There are few thoughts more frightening than a driver nodding off behind the wheel of a 100,000-pound vehicle going 70 mph down a busy freeway. Unfortunately, that terrifying scenario plays out in more than 30 percent of the 500,000 truck accidents that occur annually across the U.S.

In studies conducted by the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) in 1994, 30-40 percent of heavy truck accidents involved driver fatigue and sleep deprivation.

California is one of the highest-ranking states when it comes to fatal truck accidents, with 332 in 2003. Since most of a truck driver’s earnings are based on timely delivery of their loads, it is easy to understand how fatigue can happen. The more a truck driver can deliver in a shorter amount of time, the more money they make. Naturally, many drivers are motivated to operate their tractor trailers for long hours, and often take dangerous measures, such as consuming drugs and other stimulants, to help them stay awake.  However, even though a driver may feel wide-awake with the help of self-medication, the natural effects of fatigue still linger. Vision, reaction times, and judgment are all affected by lack of sleep, regardless of how “awake” a driver may be.

The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA)
mandates that a truck driver drive no more than 11 hours in any 14-hour period, which must then be followed by at least ten hours of rest. Daily drivers must drive no more than 70 hours in an eight-day period. All drivers must maintain a logbook documenting all work and rest periods, and some trucking companies use electronic on-board recorders (EOBR) to record when the vehicle is in motion or stopped. The FMCSA is considering making the EOBR units mandatory in all commercial trucks.

Although the information above focuses on truck driver fatigue, it is only fair to point out that over half of all tractor trailer accidents are actually caused by the other vehicles involved. Drivers of passenger vehicles often “cut off” or lose control of their vehicles around trucks.  Because of their size, it is easy to misjudge how fast an 18-wheeler is actually going. Many people assume their smaller car is going to be able to whip around a “slow moving” truck, only to find that the truck is moving a lot faster than they thought.

Many accidents involving big trucks do not actually “involve” the truck at all. Rather, vehicles often collide with another while one of the smaller vehicles is trying to pass a big rig truck on a two-lane highway.  The speed of the truck is underestimated. This underestimation makes it nearly impossible for the passing vehicle to get back in the proper lane in time. Many drivers ignore the signs on the back of large trucks that state “makes wide turns,” and try to pass a truck on the inside, only to end up underneath the trailer.

It is important to not only be aware of the tractor trailers on the road but to remember that they are often traveling just as fast, or faster than we are, and it can take the length of a football field for them to come to a complete stop. When approaching a truck or attempting to pass, always give it a “wide berth” by not getting too close, and give plenty of clearance before re-entering the same travel lane. If a truck is passing you, slow down a bit and give the driver the universal courtesy of blinking your headlights to let him know when he has the clearance to enter your lane again. You may see him reply “thank you” by flashing his taillights off and on. Remember, courtesy goes a long way in preventing collisions.

Also, be aware of whether a truck appears to be swerving or losing control. Although the cases of driver-fatigue-related truck accidents are declining (FMCSA, 2010), it still occurs far too often. If you have been involved in an accident with a big rig truck or any other vehicle, please contact our office at Harris Personal Injury Lawyers immediately to discuss your case.

Sources:  Motor Carrier Safety Progress Report – Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, Trucking Statistics

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