Big Trucks and the Risks they Pose on Our Highways

By Martin Healy, Jr. & Dennis M. Lynch

If you have recently been driving on an interstate highway, you may have been surprised by the number of tractor-trailers you see using the roadways. Currently, there are over 2 million big trucks on the highways. Healy Scanlon Law Firm has just finished a 3 week trial involving an interstate trucking accident. The case focused on the considerable responsibility of driving vehicles, weighing up to 80,000 pounds, on our highways. The case brought to light the differences in licensing, regulation and size and weight of the vehicle, when comparing it to an ordinary passenger car.

COMMERCIAL DRIVER'S LICENSE

If you drive a truck over 26,000 pounds, any vehicle which transports 16 or more people and any vehicle which transports hazardous waste, you must have a Commercial Driver's License (CDL). Like a regular driver's license, to get a CDL you must pass a written test and a driving test. However, both the written and driving tests are much more exhaustive when you are attempting to qualify for a CDL. The study guide put out by the Illinois Secretary of State for CDLs is over 160 pages.

FEDERAL REGULATIONS

Obtaining a CDL is just the beginning. If you drive a tractor-trailer commercially you are subject to many federal regulations beyond what is addressed in a normal CDL course. Many truck drivers carry what is known as "the Green Book." It is a pocket book of just the regulations a truck driver needs to know. The current edition is over 660 pages.

These heavy regulations are necessary because of the differences between a tractor-trailer and a normal passenger car. A tractor-trailer can be over 70 feet long and weigh up to 80,000 pounds. A typical passenger vehicle is a little over 15 feet long and weighs about 3000 pounds.

LIMITATION ON HOURS

As anyone who has attempted to drive cross-country knows, the longer one drives, the harder it is to pay attention to what you are doing. This is especially true for professional over-the-road truck drivers who have to drive for many hours everyday. As such, federal regulations limit how long a driver can be on duty in a given day and week. A driver can only be "on duty" ten hours without taking a full eight hour break. "On duty" time includes driving time, plus truck inspections, paperwork, loading/unloading and other work related tasks.

In addition to the daily limit, there is a weekly limit which prevents a driver from driving ten hours a day every day. A driver may only drive 70 hours in any eight day period. As such, a driver cannot drive 10 hours a day if he intends to drive every day, and if a driver drives seventy hours in a seven day period, he is not eligible to drive on the eighth day.

Truck driver fatigue is always a serious concern for the regulators, carriers and drivers and for those in other vehicles using the highway. After a number of deaths of children from fatigued truck drivers, an organization - Parents Against Tired Truckers (PATT) - was formed to advocate for stricter regulation of truck drivers.

It is the responsibility of both the motor carrier (or trucking company) and the driver personally to ensure that these hours of service rules are being followed. A driver is required to keep a log book which indicates when he is on duty, when he is off duty and when he is using the sleeper birth of the tractor. The trucking company must make an effort to confirm the times indicated in a driver's log. The company must check fuel receipts, trip tickets and other information available to it to confirm that the information provided by the driver is accurate.

Many trucks are now equipped with on-board computer or satellite tracking equipment which records information, including when the truck is running, what speed it is operating at, and when fuel stops are made. These computers also have a "black box" or event recorder capabilities, that make special records of when the truck brakes suddenly, such as during an accident.

A trucking company must use all of the information at its disposal to confirm a driver is staying within the hours of service rules and operating safely. Even if a carrier is unaware that a driver was operating over his hours because the driver submits falsified logs, the carrier can be held liable for failing to check the drivers' information. Federal inspectors conduct random audits of driver logs and underlying documents. Where violations are found, heavy fines can be imposed.

SCHEDULING AND PLANNING RUNS

Of course, many people would suggest that by limiting the number of hours a driver can drive, it only encourages him to drive above the speed limit. In an effort to avoid this, the federal regulations impose a unique duty on the carrier to avoid scheduling a run between locations and in an amount of time that necessitates operating his vehicle above the speed limit. The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration explains, "in areas where a 55 mph speed limit is in effect, trips of 450-500 miles are open to question, and runs of 500 miles or more are considered incapable of being made in compliance with the speed limit and hours of service limitation." Thus, in these areas carriers should be hesitant to schedule a run of 450-500 miles and avoid runs of 500 miles or more to be completed in a 10-hour shift. It should be kept in mind that drivers are compensated according to the miles driven, rather than the hours worked. So there is always a financial incentive for the long trips.

THE RECENT TRIAL

The case we just tried arose out of a collision between a tractor-trailer and a passenger carwith 3 teenagers. It took place at 10:30 on a Saturday evening over the 4th of July weekend in 2002. There was no drinking or drug use involved with any of the drivers or passengers. The female teenage driver of the passenger car, a Pontiac Grand Am proceeding north on Lincoln street in Wanatah, Indiana, had the responsibility to stop and yield the right of way to the traffic on U.S. 30. The driver of the tractor-trailer, proceeding west on U.S. 30, a divided 4 lane highway with direct access roads, had the responsibility to observe the speed limit (40 m.p.h.) and to use reasonable care in observing intersections and vehicles approaching and crossing from intersecting roads.

The defendants argued that the Plaintiff driver did not stop and yield, and so was 100% responsible for the collision. Plaintiffs argued that the truck driver was speeding (50 in a 40) was fatigued (exceeded the 70 hour restriction) and was not observing the intersection as he approached it (he admitted he did not see the car before he hit it). The jury heard evidence that it takes 30% longer to stop a big rig than it does an ordinary passenger car. The truck struck the car in the intersection and pushed it west over 350 feet, killing all three teenagers.

Under the law, if persons are more than 50% responsible for their injuries, they receive no compensation. If the Defendants were less than 25% at fault, then they are liable for only their reduced percentage.

After 3 weeks of trial and 2 days of deliberations, the jury found the Defendants, including Dean Foods Company (the trailer contained over 4000 gallons of milk at the time), 60% at fault and awarded $20.2 million. The family of each teenage passenger was awarded $8 million, and the family of the teenage driver of the Pontiac was awarded $4.2 million (60% of the $7 million awarded to that family). Martin Healy, and Dave Huber of Healy Scanlon Law Firm represented the two families of the passengers, and Michael Muldoon and John Muldoon of Muldoon & Muldoon represented the driver of the car.

For more information on trucking accidents trucking accidents, visit our website Illinoistruckingaccidents.com.