, vehicle maintenance and inspection, driver qualification, controlled substance and alcohol testing, and compliance with licensing requirements.
Hester Inc. has apparently been cited over a dozen times in the past 30 months for drivers going over the hours of service. The FMCSA had rated Hester’s drivers as “deficient” as recently as February. The FMCSA’s review is on-going. If the FMCSA determines that Hester’s operations are “unsatisfactory,” the company’s vehicles would be taken off the road for good.
Changes in the Rules for Trucking Companies and Drivers
This tragic incident has already inspired one change in federal regulations: the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration has issued a new rule that mandates certain federal trucking and bus companies to install so-called “black boxes” to monitor the number of hours that drivers work. The rule was proposed a while ago, but FMCSA has resisted putting it into effect until now.
The electronic onboard device will be installed in the cab of certain large vehicles and will record whether the truck is running and the driver’s hours in service. The electronic onboard device might also provide benefits to the drivers in the form of GPS-like features such as weather updates, detour notices and information about near-by truck parking for the driver’s route. The black boxes could cost between several hundred and several thousand dollars per unit and additional costs for monthly subscriptions for GPS services.
Support for the black boxes is not universal. Certain industry groups, including the American Trucking Association, support the rule because of the “incentives” it provides for safe and non-compliant carriers to adopt the use of the black boxes. But some advocates, including Todd Spencer, executive vice president of the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association, oppose the requirement of mandatory recorders claiming that the electronic onboard devices do not account for all driver activities that might contribute to driver fatigue. He also notes that the expense of installation and GPS services is cost-prohibitive for some drivers.
Other Dangers Associated with Large Trucks
After trucking accidents, federal agencies and plaintiff’s lawyers routinely investigate the scene to determine the cause of the accident. These investigations have revealed violations of federal safety regulations including brake failures, shredded tires, defective fifth wheel couplings, lack of reflective tape, broken tail lights and failure to install blind-spot mirrors.
Other dangers not addressed by the new federal rule involve a dangerous operation. While a black box may record the time that a driver is on the road, it does not record whether the driver is driving safely. The driver may be under the influence of alcohol or prescription medication. Technology, like ignition interlock devices, already exists to catch drivers who are under the influence of alcohol. Perhaps more sophisticated technology could be developed and required to be part of the black-box software to monitor whether a driver is under the influence of controlled substances and alcohol.
Drivers may also be fatigued. Many drivers point to the lack of safe truck parking throughout the United States as a reason that drivers push themselves to their next stop. The new rule does not address creating more safe truck parking on the nation’s highways and interstates.
Other dangers that the new rule does not address include inadequate training and education for new drivers and cell phone use causing distracted driving.
The size and weight of tractor-trailers creates dangers on the road. Proposals are under consideration in Washington to actually increase the weight limit of large trucks from 80,000 to 97,000 pounds, making them even more dangerous for individual motorists that encounter the vehicles and drivers that violate federal safety standards. If a loved one has been injured or killed in a trucking accident, an experienced trucking accident attorney should provide quick and informative advice about what to do next.