It’s nearly impossible to go for a drive without sharing the road with a large truck. The backbone of the American economy, trucks provide an essential service in moving goods and raw materials from manufacturer to marketplace. However, that service may come with a high cost. Truckers sometimes push the limits of their endurance to meet demand, putting others on the road at risk of serious, even fatal, injury.
Up to 20 percent of accidents that involve heavy trucks are due to driver fatigue, according to researchers. Truck drivers drive thousands of miles on tight schedules. They work irregular hours dictated by when a load needs to be delivered. These factors increase truckers’ risk of fatigue.
Drowsy Drivers Aren’t the Only Ones at Risk
Fatigued drivers represent a safety risk on their own, but when you consider that a large truck could weigh 30 times as much as a passenger vehicle, a fatigued truck driver constitutes a recipe for disaster. Trucks require precise handling, keen spatial awareness, and quick reflexes on the part of truckers, or other road users face extreme danger. When a large truck crash occurs, it is more likely than not that occupants of the smaller vehicles involved will suffer the brunt of the trauma. 96 percent of fatal crashes between large trucks and cars cause harm to passengers in the smaller vehicle.
The number of accidents that involve large trucks has also risen in recent years. The latest data from the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) shows that the number of trucks in accidents increased across the board, with fatal accidents up 10 percent, and those that result in injury up five percent. There are many reasons that truckers may get into accidents, from maintenance issues to poor conditions, but fatigue is an ever-present risk that can compound all other hazards.
When Fatigue Strikes
Nearly half of truck drivers report dozing off behind the wheel at some point in their career, while 25 percent say it has happened within the last year. Short of falling asleep, extreme drowsiness can still have a disastrous effect on a person’s ability to drive safely. Missing just a few hours of sleep over three nights can seriously impair driving skills, and it could take up to two full nights to recover.
Even in the short-term, staying awake for as little as 17 hours at a time can lead to driving impairment. Symptoms of fatigue can mirror those associated with having a blood alcohol content (BAC) of 0.05 to 0.10. For comparison, truck drivers could lose their licenses if they register a 0.04 percent after drinking.
A truck driver needs fast reflexes and clear decision-making skills when hauling thousands of pounds of cargo on the open road. Hesitations at high speeds can be costly; every second a driver fails to react when traveling at 70 mph means an extra 120 feet of road covered. That can make a world of difference when you have to stop the momentum of a five-ton vehicle.
The ability to act fast isn’t the only driving skill at stake. Fatigue has a wide range of symptoms, most of which will negatively impact a driver’s ability to drive:
- Increased errors in judgment
- Inability to perform complex planning
- Reduced attention span
- More likely to take risks
- Decreased memory for details
Where to Look for Negligence
You may know what impact fatigue can have on a truck driver, and it might seem obvious that a trucker’s fatigue played a major role in an accident that injured you. That does not mean, however, that is it always easy to prove that trucker fatigue caused an accident.
While a police officer may test for BAC using scientific methods, testing for fatigue can be more difficult. Police can have trouble identifying if fatigue is present after they arrive at the site of an accident, since there is no universal way to define driving while drowsy. Still, when police officers can make this judgment call, a trucker’s apparent drowsiness may wind up in the police report, which could make the report crucial in proving fault for an accident.
The next place to look for signs of a trucker’s fatigue is the logbook, a federally mandated record show how long a driver has been on the road. The FMCSA regulates the hours truck drivers can operate, and a driver needs to maintain an accurate log of all activity. This standardization of schedules serves to keep truckers and their employers from pushing too hard on the road. Driving time, breaks, and down-time are all spelled out for operators and could show when a driver is working outside the bounds of federal rules, or when a driver, even though technically within rules, has worked a schedule that would leave anyone feeling over-tired.
Even as the FMCSA moves away from paper records and toward Electronic Logging Devices (ELD), you may still need to check that no one has tampered with the data, a trucker’s logs are complete, and the devices the trucker users to track work hours are compliant with FMCSA regulations.
The FMCSA also requires regular health screening of drivers on the road, so a check into their medical history may show possible causes for alarm. Records could reveal red flags like a past diagnosis of sleep apnea or a prescription for medications that cause drowsiness. Missing or incomplete exams that could have shown a condition exists that affects healthy sleep might also point you in the direction of negligence.
Placing the Blame for Fatigue
You still may have your work cut out for you even if you find proof of a truck driver’s fatigue. While fatigue could point to the truck driver as the party at fault in a collision, that might not always be the case. Even a tired truck driver can get into an accident for reasons having nothing to do with fatigue, such as a mechanical failure of the truck. Also, even if fatigue played the dominant role in causing a crash, others might have legal liability for the trucker’s condition, such as an employer that forces truckers to work dangerously long hours and to falsify records.
No matter the cause of a large truck accident, the process of recovering the compensation you deserve for injuries suffered in a truck accident can be difficult to navigate on your own. Contacting a truck accident lawyer could be your best bet for securing fair compensation.