California has the largest population and economy of all fifty states. It also has the busiest freeway system in the country. Southern California is home to two of the busiest ports in the United States – the Port of Los Angeles and the Port of Long Beach – making it one of the largest commercial hubs in the entire world. Large fleets of trucks are used to transport goods every day to deliver cargo from suppliers to distributors all over Southern California and surrounding regions. Therefore, it is not surprising that California also has more registered private and commercial trucks than any other state. According to 2017 statistics from the Federal Highway Administration, there are 14,693,888 registered trucks in California.
Unfortunately, California is also ranked second (behind Texas) in the number of fatal truck accidents. According to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA), in 2017 there were 320 fatal crashes involving large trucks in California resulting in 361 deaths.
What is a big rig truck?
A big rig is a semi-trailer truck, also known as a tractor-trailer or 18-wheeler, consisting of a towing engine and a semi-trailer that carries the freight. Rules governing the maximum size and weight of these vehicles differ between states. Since many big rig trucks use the interstate system, the vast majority of them are built to the specifications of the Department of Transportation (D.O.T.), which governs the use of the interstate system.
Other types of commercial truck vehicles include: dump trucks, garbage trucks, cement mixers, flatbed trucks (with open as opposed to a covered or enclosed trailers), tanker trucks (carrying liquid or gaseous material), car carrier trailers, and heavy haulers (oversized trucks designed to transport large loads or heavy equipment).
Why are large truck accidents so dangerous?
By their very nature, big rigs are long and heavy and are thus difficult to maneuver. When large trucks carrying heavy loads are driven at high speeds, momentum makes it impossible to stop them quickly. The inherent danger of semi trucks is increased when truck drivers speed in order to make a delivery on time. Like SUVs and vans, large trucks have a high center of gravity that makes them prone to rollovers. Accidents involving tractor-trailer trucks involve a greater risk of injury because the trailer sits higher than an average passenger vehicle and may cause an extremely dangerous under-ride situation. Another danger with big rigs is that drivers with long hauls often suffer from road fatigue. They may fall asleep or lose alertness while driving. Studies show that about a third of big rig drivers may suffer from fatigue while driving. Another frequent problem is that other motorists may not be aware of the inherent dangers of maneuvering a big rig and may drive too closely to it.
In crashes involving a large truck and another passenger vehicle, over 80% of the fatalities reported were the driver or passengers of the passenger vehicle. The data clearly reflects the severity of large truck impacts on smaller passenger vehicles.
Types of Truck Accidents
- Jackknife Accidents. Jackknifing occurs when a large truck folds as a result of the trailer swinging outward so that it resembles the acute angle of a folding pocket knife. This may be caused by equipment failure, improper braking, or adverse road conditions such as a slick or icy road surface.
- Rollover Accidents Occur when the truck overturns or flips onto its side. Tractor-trailers are particularly vulnerable because of the trailer's high center of gravity and frequently unstable loads. Such accidents are particularly deadly.
- Tire Blowouts. A tire blowout on a large truck is very dangerous because the large size and heavy loads of the truck can cause the truck to lose control. Tire blowouts can be caused by underinflation or overinflation of tires, overloading the vehicle/trailer causing undue stress on the tire, hitting a pothole or some type of debris on the road, and failing to properly inspect and maintain the tires.
- Wide or Swing Turns. Due to their huge size and length, large trucks cannot make sharp turns. Large trucks usually require an additional traffic lane in order to make a turn. A “swinging turn” occurs when a truck moves into another lane in order to start a turn – large tractor trailer trucks usually need to move to the left prior to making a right turn. Smaller vehicles may be caught in the path of the swinging trailer, resulting in a devastating collision, and in the worst cases, crushed by the weight of the trailer.
- Blind Spot Turns and Sideswipe Collisions. Because they are so large, semis or tractor trailer trucks have large blind spots (also called “no zones'') that can make it very hard for drivers to see if a lane is clear prior to making a turn or lane change. Because of this large blind spot truck drivers need to be extra careful to avoid a sideswipe collision, by double and triple checking their mirrors and signaling their intention well ahead of time. Smaller vehicles may also contribute to the accident by attempting to pass a truck as it is about to make a turn. Sideswipe collisions are one of the most common large truck accidents.
- Rear End Collisions. Large trucks have a much longer safe braking distance than smaller vehicles. Because of their sheer mass, if a large truck rear-ends a small car or motorcycle, even at a modest speed, the results are usually devastating. A fully loaded tractor trailer truck can weigh anywhere from 30,000 to 80,000 pounds compared to the average weight of a compact car which weighs around 3,000 pounds. Rear end collisions may be the result of a truck driver failing to keep a safe braking distance given the road conditions, running a red light or stop sign, driving while distracted, driving while drowsy or under the influence, falling asleep at the wheel, or having faulty or poorly maintained brakes.
- Under-ride Accidents. One of the most deadly types of large truck accidents are “under-ride” accidents, which occur when a car runs into the rear or side of a tractor-trailer and crashes underneath it. Because tractor trailer trucks are much higher off the ground than the standard passenger vehicle, this usually results in the (weaker) top part of the vehicle being sheared off and the occupants being decapitated by the lower edge of the tractor-trailer. Government statistics show that more than 200 people are killed this way every year. Federal law requires guards on the back of trucks to prevent this type of accident, but not along the sides.
- Loss of Load Accidents. As the name implies, these accidents occur when a truck loses some or all of its cargo causing an accident. It is usually the result of the cargo not being properly stored and secured. It could be something as large as a giant steel beam or piece of machinery falling off the flat bed truck, or as small as pieces of gravel flying out of the bed of a dump truck. It could also involve loss of hazardous or flammable chemicals being transported by a tanker truck. Lost cargo may cause an accident or damage by directly hitting a vehicle, or by causing vehicles to lose control and crash in an effort to avoid the material.
- Head on Collisions. These often-fatal collisions occur when a truck hits another vehicle head on. They usually happen when the truck crosses a center divider. It may be the result of distracted driving, driving under the influence, driving while fatigued or drowsy, or falling asleep at the wheel. Pressure to deliver goods on time and excessive work hours usually plays a factor in these types of accidents.
- Stalled or Parked Truck Accidents. Another type of truck accident occurs when another vehicle runs into a stalled truck or a truck that is parked where it shouldn't be. There are numerous regulations about precautions that trucks must take to warn other vehicles that their car is stalled on a roadway. Federal regulations require trucks to have specific types of reflectors installed on their trucks and also require the use of reflective triangles or flares to warn oncoming vehicles of a stalled truck. Laws also require truck drivers to remove the vehicle from the roadway if it is possible and safe to do so.
Common Causes of Truck Accidents
According to the American Trucking Association, car drivers are principally at fault in about three-quarters (70-75%) of fatal car-truck crashes. However, that means that at least a quarter of accidents are primarily due to truck driver error or a problem with the truck. Furthermore, the causes of large truck accidents may be multi-factorial and involve fault from multiple parties (e.g. driver of the passenger vehicle, the truck driver, manufacturer of a defective vehicle, the entity responsible for unsafe road conditions that may have contributed to the accident, etc). Some causes of large truck accidents include:
- Unsafe roads or poor weather conditions or (e.g. rain, ice, snow). Given their great size and weight, large trucks have limited maneuverability and a much greater braking distance than small passenger vehicles. Therefore, truck drivers must exercise extreme care when driving in adverse weather conditions or where visibility is limited.
- Vehicle malfunction or defective equipment and/or inadequate or improper inspection or maintenance of the truck or trailer. Federal regulations require periodic inspection and maintenance of commercial vehicles.
- Brake failure or braking errors. The average stopping distance for a loaded tractor-trailer traveling at 55 mph (in ideal conditions) is 196 feet, compared with 133 feet for a passenger vehicle.
- Driver fatigue or sleepiness. Driver fatigue may be due to a lack of adequate sleep, extended work hours, strenuous work or non-work activities, or a combination of factors. A 2005 study found that three out of every four commercial truck drivers reported having experienced at least one type of driving error as a result of drowsiness and that 13% of commercial motor vehicle drivers were considered to have been fatigued at the time of their crash.
- Speeding (often due to feeling pressure from motor carriers to meet delivery deadlines).
- Driving under the influence (alcohol or prescription drug use). The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA), along with the Department of Transportation (DOT), requires that persons subject to the commercial driver's license (CDL) requirements and their employers follow alcohol and drug testing rules. These rules include procedures for testing, frequency of tests, and substances tested for.
- Driver negligence (driver's failure to take the proper action in a given situation) – e.g. braking too quickly or too late, or failing to make a safe lane change.
What kind of injury can big rigs cause?
When large trucks are involved in an accident, their massive size and weight means that serious injury and death can easily occur. Life-changing injuries from trucking accidents include:
- head injury
- traumatic brain injury
- chest injury
- back injury
- spinal cord injury and paralysis
- amputation of limbs
- severe burns
Truck Accident Facts
According to a 2017 analysis of large truck accidents from the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA):
- The majority (63 percent) of fatal large truck crashes involved two vehicles. In contrast, single-vehicle crashes (including crashes that involved a bicyclist, pedestrian, nonmotorized vehicle, etc.) made up 20 percent of all fatal crashes.
- Most fatal crashes involving large trucks occurred in rural areas (57%) and on Interstate highways (27%).
- 35% of all fatal crashes, 22% of all injury crashes, and 20% of all property damage only crashes involving large trucks occurred at night (between 6:00 pm and 6:00 am).
- The vast majority of fatal crashes (83%) and nonfatal crashes (88%) involving large trucks occurred on weekdays (Monday through Friday).
- Moving vehicle collisions accounted for 74 percent of fatal crashes involving large trucks, 81 percent of injury crashes involving large trucks, and 76 percent of property damage only crashes involving large trucks. Overturn (rollover) made up 4 percent of all fatal crashes involving large trucks and 3 percent of all nonfatal crashes involving large trucks.
- 30% of work zone fatal crashes and 12% of work zone injury crashes involved at least one large truck.
- In 91% of fatal large truck accidents, there was only one fatality. The majority (82%) of fatalities were not occupants of the large truck.
- The critical precrash event for 73% of the large trucks in fatal crashes was another vehicle, person, animal, or object in the large truck's lane or encroaching into it. 23% of the large trucks in fatal crashes had critical precrash events of their own movement or loss of control.
- In 2017, 252 of the 4,600 large truck drivers in fatal crashes (5%) tested positive for at least one drug, although 59% of them were not tested. A driver is more likely to be tested for drugs if there is information from the crash indicating that drugs may have been a factor.
- In 2017, at least one driver-related factor was recorded for 32% of the large truck drivers in fatal crashes, compared to 54% of the passenger vehicle drivers in fatal crashes. “Speeding of Any Kind” was the most frequent driver-related factor for drivers of both vehicle types; “Distraction/Inattention” was the second most common for large truck drivers, and “Impairment (Fatigue, Alcohol, Illness, etc.)” was the second most common for passenger vehicle drivers.
Large truck accidents are complex
Legal issues involving crashes of large trucks can be complex. Large truck drivers and owners must follow various state and federal regulations in addition to the usual California Vehicle Code, which applies to drivers of passenger vehicles. Trucks carrying heavy loads across state lines must meet Department of Transportation safety standards. An accident involving a big rig in California may create liability for several parties including the driver of the truck and his or her employer, the owner of the truck, the owner of the container being transported, or the owner of the load in the container. California requires a tractor trailer truck to carry a much higher minimum liability insurance policy then a typical passenger vehicle.
If you are involved in a large truck or big rig accident you should attempt to record and preserve, to the extent possible and safety permitting, as much evidence as possible. Such evidence and details may help your attorney settle or win your case, so it's a good idea to record every detail possible while the accident is still fresh in your memory. For example, a list of damages, photos, names of possible witnesses, and medical records are often very helpful in building a strong case.
One serious psychological consequence often associated with truck accidents is post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). To read more about this, please click here.
How we can help
When a big rig truck crash results in injury it may be grounds for a personal injury lawsuit. If an accident results in a death, it may be grounds for a wrongful death lawsuit. If you have been seriously injured in a big rig accident, you may have a personal injury case if you can prove that the collision was caused by the driver of the truck, a problem with an unsafe roadway, or a defect with a vehicle or its parts. You should consult with an experienced personal injury lawyer to help you determine who is at fault. If a family member has died from a truck accident, a wrongful death lawsuit may be possible. Our law firm has extensive experience and the resources to handle large truck accident cases and maximize your recovery. If you or a loved one were injured in an accident involving a large truck or big rig, please contact us for a free, confidential, and no-obligation review of your potential legal claim and see how we can help!