The case that many years ago convinced me to focus my law practice solely on truck accidents involved one tractor trailer with no brakes that swerved and overturned in an attempt to avoid another tractor trailer that had no lights. I was shocked that two semi trucks could both operating while illegal to be on the road—or “out of service”.
It would surprise most drivers to learn that almost 1 in 4 large trucks on the road has such serious mechanical problems – improper lights, malfunctioning brakes, broken suspension – that it is highly dangerous and is required by federal law to be taken off the road immediately. A truck in this condition is termed “out of service” and by law cannot be driven even one inch further until the problem or problems are fixed. When combined with the fact that 1 in 12 drivers of commercial vehicles is out of service, meaning anything from not having a valid driver’s license to being under the influence of drugs or alcohol, these statistics represent some of the most significant contributing factors to truck accidents on our highways.
The Large-Truck Crash Causation Study (LTCCS) conducted for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in August, 2006 examined what it called the “critical event” in truck accidents. It defined the critical event as, “the action or event that made the crash unavoidable” and assigned only one critical event to each crash studied. LTCCS was the first national study that determined the reasons and associated factors contributing to serious large truck crashes. It concluded that factors like brake failure, tire or wheel failure, steering failure and suspension failure were, not surprisingly, significant critical events leading to truck accidents. These are some of the same mechanical problems typically found on out of service trucks. LTCCS also studied driver-related factors contributing to critical events and found that factors such as impaired decision making due to drowsiness or actually sleeping behind the wheel, excessive speed, and use of alcohol also contributed significantly to the number of big rig wrecks. These factors and others related to driver licensing and DMV violations are common among out of service drivers.
Why is it important to consider the number of out of service trucks and drivers on our roads? Because recent data show that nearly 100,000 people are injured in large truck or bus crashes each year and nearly 5,000 are killed. That’s about 1 life lost in a large truck crash for every hour of daylight. By lowering the number of out of service trucks and drivers on our highways, we may be able to prevent some of this tragic loss of life.
Commercial drivers must be held to the standards set forth in the commercial drivers license manual. The manual clearly outlines the need for drivers to always be on the lookout for potential hazards on the road whether that hazard is a stopped car ahead, a person crossing the street or any other potentially unsafe situation. In addition, Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) rules and regulations clearly outline acceptable driver behaviors and actions, and requirements for vehicle maintenance.
Penalties for trucks and drivers caught on the road while out of service vary from state to state and can be severe. They include civil damages as well as suspension or revocation of commercial drivers license. But in order for these penalties to work, inspectors and law enforcement officials must do a better job of catching out of service trucks and drivers and keeping them off of our roads.