Imagine the eerie feeling of traveling down the highway when, all of a sudden, a large semi-trailer truck is rapidly approaching in the next lane. You may hold your breath as the semi passes your vehicle with little room to spare, clinching the wheel and hoping for the best.
Large commercial trucks play an essential role in distributing products and materials across the nation, so everyday travelers are likely to encounter big rigs every day. Unfortunately, when truckers or trucking companies fail to adequately and safely load and secure their cargo, shifted or spilled loads can create dangers for everyone on the road.
Falling or Shifting Loads May Create Hazards
The AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety studied how road debris, including debris from improperly secured or unsecured loads, can contribute to accidents. When goods fall off a truck into the road, a passing vehicle may not have enough time to safely react and avoid hitting the fallen objects. Dropped cargo may also lead to an accident if a motorist maneuvers to evade the hazard, causing them to collide instead with a nearby vehicle, object, or person.
In some cases, a motorist following a truck may drive directly into the path of falling debris. A falling load could penetrate a windshield or create a skid hazard for approaching vehicles.
The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) regulates the commercial trucking industry in the United States. The Administration’s regulations must be followed by commercial motor vehicle drivers and operators, and are primarily aimed at reducing accidents, injuries, and fatalities caused by large commercial vehicles. For example, cargo securement requirements are intended to mitigate accidents that may occur from shifting or falling loads.
What Responsibilities Do Trucking Companies and Truckers Owe Others Sharing the Road?
Trucking companies and drivers must use firm and stable restraints to secure cargo in place. The type of restraints required will vary, depending on a truck’s weight, size, and design, as well as the nature of the cargo. For instance, groceries and office supplies must meet different requirements than lumber and paper rolls, and a refrigerated truck demands different means of securement than a flatbed.
In most circumstances, the FMCSA creates a responsibility for both the trucking company and trucker to ensure that cargo is properly loaded, distributed, and secured. Cargo must remain secured in or on a truck under all conditions that can be reasonably expected to occur, including responding to emergencies, but not where there is a crash. The regulations’ goal is to prevent cargo from shifting in transit, falling or leaking from the truck, or blowing off the truck.
Before embarking on a trip, truckers must inspect their loads to confirm their cargo was adequately packed. Within 50 miles of the start of a trip, all drivers must reinspect their cargo and securement equipment, making proper adjustments to ensure safety. Generally, drivers must examine their cargo in three-hour intervals, or every 150 miles, whichever comes first. Truckers must also check the truck’s equipment, including the vehicle’s spare tire, tailgate, tarpaulins, and doors, remain secured throughout the trip.
For tankers that transport gasoline, crude oil, and flammable gases, shifting cargo may pose different, greater risks. According to the FMCSA, approximately 63 percent of rollover crashes involve cargo tanks transporting only partial loads, while driver error accounts for over 78 percent of rollovers. Drivers may struggle with the “slosh and surge” effect of transporting loads of liquids that are under capacity. When a semi driver becomes distracted or misjudges a turn, the movement of a partial load may contribute to a rollover. When a tanker rollover results in a hazardous materials spill, the consequences may also create health and environmental concerns.
Defensive Driving Strategies May Protect You From Falling Cargo Accidents
The sheer size and weight of a semi make steering, braking, and maintaining stability a challenge for truckers. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety warns that loaded semis require 20 percent to 40 percent farther distance than passenger vehicles to safely and fully stop. Truckers who need to stop abruptly may struggle to maintain control of the vehicle, particularly, when transporting an unbalanced load. Additionally, sudden braking with a heavy load may cause a truck to jackknife or roll over.
The FMCSA suggests strategies to help motorists avoid collisions with large trucks, which may help motorists anticipate and escape a falling cargo crash:
- Stay focused while driving. If you are busy adjusting your car radio, you may not notice that the approaching semi appears to be unsteady. If traffic ahead of you is slowing, be mindful that nearby tractor trailers may need to stop unexpectedly. If you are distracted by your phone, you may not have enough time to safely react and avoid an accident.
- Inadequate cargo restraints may cause loads to shift as trucks move forward, backward, or sideways. If you stop behind a large truck on an incline, leave space in case the truck starts to roll backward. Do not pass large commercial trucks during a downgrade, when a loaded truck may pick up speed.
- Semis have a turning radius of 55 feet. Give truckers the room they need to make turns, and do not try to squeeze between a turning truck and a curb. If you force a truck to make a tight turn, you put yourself at risk should the truck jackknife.
What Steps Can You Take if Falling Cargo Injures You or a Family Member?
If you or a loved one suffered injuries in a falling cargo accident, an experienced truck accident lawyer can help you assess and protect your legal rights. The shipper, motor carrier, and trucker may all have been responsible for maintaining secured cargo along the route. While the trucker has ultimate responsibility for safely securing the load, you may have the right to recover damages against a shipper or trucking company that helped load the truck.
An attorney can help you identify potentially responsible parties and explore your options for recovering compensation. An experienced truck accident attorney can investigate whether the involved parties properly secured the cargo based on the type of load and truck. They may also help you access the driver’s inspection records and determine whether other factors contributed to the crash. For example, the trucker may have been driving too fast for road conditions, weather conditions, or the nature of the cargo.
A thorough investigation of the accident may reveal other contributing factors that could give rise to additional claims. Did the truck have mechanical problems? Did another motorist run a red light, causing the semi to lose its load as it swerved or braked to avoid a collision?
Falling cargo accidents pose serious risks to everyone near the truck. A legal professional can help you determine all possible damages claims.