Heavy trucks play a substantial role in the American transportation industry. Also known as a semi-trailer or a “big-rig,” the tractor-trailer is the heavy truck most commonly used for long-distance deliveries of goods and materials on American roads. Other trucks that are classified as “heavy” or “large” include dump trucks, cement mixers, and garbage trucks. Drivers are required by state and federal law to possess a commercial driver’s license (CDL) before they can legally operate a heavy truck.
A typical semi consists of a tractor (or “cab”) that pulls one or more trailers. Tractor-trailers are sometimes referred to as “18-wheelers” because the combination of tractor and trailer often travels on 18 wheels, but the number of wheels may vary, depending on the truck’s configuration. The maximum gross weight of a tractor-trailer is usually 80,000 pounds, but states can issue permits to allow heavier trucks to use their roads.
While federal and state regulators try to assure that the trucking industry is safe, a collision with a commercial truck almost always has devastating results for drivers and passengers in smaller vehicles. The laws of physics dictate that passenger cars sustain more damage than massive trucks when they collide. Truck accident lawyers can help injury victims recover substantial compensation when they suffer from serious injuries caused by commercial truck drivers.
Facts about truck accidents
Large trucks (generally classified as those weighing more than 10,000 pounds) were involved in more than 342,000 crashes in 2013, resulting in 95,000 injuries and almost 4,000 deaths. Nearly three-quarters of the injury victims in those crashes (including victims who died) were occupants of passenger vehicles. Another 11% of fatalities caused by large truck crashes were pedestrians or bicyclists.
Large trucks account for only 4% of registered vehicles in the United States. They were nevertheless involved in 9% of all fatal crashes in 2013, as opposed to 3% of all crashes that did not produce fatal injuries. Those statistics make clear that passenger vehicle occupants are exposed to a substantial risk of death when they are victims of a collision with a big-rig.
Large trucks are also disproportionately involved in multiple-vehicle crashes. The size and weight of a semi makes it more likely to initiate a chain reaction than, for example, a rear-end collision caused by a Toyota Prius.
Two-thirds of large truck crashes involve tractor-trailers. Heavy trucks with three or more axles make up another 14% of large truck accidents. About 64% of collisions involving semis occur in rural areas. Most collisions with 18-wheelers occur on weekdays during daylight hours, when traffic is heaviest.
Types of large truck accidents
The deadliest accidents with tractor-trailers tend to be collisions, but other kinds of accidents can also lead to serious injuries. Here are some examples of accidents with large trucks that injure the occupants of passenger vehicles.
- Head-on collisions. About 31% of fatal collisions with large trucks involve the front end of the truck striking the front end of another vehicle. Usually both vehicles are driving straight ahead but roughly 10% of head-on collisions with trucks occur on a curve. Head-on crashes typically happen when a driver crosses the centerline. An accident reconstruction engineer may need to investigate the accident scene and inspect the damaged vehicles when it is unclear which vehicle entered the other vehicle’s traffic lane.
- Intersection collisions. In about 15% of fatal collisions with semis, the truck strikes the left side of a passenger vehicle. In another 11%, the truck strikes the right side of a passenger vehicle. Much less frequently, the front of the car strikes the side of the semi. Most of those collisions occur in intersections, when one driver fails to yield to the other or fails to obey a traffic light or stop sign.
- Merging from on-ramps. Since heavy trucks cannot accelerate quickly, a truck that merges into traffic from a freeway on-ramp can cause an accident by entering the traffic lane before faster oncoming vehicles have a chance to change lanes.
- Rear-end collisions. A rear-end collision (the front of the truck collides with the rear of a car) is the most common nonfatal collision in which trucks are involved. One study found that about 24% of all crashes caused by truck drivers are rear-end collisions.
- Sideswipe collisions. About 16% of all big-rig accidents are sideswipes (the side of the truck makes contact with the side of another vehicle). In about three-quarters of all sideswipes, the truck and the other vehicle are in adjacent lanes, moving in the same direction. Those sideswipes often occur when a truck changes lanes while a car is traveling in the truck driver’s blind spot.
- Unsafe backing collisions. Accidents happen when truckers who back up fail to observe vehicles, bicycles, or pedestrians behind the truck.
- Multiple-vehicle collisions. Since semis are heavy, they carry enormous momentum when they strike a car at the rear of line of cars that are either moving slowly or stopped in traffic. In addition to causing a “pileup” or chain reaction, the force of the collision can also propel passenger vehicles into intersections or across lane dividers, causing additional pileups in other traffic lanes.
- Collision with object in the road. When a truck hits road debris, whether an accident with another vehicle will follow often depends on the truck driver’s ability to maintain control of the rig. In some cases, however, the speed and weight of a tractor-trailer will send debris flying into the air, causing an impact with vehicles that are ahead of or behind the truck.
- Cargo spills. The failure to secure cargo can cause it to fall out of a trailer or off a flatbed. Accidents happen when the cargo strikes vehicles following the truck, or when vehicles are unable to steer around the cargo.
- Jackknife accidents. Tractor-trailers jackknife when the driver is unable to control the direction in which the trailer moves. They are often caused when the tractor’s drive wheels lock on slick roads while the tractor wheels continue to roll. Since the driver has no control, the trailer may collide with other vehicles, or drivers may be unable to avoid a collision with the jackknifed semi.
- Rollovers. Large trucks roll over when cargo shifts (changing the balance of the trailer), when drivers fail to slow down on exit ramps, when drivers brake improperly, and when drivers over-steer while trying to remain on the road. Passenger vehicles are at risk of colliding with the truck as it loses control, and may be crushed in the rollover.
- Other non-collision accidents. Mechanical problems or combustible cargo may cause a tractor-trailer to catch on fire or explode, creating hazardous conditions for other drivers. Sometimes tractor-trailers drive into a ditch or median due to slippery conditions without colliding, but any part of the trailer that remains on the road creates a collision risk for other vehicles. Cars may collide with each other while maneuvering to avoid the trailer.
Any crash involving an 18-wheeler is dangerous. Those that occur when a commercial truck is moving at highway speeds are the most likely to result in death or serious injury.
Truck Accident Injuries
When a semi collides with a passenger vehicle, the car occupants are much more likely to be injured than the truck driver. Injuries to car occupants tend to be more serious than injuries caused by similar collisions between two cars.
In addition to death, common injuries sustained in collisions with heavy trucks include:
- Brain injuries. In side-impact collisions and those that cause a car to roll over, occupants are not protected from head injuries by an airbag. Traumatic brain injuries often result when the driver’s head strikes the interior of the vehicle.
- Crush injuries. While modern cars have “crumple zones” that fold like an accordion in front-end and rear-end collisions, they offer less protection in collisions with heavy trucks. When a car crumples or comes to rest under a tractor-trailer, car drivers can sustain devastating crush injuries to the head and body. When lungs and other vital organs are violently squeezed or crushed, the injuries are usually fatal.
- Abdominal injuries. Violent impact with the abdomen can damage kidneys, the spleen, the pancreas, and other organs. Those injuries require urgent medical attention that is often difficult to render to drivers who are trapped in cars after a collision with a semi.
- Spinal injuries. Any damage to vertebrae in the neck or back, to disks, or to the spinal cord can lead to permanent disabling injuries, including paralysis.
- Amputation. More often than in car crashes, the force of a collision with a tractor-trailer results in severed arms, legs, and feet.
- Fractures. All bones in the body, including ribs and pelvic bones, are susceptible to breaking in a collision with an 18-wheeler.
- Soft tissue injuries. Stretched or torn muscles, tendons, ligaments, or the connective tissues in joints can require months of painful rehabilitation. Some soft tissue injuries result in permanent pain and disability.
Painful cuts from broken glass or shards of metal, as well as scarring and burn injuries, are also common after collisions with heavy trucks. Whether surgery is needed to save a car occupant’s life, to replace a damaged knee with an implant, or for cosmetic purposes, accident victims who are injured in crashes with commercial trucks often face long-term hospitalization and soaring medical bills.
Causes of Truck Accidents
The Large Truck Crash Causation Study, funded by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, sheds light on the causes of collisions between semis and passenger cars. The study concluded that when truck drivers were at fault, the primary causes of large truck crashes were:
- Poor driver decisions (speeding, tailgating, aggressive driving) – 42%
- Inattention (failure to recognize problems in time to react) – 35%
- Mechanical problems (such as brake or tire failure) – 8%
- Poor driver performance (failure to maintain control, panicking) – 7%
- Environmental factors (weather and road conditions) – 4%
- Non-performance (falling asleep) – 3%
- Unknown cause – 1%
The study’s most important finding is that three-quarters of accidents caused by semi drivers result from deliberate bad driving (such as driving too fast for conditions) or from lack of attention (often caused by driver distraction). Contributing factors that are associated with the primary causes of accidents include:
- Driver fatigue. Although federal law requires semi drivers to get adequate rest, long hours of driving contribute to inattention and reduced reaction times.
- Pressure to meet deadlines. Some drivers falsify their driving logs and drive more hours than the law allows in order to arrive at destinations within the timeframe demanded by their employers. Other truckers drive at unsafe speeds for the same reason.
- Inadequate training. Some large trucking companies and businesses that hire fleet drivers make it a point to hire well-trained drivers. Unfortunately, some companies will hire anyone who has a CDL, regardless of their driving record or their failure to update their safety training. Some training courses have been criticized as being “diploma mills” that certify drivers without giving them meaningful instruction.
- Compensation schemes. Drivers who are paid by the hour have no need to rush their deliveries. Drivers who are paid by the mile have a financial incentive to drive as many miles as they can in a day. That tempts them to falsify their logbooks and to drive longer hours than the law allows, leading to fatigue and impaired attention.
Of course, drivers of passenger vehicles also contribute to accidents with commercial trucks. Tailgating a semi, trying to pass a truck while it is turning, cutting in front of a truck, and trying to merge into a freeway lane in front of a fast-moving tractor-trailer are some ways in which car drivers contribute to truck accidents. Drivers always need to be mindful that heavy trucks cannot stop or reduce their speed as quickly as other vehicles.
Be Wary of Insurance Companies
Insurance companies at this point will carry out their own specific procedures such as interviewing the people involved in the accident for their statements, examination of the vehicles, taking photographs and requesting police reports. In addition, they will also try to establish the gravity of the injury sustained from the accident usually within the first week. Many companies work faster and establish the extent of the damage within 24 hours after the collision.
Though strategies and procedures vary from one insurance company to another, the common goal is to make a settlement with the injured party as fast as possible. This is so they cannot be held responsible for unforeseen and future financial loss related to the injuries. For the injured party, this is one trap to be careful to avoid. Remember that injuries due to truck accidents are often severe and will take time to be properly diagnosed. It’s very possible that surgery or extensive treatment may be needed. After surgery, a person can even end up permanently disabled.
The claim’s true financial value, therefore, is only properly determined after a clear prognosis has been provided by a physician. Victims of truck accidents are encouraged to avoid premature settlements with the insurance company. You still have a two-year period window to file a personal injury claim lawsuit. It’s best to wait the process out rather than regret the settlement in the event that the injury progresses to something worse.
Taking Action After a Truck Accident
Drivers who are injured in an accident with a semi or other heavy truck need to take care of themselves. They can do that by following these steps:
- Wait for help. Do not leave the scene of the accident until the police arrive. If you struck your head or fear that you injured your neck or back, do not let anyone move you. You can lessen the risk of experiencing a paralyzing injury by waiting for paramedics to move you safely.
- Stay calm. Get out of the road and stand a safe distance away from the vehicles. Do not argue with the truck driver. Tell your side of the story to the police when they arrive. Give your name to the truck driver if asked, but wait for the police before you give additional information to anyone.
- Preserve evidence. If you see people who may have witnessed the accident, point them out to the police so that the police can take their statements. If you have a camera on your cellphone, take as many pictures of the accident scene as you can.
- Cooperate with medical professionals. If you feel injured and the paramedics want to take you to an emergency room, go with them. If an emergency room doctor wants you to follow up with your own physician, make an appointment. Since the compensation to which you are entitled as an accident victim depends on how well your injuries are documented in medical records, be sure to tell the paramedics and all of your doctors about all stiffness, soreness, cuts, and other symptoms you are experiencing. Never discontinue treatment until all of your doctors advise you to do so.
- Get legal advice. Call a truck accident lawyer as soon as you can. A personal injury lawyer will help you protect your legal rights by telling you what you should do next. To avoid saying something that might damage your case, never talk to an insurance adjuster until you first get advice from your own lawyer.
You are entitled to compensation if a negligent truck driver was responsible for your injuries. Your personal truck accident attorney can advise you concerning the amount of compensation you can expect to receive in a settlement or jury award, as well as the steps you must take to maximize that recovery.