Semi-Truck Accidents – Why They Happen and What You Should Do

Semi-truck Accidents

Imagine this scenario.

You’re traveling with your family on I-80 in Illinois, heading toward Iowa. It’s a beautiful sunny day in September.

Traffic isn’t heavy. You see brake lights ahead and start to slow down. You glance in your rear-view mirror, a common practice, and notice a semi-truck behind you that does not appear to be slowing down.

Instincts have you clutching the steering wheel and rapidly switching your attention between your mirrors and the road ahead – wondering if there’s any way to avoid a rear-end collision.

You’re almost at a complete stop now. The semi-truck behind you is still barreling ahead.

You turn the wheel to the left hoping to get out of the way, but there’s nowhere to go. You brace for impact.

This is a very scary scenario, but it could be a reality.

Semi-Truck Accident Causes

Thousands of people die every year in accidents involving semi-trucks.

More often than not, the victims are those in passenger vehicles, which are not designed to withstand a collision with a vehicle of this magnitude. Given the large weight of these semi-trucks, the relatively small weight of most passenger vehicles, and the speed of most semis at the time of impact, accidents often result in catastrophic injuries, and sometimes in fatalities.

There are a handful of reasons why accidents like this occur, including:

  • driver fatigue
  • driver inexperience
  • distracted & impaired driving
  • improper maintenance & vehicle malfunctions
  • improper loading, and
  • hazardous road conditions

Semi-Truck Driver Fatigue

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, driver fatigue, especially in truck drivers, is a serious problem.

Semi-truck drivers often drive thousands of miles over a few short days.

Many of these drivers are paid by the mile, so there is a huge incentive for the truck driver to crunch many miles as quickly as possible. That is how they make more money.

Federal regulations limit the number of hours a driver can drive within a certain period of time. These regulations also outline how often truck drivers must take breaks, and for how long.

However, driver fatigue continues to be one of the most common reasons for semi-truck accidents.

According to the National Safety Council, “driving after losing just two hours of sleep is similar to driving after drinking three beers.”

Driver Inexperience

Inexperienced drivers are everywhere on the road. This is not unique to semi-truck drivers.

However, the issue becomes much more serious when we’re talking about an inexperienced driver in a 100,000 pound semi-truck.

Everyone has to start somewhere. The reality is, there will be drivers operating these massive machines who are fresh out of driving school – possibly with inadequate training.

This is a disaster waiting to happen.

Often new drivers are anxious to get on the road and start making money, and they may not bring concerns or problems to their new employer.

Younger drivers may also feel confident that they have nothing to worry about. Worse yet, they may not consider how deadly a semi-truck can be.

Distracted & Impaired Driving

Distracted driving and impaired driving are major concerns for everyone on the road.

If the driver of a vehicle takes their eyes off the road or hands off the wheel for even a split second, the consequences can be dire.

Cell phone use is the most common cause of distracted driving, but it is not the only one. Manipulating the radio or navigation system is a distraction. Likewise, eating, drinking, looking for something in the vehicle, or arguing with a passenger are also causes of distracted driving.

Driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol causes people to act recklessly – and directly impacts a driver’s reaction time.

These substances cause impaired judgment, irrational behavior, and can even cause a driver to lose consciousness. When combined with driving, substance use can result in disaster.

It’s not always illegal drugs involved, either. Some prescription medications should not be taken when operating heavy machinery.

While there are safeguards put in place both by individual companies and by the federal government, they are not foolproof. Pre-employment drug testing as well as random screenings minimize impaired driving, but they do not prevent it completely.

If a semi-truck driver is involved in a collision, they are required to be tested for drugs and alcohol within a certain time period following the accident.

While this is good practice, and could be extremely important in proving negligence, it is still performed AFTER an accident has already occurred.

Improper Maintenance & Vehicle Malfunctions

Under federal law, semi-trucks are required to be kept in good condition.

Improperly maintained trucks — and their many parts — can lead to serious accidents.

Some components problems typically involved in semi-truck accidents include faulty brake systems and worn tires. The brake systems on these massive semi-trucks should be checked before each trip, and drivers should regularly check them when they stop mid-trip.

Drivers need to be familiar with their trucks and know the red flags that indicate possible malfunctions, because these can lead to critical safety problems.

Improper Loading

Sometimes, the cargo in a semi-truck has not been properly loaded or safely secured.

In an effort to get the driver back on the road, the process of loading the truck might be rushed, leading to mistakes. For example, the person responsible for loading the cargo might distribute the weight unevenly within the trailer.

This could be due to human error, a lack of experience on the loader’s part, or blatant negligence.

Improperly loaded cargo can certainly be the cause of a semi-truck accident.

Hazardous Road Conditions Causing Semi-Truck Accidents

Rain, snow, ice, fog, and high winds all create hazardous road conditions, and these conditions can lead to an increase in semi-truck accidents.

Even the most experienced truck drivers can be involved in an accident, especially with adverse weather conditions.

Less than ideal road conditions can impact visibility and traction, and have deadly outcomes.

Semi-truck drivers are obligated to take extreme caution in the operation of their commercial motor vehicle under all circumstances, but especially when hazardous conditions exist.

Legal Liability – Holding Them Accountable

Liability is not always clear, and the burden of proof falls on the plaintiff.

There are times when driver negligence is obvious – for example, when the driver tests positive for drugs or alcohol following the accident.

However, getting to the root cause of an accident often requires thorough investigation, and an deep understanding of liability laws in your state.

This is why an attorney experienced in semi-truck accidents is your greatest asset in recovering damages for your injuries.

In addition to the semi-truck driver, the trucking company or their insurance company may be liable.

To prove this, you must be able to show evidence the company engaged in certain activities which caused the accident. For example, did the trucking company cut corners to save money or time?

Inspections of the semi-truck’s electronic logging device (ELD), the mechanical and operational components of the truck, the electronic components, driver employment records, and company safety records are just some of the steps necessary to prove liability.

These inspections should be done quickly following an accident, and the semi-truck driver, trucking company, and insurance carriers should be instructed to preserve any and all evidence.

It’s also important to gather any video evidence from traffic cameras or nearby business surveillance cameras, and interview potential witnesses.

Learn More About Semi Truck Accidents

Full Episode Transcript

Welcome to Legal Squeaks. I’m Dennis VanDerGinst. If you haven’t already done so, please be sure to subscribe to Legal Squeaks on your favorite podcast platform.

Today I’m going to talk to you about commercial truck accidents. From a lay perspective, it may not seem important to distinguish these type of accidents from other traffic accidents, but they are very different and distinct from accidents that only involve passenger vehicles. So this is a topic that’s definitely worthy of its own discussion.

And I have a special passion about this topic because I have served on the Interstate Trucking Litigation Group of the American Association for Justice for many years, and I currently serve on the National Advisory Council for the Association of Plaintiff Interstate Trucking Lawyers of America.

As an attorney, I’ve handled numerous cases involving big rigs and other large commercial trucks. And on a personal level, I’ve had loved ones who have been involved in these accidents. So I, I know firsthand the devastation that these types of accidents can cause.

So the term commercial vehicle usually indicates any motor vehicle that’s used to transport goods or paying passengers, but when I use the term commercial trucks, I mean the types of vehicles that can really create havoc and serious accidents on the roadways. For instance, the vehicles that are sometimes referred to as big rigs or tractor trailers, semis, 18 wheelers.

Similar concerns would exist for tanker trucks, busses, box trucks, any large truck of that nature. These vehicles are held to a heightened safety standard due to that size and power.

Drivers are required to undergo specific training to operate them, and the vehicles themselves are subject to regular inspections. Accident cases involving those types of vehicles can be considerably more complex than a regular car accident might have been. According to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, between 2000 and 2018, nearly 90,000 people died in the United States because of crashes involving large trucks and busses. During that same period of time, over 1.8 million people were injured in accidents involving big trucks and busses.

Now, obviously, people can be injured or killed in regular traffic accidents as well. You know, it doesn’t have to involve a commercial truck, but the risk of death or serious injury resulting from these accidents is much higher due to the size and weight of these types of commercial vehicles. Don’t get me wrong, the overwhelming majority of truck drivers are safe and thoughtful drivers. In fact, I’ve got several family members who either are currently or have in the past been over the road truck drivers. In addition, most trucking companies adhere to the applicable state and national regulations regarding training and supervision of drivers and the inspection and maintenance of vehicles.

And accidents involving large trucks are often, you know, not their fault, often it’s the fault of people driving smaller cars around them who fail to take into account the size of the trucks, the lack of maneuverability, or the large blind spots that some, sometimes exist with trucks, especially older trucks. But having said that, large truck drivers do cause their fair share of accidents as well. And one of the main concerns with this type of vehicle is that given the fact that it has extremely high inertia, it means that it takes longer for it to stop.

And if a driver doesn’t leave adequate room between that commercial vehicle and the car in front of it, he or she might end up rear ending someone with disastrous consequences. So, like I mentioned, regular maintenance of big rigs and other large commercial vehicles is extremely important, and that’s because commercial vehicles are required to adhere to certain safety standards for their air brakes. Large commercial vehicles are notorious for brake problems, and inspecting the vehicle after an accident can reveal important information about the state of its braking system, including brake lining adjustments and durability tests.

Equipment malfunction is often a contributing factor in these types of accidents. Trucking companies have to keep a record of the vehicle maintenance, but they’re allowed to discard those records after a certain period of time, you know, and it’s very, very common that those records are crucial to evaluating accident cases. So it’s really important to gain access to them right away before all the relevant maintenance records are either destroyed or discarded somehow.

Another source of negligence might be the company who loaded and secured the cargo in the tractor trailer. Sometimes loads are too heavy or they’re not properly secured so that they shift when the vehicle is moving or making turns. And that causes the vehicle to become unstable and perhaps tip over or again, get the momentum going in such a fashion that they cannot, the driver loses control of the vehicle causing an accident.

Speaking of the driver losing control, driver error may be a cause, obviously, of big rig accidents as well. Truck drivers have the same distractions as other drivers on the roadways, including sometimes being distracted due to texting or phone usage. But in addition to those other typical distractions that we all face when we’re driving, truckers can have long hours on the road, which can cause fatigue, which often, often is going to contribute to accidents.

In addition, there’s there’s the stress of constantly rushing to meet deadlines with respect to deliveries, and that can play an adverse impact on physical and mental health. Intoxication can be a part of the puzzle. It’s always good to do an extensive search into the driving histories in order to determine what the exact nature of the delivery was, and that can be useful for building a case.

If an operator, for instance, has a poor driving record, it’s much more likely that the accident was a result of his or her human error. Speaking of drivers, a commercial driver’s license, CDL, is the driver’s license required to operate large, heavy or placarded hazardous material vehicles and commerce. The Commercial Motor Vehicle Safety Act established the minimum requirement that must be met when a state issues a CDL. And there are different classes of licensure and endorsements which are going to determine what types of vehicles a person is allowed to operate.

Sometimes there are other outside factors that contributed, that may contribute to these types of accidents, including weather conditions, road conditions, road work, dangerous roadways. These are all factors that need to be evaluated to see what impact they may have had on any given scenario when we’re talking about an accident involving a large truck, or a big rig or, you know, a tanker truck, for instance. Speaking of injuries from a commercial vehicle accident can also be complicated.

Obviously, there’s the risk of serious bodily injury or death, but if the vehicle was carrying a harmful substance such as chemicals, then the victims are at risk for suffering a myriad of other medical problems.

In the worst case scenario, sometimes the cargo might even increase the risk of cancer or respiratory problems, which could affect the person’s quality of life and employment opportunities for the rest of his or her her life. So there are a number of things that are pertinent to large truck accident cases that just don’t usually arise in your typical passenger vehicle car accidents.

That’s why it’s important that if you’ve had an accident that involves this type of consideration, that you have an attorney helping you, that is familiar with the rules and regulations that impact these types of accidents, I hope this information has been useful. And I also hope you never have to use it.

If you have any questions, VanDerGinst Law is always honored to help.

Again, please be sure to subscribe and review Legal Squeaks as well as our other podcast, Uncommon Convos.

Also, check out, where you can suggest topics for upcoming podcasts.

So please have a great day. Stay safe. And I love you all.

How VanDerGinst Law Can Help

The aftermath of any accident can be devastating, and the magnitude of the devastation is often multiplied when the accident involves a large commercial truck.

You will likely feel a range of emotions on top of any physical injuries you or your passengers suffered. Things can be confusing and overwhelming. You may not know what to do, what to say or not say, and who to talk to.

VanDerGinst Law is here to help you navigate this life-altering situation.

Considering the complexity of cases involving semi-trucks, and the often time-sensitive issues involved, it is not uncommon for victims of semi-truck accidents to still be hospitalized for treatment or recovery from their injuries when they choose to reach out to an attorney.

This is why the team at VanDerGinst Law is available 24/7 – and we will come to you!

Contact VanDerGinst Law today for a free consultation, or call us at 800-797-5391.

The law is tough, being injured is tougher. We’ll make it easier for you.

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