In economically robust areas such as Boston, shipping is clearly important. In a nation where trucks transport nearly three-quarters of all freight, tractor-trailers are a frequent sight. However, despite their importance to the economy, some issues make tractor-trailers especially dangerous to other roadway users.
If you were injured in a traffic accident in Boston involving a tractor-trailer, we do not need to tell you how severe the injuries caused by this type of accident can be. What we can tell you, however, is that there is a legal process for pursuing compensation for the expenses and quality-of-life impacts of an injury through a truck accident lawsuit. An experienced truck accident attorney can help you understand this process and determine your options.
Why Are Tractor-Trailers So Dangerous?
Tractor-trailers—also commonly referred to as semi-trucks, commercial trucks, or 18-wheelers—are massive vehicles. When fully loaded, a tractor-trailer can weigh 20 to 30 times more than the average passenger car. In addition to weight, the vehicle is also much taller and longer than other vehicle types. The large size of the commercial truck causes many issues that impact the driver’s ability to maneuver.
Some of the issues include:
- Significant blind spots. All vehicles have blind spots, which are areas—generally along the rear sides—that the driver cannot see through his or her rear or side-view mirrors and must turn his or her head to visually inspect. Tractor-trailers have significant blind spots on all four sides of the vehicle, making it difficult for the driver to know if someone is driving alongside him or her, closely following or walking behind, or directly in front of the truck.
- Increased stopping distance. It takes distance from the time that a driver reacts to a hazard in the roadway by pressing his or her brakes for the brakes to pull the weight of the vehicle to a complete stop. The heavier the vehicle is, the more distance is required. Semi-trucks require 20 to 40 percent more distance to come to a safe stop than passenger cars due to the heaviness of the vehicle. This distance is increased even more on wet or icy roads or when the truck travels at a higher speed.
- Higher ground clearance. The higher ground clearance in trucks produces the risk of catastrophic or even fatal injuries that can result from a dangerous situation in which a small car or motorcycle slides beneath the truck during an accident, which is known as an underride.
- Higher center of gravity. Semi-trucks are about 13.5 feet tall, with additional height often needed to carry full loads of stacked cargo or taller items. With the increased height comes not only a higher center of gravity but a greater risk of the vehicle rolling over in an accident, during emergency driving maneuvers, or even when attempting to negotiate a sharp curve or corner at speed.
- Wide turns: Because of the increased risk of tipping over because of the high center of gravity, tractor-trailers must make wide turns to negotiate corners. Wide right turns generally require the driver to swing the truck into the lane to his or her left, which is particularly risky on two-lane roads when oncoming traffic occupies the lane to the left. Wide turns are also dangerous if there are multiple turn lanes and there is traffic driving in the turn lane to the left of the truck.
- Frequent maintenance required. Because 18-wheelers are such large vehicles and they travel more miles than most vehicles on the road, they require more frequent maintenance. Mechanics must carefully monitor and regularly change out parts particularly prone to wear, such as the tires and brakes, to prevent accidents from tire blowouts or failed brakes.
Two specific features of Boston make sharing the roadway with tractor-trailers even more dangerous: traffic and weather.
Here is a look at each of these features.
- Traffic: A recent study revealed that Boston has the worst traffic congestion in the United States and the second-worst in North America, behind only Mexico City. Drivers in Boston lose an average of 149 hours a year from work and other activities due to being stuck in traffic. There are many reasons for the congestion that Boston deals with, including an unpredictable transit system, the relatively inexpensive costs of driving or taking a rideshare when compared to using mass transit, and an increase in population and economy. The growing economy places more tractor-trailers on already packed roads. And these trucks require more distance to stop, are prone to rolling over, and require wide turns.
- Weather: The Northeast is the site for some of the most severe winter storms in the nation, and the roadways in and around Boston are often the scene of accidents that result from individuals who cannot stop their vehicles on slippery roads. The drivers of tractor-trailers are already at a disadvantage, as the large truck requires an additional distance to stop. Wet or slippery roads further increase this distance. Additionally, slippery roads place the driver in danger of jackknifing the truck—which is a dangerous situation in which the tractor and trailer go into a skid and the trailer swings out at a 90-degree angle from the truck. A jackknife not only results in congestion as it generally disables the truck, but also places it at an even higher risk of rolling over.
Common Causes of Tractor-Trailer Accidents
Human error is the most common cause of all types of traffic accidents, including those involving commercial trucks. Here are some of the more common human errors to result in an accident involving a tractor-trailer.
As explained by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA)—the agency tasked with regulating and overseeing the trucking industry in the U.S.—truck driver fatigue is the result of physical or mental exhaustion that impairs the driver’s performance. Truck drivers travel hundreds of miles a day, often on tight deadlines that push them to drive longer or further than they are comfortable.
Fatigue is such an issue among truck drivers—with about 13 percent of the tractor-trailer drivers in accidents reporting feeling tired at the time of the crash—that it prompted the FMCSA to pass regulations on the number of hours a long-haul truck driver can drive before taking a break.
Some of the most common causes of truck driver fatigue include:
- Sleeping in the sleeper berth: Studies indicate that the highest risk of having an accident for truck drivers is within their first hour of driving, particularly if they were sleeping in the truck’s sleeper berth directly before driving. This is due to sleep inertia—a condition in which there is an impairment to certain tasks such as short-term memory and reaction time caused by recent sleep.
- The circadian rhythm: Most humans instinctively sleep during the afternoon and late-night hours and awake during other daylight hours. Unfortunately, as many truck drivers wait to work until late at night when fewer cars are on the road, their driving shifts disrupt the body’s natural circadian rhythm, causing the driver to feel tired.
- Sleep apnea: Sleep apnea is a sleep-related breathing condition in which the individual’s breathing briefly pauses during sleep. These pauses can occur hundreds of times a night, resulting in exhaustion even if he or she had a full night’s rest.
Speeding refers not only to driving faster than the posted speed limit, but also driving too fast for road conditions, such as inclement weather or traffic congestion. It is one of the most common causes of all types of traffic accidents, and nearly a quarter of accidents involving a big truck also involve excessive speed.
Speeding in a large truck is particularly dangerous for a few reasons, including a higher likelihood of rolling over when taking a sharp curve or turn in the roadway at a high rate of speed. Speeding also greatly increases the risk of the vehicle skidding on wet or slippery surfaces, as braking on a curve can result in the wheels locking up.
Truck drivers face the same driving distractions as the operators of other motor vehicles do.
There are three types of driving distractions that can result in an accident:
- Manual distractions, which cause the driver to take his or her hands from the wheel.
- Visual distractions, which prevent the driver from watching the roadway.
- Cognitive distractions, which draw the driver’s mind from the task of driving safely.
Common distractions for truck drivers include eating or drinking in the cab, texting and other cell phone use, visiting with a passenger or co-driver, adjusting GPS and other vehicle or gadget controls, and external distractions such as billboards or other vehicles.
While truck drivers—who must obtain a special driver’s license to operate a tractor-trailer—are subject to random drug and alcohol screenings, many do not realize that common prescription and over-the-counter medications can produce impairments such as drowsiness that can cause an accident.
Improperly Loaded Cargo
Truck drivers must properly load their trailers so their cargo does not shift. Shifting cargo in a vehicle with a high center of gravity can cause a dangerous weight imbalance that can make the vehicle more difficult to maneuver and more prone to rolling over.
While truck drivers receive some training on the safe operation of their vehicles while preparing for their commercial driver’s license (CDL) test, both the driver and the trucking company that employs him or her must ensure the training does not stop there. Truck drivers deal with many day-to-day hazards that the test doesn’t cover but that they need proper training to handle.
Truck drivers who get lost in an unfamiliar city are often the cause of truck-involved crashes as well. The driver can feel tempted to turn unsafely to try to get back on the right path or can even drive the wrong way on a one-way road.
Tailgating (Following Too Closely)
According to the FMCSA, about five percent of crashes involving commercial trucks occur when the truck follows another vehicle too closely. Tailgating is dangerous; if the truck follows another vehicle too closely, it won’t have the distance to pull the weight to a complete stop before rear-ending the front vehicle.
Additionally, because trucks have significant blind spots, a vehicle entering the travel lane too close to the front of the truck is at risk of an accident if the truck driver fails to realize that he or she is there.
Accident With a Tractor-Trailer? Contact a Truck Accident Attorney
Truck accident lawsuits involve a complex process that includes gathering a significant amount of information about the driver from the trucking company. An experienced Boston truck accident lawyer understands this process and the type of evidence you need for a successful outcome to your truck accident case. Contact a truck accident attorney today to learn more about your legal options.