Truck accidents affect the lives of thousands of Floridians every year. According to official data, in 2017, accidents involving trucks weighing more than 10,000 pounds (which describes most commercial trucks) resulted in 34 fatalities and thousands of injuries on Florida roads. How do these tragic accidents happen? And what can Florida motorists and their passengers do to avoid falling victim to them? In this blog post, we aim to answer those questions and to help keep you, our reader, safe the next time you take to the road here in the Sunshine State.
What We Mean by “Truck”
We all know a “truck” when we see one. But the data-keepers at the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles make distinctions between “Medium/Heavy Trucks” weighing more than 10,000 pounds, and “Light Trucks” tipping the scales at less than that. For purposes of this blog, by “truck” we mean “Medium/Heavy Trucks,” which encompasses all sorts of commercial motor vehicles, including:
- Tractor trailers (also known as semi trucks, 18-wheelers, big rigs) and similar vehicles such as tankers and flatbeds, which haul goods long-distance over Florida roads and across the nation;
- Box trucks, including delivery trucks and rental moving vans;
- Dump trucks, cement trucks, garbage trucks, and other heavy-industrial vehicles; and
- Fire trucks.
What Causes Florida Truck Accidents?
Causes of truck accidents vary widely. What leads to a truck rolling over may have nothing to do with how a multi-truck pileup occurs. That said, common factors may contribute to many of the truck accidents that take lives and cause injury on Florida highways and byways. Here are some of the usual culprits.
Drivers who allow their attention to wander from the road get into accidents. That is just a fact. What leads to a break in a driver’s focus on the task of driving safely? Three common ways drivers of all types of vehicles lose attention behind the wheel and end up in truck accidents are:
- Impaired driving. Getting behind the wheel after drinking or taking impairment-inducing drugs (legal or illegal) increases the risk of getting into an accident with a truck. It is also illegal. Drugs and alcohol cause the mind to wander from the task of driving, and also reduce driver reaction time, impair decision-making, and make it difficult to keep a vehicle under control. The good news is that tuckers drive drunk less-often than the general driving population. The bad news is that truckers, as a group, are older and in poorer health than others in the labor force, making it more likely they will drive their vehicles while under the influence of medications with potentially-dangerous side-effects.
- Drowsy driving. Driving while excessively fatigued impairs the ability to operate a vehicle to the same degree as driving drunk. Drowsy driving is a particular problem for truckers, who work long, monotonous hours, and have irregular sleep schedules that disrupt their circadian rhythms. National studies have shown that a disturbing proportion of truckers report driving fatigued on a regular basis. A fatigued driver risks falling asleep behind the wheel or losing the mental acuity necessary to stay in a lane and to remain aware of traffic conditions.
- Distracted Driving. These days, virtually everyone owns a device with a screen that has the potential to attract and hold their attention. Using a screen while behind the wheel is very dangerous. The human brain is not built to focus on the complex task of driving—particularly not driving a large truck—while also typing out a text message or programming a GPS. In the five seconds it takes to look down at a screen and read a message, a vehicle traveling at highway speed covers the distance of a football field or more with a driver who has no situational awareness whatsoever. It is an invitation to a catastrophe.
Loss of Control (Speeding, Braking, and Over-Steering)
Even attentive drivers lose control of their vehicles. Truckers, especially, sometimes find out the hard way that what might be considered “safe” speeding, braking, and steering in an ordinary passenger vehicle leads to deadly and terrifying consequences behind the wheel of a truck. Trucks are large and heavy. It takes an experienced, alert driver and working mechanical systems that exert significant force to keep a truck on the road and under control. A trucker who misjudges his truck’s speed, braking distance, or room to maneuver can put himself, his rig, and other vehicles in tremendous danger. Here are some of the ways even “minor” losses of control of a truck can combine and lead to major catastrophes on Florida roads.
- Speeding => rollover. Everyone knows it is dangerous to drive too fast for road conditions. That is doubly-true when the speeding vehicle is a heavy truck. A truck traveling at excessive speed cannot maneuver to avoid road hazards. One common scenario that leads to truck accidents occurs when a truck driver misjudges the appropriate speed for navigating his truck around a curved highway access ramp. Compared to passenger vehicles, trucks have a high center of gravity and a relatively narrow wheel base, making them prone to tipping over. That is exactly what happens when a trucker goes too fast around an on- or off-ramp.
- Braking => rear-end collisions and pile-ups. A corollary to the danger posed by a speeding truck is that trucks have much larger stopping distances than other vehicles. Even a truck traveling at an appropriate speed, with fully-functional brakes, cannot stop in as short a distance as a car, pickup, or SUV. Add just a little excessive speed, heavy traffic conditions, and truck brakes with a bit too much wear-and-tear on them to the mix, and you get a heavy truck that runs a high risk of rear-ending traffic that slows in front of it and causing a multi-vehicle pile-up.
- Over-steering => jackknife accidents. A jackknife accident is what happens when a truck driver tries to correct course in a truck with a bit too much speed and insufficient brakes. Truckers have to contend with complex physics when driving a fully-loaded truck. Oftentimes, the load in the trailer significantly outweighs the tractor cab. This presents some challenges when a trucker tries to brake and quickly change course at the same time to avoid a road hazard. Although the truck’s cab will steer to an adjacent lane, it still has a heavily-loaded trailer behind it that wants to continue traveling in a straight line. Without adequate brakes and with just a little over-steering on the trucker’s part, the trailer will push on the back of the cab and force it to spin sideways, making the entire rig resemble the folding blade of a knife. Once this happens, the truck essentially becomes an out-of-control bulldozer, sweeping up other vehicles as it plows down the road, causing massive destruction.
Failing to Yield the Right of Way
Many, many truck accidents result from a violation of “right of way;” that is, which of two vehicles should have slowed down or changed course to allow the other to continue on its way. Right of way carries particular significance when it comes to sharing the road with trucks, because of the catastrophic damage trucks can inflict on ordinary passenger vehicles, the relative lack of maneuverability of a truck versus a car, and the fact that truckers cannot always see the vehicles surrounding their trucks on the road. Here are three factors that tend to contribute to truck accidents involving a failure by drivers of trucks and passenger vehicles alike to yield the right of way.
- Blind spots. The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration reminds us that the typical tractor trailer has blind spots on all of its four sides, extending 20 feet in front of the truck cab, 30 feet behind the trailer, one lane-width to the left of the truck, and two lane-widths to the right. Accidents happen when vehicles linger in a truck’s blind spots and the trucker changes lanes without seeing them in his mirrors. Remember: if you cannot see the trucker in his mirrors, then he cannot see you.
- Merging. Merging traffic has an obligation to yield the right-of-way to traffic in travel lanes. Sometimes, that is easier said than done. Merging into heavy traffic, or navigating a truck from an on-ramp into a travel lane comes with significant risks. A trucker trying to merge his truck onto a busy highway from an on-ramp on a downslope, for example, may have no choice but to move left before the truck runs out of room and crashes. Always exercise caution around on-ramps and either move over or slow down to allow traffic to enter.
- Foul weather. Anyone who has lived in Florida and drives a car has had the unpleasant experience of trying to navigate traffic during a torrential afternoon thunderstorm. The rain falls so fast that windshield wipers cannot keep up. It feels like driving blind. More terrifying, you know you are not alone in feeling that way. Truckers also can barely see the road in front of them. This means that truckers may fail to yield the right of way to other vehicles because, in essence, those vehicles are invisible. That is why you should always keep your wipers in working condition. And remember, if the rain starts falling too hard for you to see, you can always put on your hazard lights, slow down, and pull off the road at an exit or on a wide shoulder. The storm will pass much faster than the trauma of a truck accident would.
It doesn’t happen often, but every once in a while a truck driver will misjudge the height of his truck relative to the clearance of a bridge or highway overpass, resulting in a collision between the roof of the truck or trailer and the underside of the structure. Not only does this represent a danger for truck drivers, it also creates a significant risk of secondary accidents, as drivers of other vehicles maneuver to avoid the debris and damage from the collision.
How to Avoid Truck Accidents
Accidents happen, as they say. But that does not mean accidents are unavoidable. Following some basic safety tips can help to keep you safe from a catastrophic truck accident:
- Rest and avoid intoxicating substances. Driving is such a routine part of many people’s lives that it feels like second nature. But we should never lose sight of the fact that cars and trucks are dangerous machines and require skill and focus to operate safely. Never, ever, get behind the wheel impaired; avoid drugs and alcohol, and (especially for truckers) get the rest you need before taking a long road trip. Driving tired is functionally equivalent to driving drunk. Do not make the mistake of thinking you are “ok” to drive if you can barely keep your eyes open.
- Never drive faster than is safe for road conditions. Driving the speed limit is not the same as driving safely. Speed limits are maximums for ideal driving conditions. In many scenarios on Florida roads, it is unsafe to drive anywhere near as fast as the speed limit allows. Truckers and ordinary drivers alike should always moderate their speed to match road conditions. Leave yourself enough room to come to a full stop if the vehicle in front of you slams on its brakes.
- Give trucks the room they need. You cannot avoid sharing the road with trucks of all sizes and shapes. To stay safe around them, give them as much room to maneuver as possible. Remember that trucks need much more space to come to a stop than cars, so do not cut in front of them. Remember, too, that trucks have large blind spots in which an ordinary passenger vehicle becomes effectively invisible. Never linger in a truck’s blind spot, and always look for the truck driver in his mirror to know he sees you.
Have questions about your rights after sustaining an injury in a truck accident? An experienced Florida truck accident lawyer can help answer those questions and talk to you about seeking compensation.