Types of Commercial Vehicles and Accident Risk
For some of us, recognizing trucks on the road constitutes a lifetime’s pursuit. Just ask any four year old who can proudly distinguish a big-rig from a box truck, or a cement mixer from a tanker truck. Those lifelong truck-spotters owe a debt of gratitude to Richard Scarry, no doubt. As for the rest of us, however, a-truck-is-a-truck-is-a-truck, right?
Well, no. And while it’s perfectly understandable for many of us not to take an interest in the wide variations among large motor vehicles, there is a good reason for everyone who climbs behind the wheel to learn to recognize and distinguish one truck from another.
Here’s why. Trucks dominate American highways. They have more weight and mass than other vehicles. When they get into accidents, they often cause catastrophic damage. Drivers should learn to identify trucks because trucks—even those in tip-top mechanical shape—pose an inherent danger to others on the road. Knowing your trucks means knowing which ones to avoid in certain road conditions, knowing how to predict their behavior and to stay out of their blind spots, knowing how to tell a police officer about the kind of truck you saw commit a hit-and-run, and knowing how to help if you see (or worse, become involved in) a truck accident.
Here at Dolman Law Group Accident Injury Lawyers, PA, we think it’s important for all adults to refresh themselves on the types of trucks commonly seen on Florida roads. So, although it might feel like we’re dragging you back to preschool, here is your grown-up primer on the basic categories of “trucks” you see every day (with help from the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration’s handy visual guide to trucks).
Tractor Trailers (also known as Big Rigs or Semis)
The American Trucking Associations (ATA) define a tractor-trailer as a “tractor and semitrailer combination.” A “tractor” is a “truck designed primarily to pull a semitrailer by means of a fifth wheel mounted over the rear axle.” A semitrailer is a “truck trailer supported at the rear by its own wheels and at the front by a fifth-wheel mounted to a tractor or a dolly.” Tractor-trailers haul widely varied types of freight. Some specialty tractor-trailer combinations feature a trailer designed for specific cargo, such as a flatbed trailer, an intermodal trailer, or an open-top container trailer. (We discuss tanker trailers, which are also pulled by a tractor truck, below).
Most of the long-haul trucks you see on the highway are tractor-trailers. As depicted in the FMCSA visual guide, the most common tractor-trailer configuration consists of a single tractor pulling a single trailer. Less-common is a tractor pulling two connected trailers (known in the trucking industry as a “tandem,” “double,” or “twin”). Florida regulations permit tandem trailers under certain circumstances. All tractor-trailers are subject to weight and size limits established under Florida law. The Florida Highway Patrol’s Commercial Motor Vehicle Manual, now in its Ninth Edition, provides a detailed description of these limits.
Tractor-trailers are tall and boxy. This makes them vulnerable to tipping over on sharp curves, when their loads are imbalanced, or in high cross-wind conditions. They also have large blind spots. In a single-trailer configuration, these blind spots typically extend twenty feet in front of the tractor, thirty feet behind the trailer, one lane to the left of the cab, and two lanes to the right of the cab. (These blind spots are even larger for tandem trailer configurations.) Drivers should avoid driving in the front and rear blind spots at all times, and move through the driver and passenger-side blind spots as quickly as possible. Remember, if you can’t see the driver in his mirrors, he can’t see you!
Tanker Trucks On the Road
Tanker trucks constitute a specialty category of tractor-trailer configuration that includes a tractor pulling a trailer with a tank specifically designed to carry certain liquids and gasses. We separate tanker trucks from regular tractor trailers because of the particular issues relating to their cargo; namely, that some of the cargo these trucks carry is toxic or flammable.
With permission from regulatory bodies, tanker trucks can carry hazardous materials on Florida roads. Authorities strictly regulate the design and maintenance of these vehicles, particularly the tanks, because of the heightened risk to the public if they get into an accident. Spilled chemicals can poison people and the environment. Tanker trucks carrying flammable liquids risk explosion.
Drivers should follow the same general precautions in navigating around tanker trucks that they follow when it comes to ordinary tractor-trailers. In addition, drivers should be vigilant to spot anything that seems out of the ordinary about a tanker truck. If you see something leaking from a tanker truck, or a tanker truck seems to be operating erratically, call 911 immediately. If you come upon the scene of a tanker truck accident, exercise extreme caution until you know precisely what the tanker is carrying, to minimize your risk of exposure to toxins or flammable material.
For a free legal consultation, call 833-552-7274
Box Trucks (also known as Straight Trucks or Delivery Trucks)
According to the ATA, a box (or straight) truck is one that “carries cargo in a body mounted to its chassis, rather than on a trailer towed by a vehicle.” Some box trucks look a lot like tractor-trailers, though they’re usually a little shorter, such as the rental moving trucks of various sizes offered by UHaul or Ryder. Some box trucks look nothing like a tractor-trailer, such as the delivery trucks operated by logistics companies like UPS or FedEx. Whatever they look like, the distinguishing characteristic of these trucks is that the cargo-carrying part is fixed to the vehicle chassis, rather than designed to be removed.
Box trucks sometimes feature specific modifications to suit the kind of cargo they ordinarily carry. Think of beverage delivery trucks with sliding doors on the sides for easy access, for example, or trucks that carry large panels of glass or sheetrock. Trucks with refrigerated cargo areas are usually box trucks also.
The length and height of the typical box truck make it similarly hazardous to other drivers on the road. Box trucks can tip over and have blind spots of varying sizes. Do not assume that just because a box truck is smaller than a tractor-trailer that its blind spots are also smaller. That probably isn’t the case. Also, beware that box truck drivers may not have the same training as drivers of tractor-trailers and tanker trucks, and as a result may not operate those trucks with the same degree of caution or experience. Give these trucks a wide berth.
Construction Vehicles (especially Dump Trucks and Concrete Mixers) and Garbage Trucks
Most large construction vehicles and garbage trucks resemble box trucks in that they carry their cargo in containers fixed to the chassis of the truck. We put them in a separate category, however, because of their often significant weight and the fact that many of them carry cargo that can escape the container under normal operating conditions.
Anyone who drives has had the experience of following behind a dump truck carrying gravel that spills just enough cargo to dent a hood or crack a windshield. This shouldn’t happen, but it does, because these vehicles take a beating and are not always well-maintained. Like box trucks, drivers of construction vehicles and dump trucks have varying levels of training and experience, depending upon the configuration and cargo of the vehicle. And, of course, when these vehicles crash, they can cause tremendous damage, not just because they’re large and heavy, but because it’s so easy for their cargo to spill out across a roadway.
Drivers should exercise extreme caution around construction vehicles and garbage trucks. The small pebbles and other cargo these trucks often drop can easily trigger an accident. Leave extra car lengths between your car and any construction vehicle, and pass it at the first opportunity it is safe to do so.
Oversized Loaded Commercial Vehicles
Oversize loads are not really their own category of truck so much as they are a separate category of cargo. Most often, an oversized load will be carried on a flatbed tractor-trailer. It’s distinguishable from an ordinary flatbed truck by the fact that the cargo extends above-permitted width, height, length, or weight permitted for commercial vehicles. Operators of trucks carrying oversize loads must obtain a permit to carry them on Florida roads.
You can recognize oversize loads because for the most part they must identify themselves as such and have lead and trailing vehicles warning drivers of their presence on the road. These precautions help keep others on the road safe, but they’re not foolproof. An oversized load can shift unpredictably, particularly in poor weather conditions. All drivers should give them lots of room to operate and stay out of their way whenever possible.
Fire Trucks and Other Emergency Vehicles
What listing of trucks would be complete without fire trucks? They are, after all, a source of complete fascination for the three to five-year-old set, and for no small number of adults, too. Little wonder: fire trucks feature bright colors, loud sirens, and flashing lights, a veritable trifecta of wonderment. Fire trucks and other emergency vehicles have an absolute right of way under Florida law and all drivers need to give them space. By law:
Upon the immediate approach of an authorized emergency vehicle, while en route to meet an existing emergency, the driver of every other vehicle shall, when such emergency vehicle is giving audible signals by siren, exhaust whistle, another adequate device, or visible signals by the use of displayed blue or red lights, yield the right-of-way to the emergency vehicle and shall immediately proceed to a position parallel to, and as close as reasonable to the closest edge of the curb of the roadway, clear of any intersection and shall stop and remain in position until the authorized emergency vehicle has passed, unless otherwise directed by a law enforcement officer.
Giving fire trucks the road space they need to get to their emergency is just one of the reasons why the law requires drivers to pull over when they see a truck approaching. Another is that fire trucks are complicated pieces of heavy machinery. Though they can travel fast (as should be expected), they carry varied cargo that can make them unstable if they have to maneuver sharply. They’re also very heavy, which means that in a collision they carry a significant amount of force.
Truck Spotting 101: Three Tips
Now that we’ve covered the basic categories of trucks you are most commonly likely to see on Florida roads, let’s review what to look for when you see a truck and recognize a safety need to identify it. In the first instance, look at the truck’s size. How long is it? How high are its cab and its cargo box/holder? This tells you about the truck’s blind spots, which should be your first concern when sharing the road with a truck. As a rule of thumb, the longer, higher, and wider a truck looks, the more room you should give it.
Next, look at the junction between the cab where the driver sits and the container that carries the truck’s cargo. Does one appear to be permanently attached to the other, or are they connected by a pin or other junction point? This observation generally distinguishes between a box truck and a tractor-trailer and gives clues to how the truck may behave in difficult road conditions and what it might carry. These clues, in turn, also inform you about how much room to give the truck, particularly at intersections and in bad weather.
Third, look for markings that signal the type of cargo a truck might carry. This can be particularly important if a truck appears to be disabled or to have had an accident, as these markings can signal the presence of potentially dangerous cargo.
Seek an Experienced Commercial Vehicle Accident Attorney
Perhaps only some of us LOVE trucks, but we all need them. They transport goods we all need and keep our economy humming. But the benefits trucks supply also come with risks. Getting to know your trucks will help you avoid those risks and keep yourself safe the next time you get behind the wheel.
If you have questions about a truck accident, contact an experienced truck accident attorney.