Tractor trailer accidents are responsible for thousands of injuries and many deaths in the U.S. each year. The accidents are not always the direct fault of the truck driver: it may be the truck owner, another driver or even the manufacturer who is responsible for design faults. Statistically, however, many accidents are in some way linked to the truck driver, according to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration.
Independent investigations into truck accidents reveal three significant causes:
- Badly stowed cargo affecting the weight and balance of the trailer.
- Drivers hired without the necessary experience or appropriate, formal driver training
- Poor maintenance and repairs.
Examining these three causes in more detail provides greater clarity as to why they are so significant and how accidents could have be avoided.
Badly Stowed Cargo Affecting the Weight and Balance of the Trailer
Physics plays an important role in cargo storage. It’s not simply a matter of
loading the cargo onto the trailer, it’s how the cargo is loaded and secured. Properly loaded and secured cargo ensures the weight is evenly distributed and won’t change during transit. If light cargo is stowed near the truck cab with heavy cargo placed to the rear of the trailer, the weight and balance is uneven which affects the vehicles handling characteristics, despite being securely stowed. If a truck driver has to swerve suddenly, the majority of the trailers’ weight is at the rear causing a severe swinging effect. The forward kinetic energy converts into sideways motion until the energy dissipates. In plain language, the rear of the truck slides to one side out of control leaving the truck driver with little chance to avoid an accident.
The same physical rules apply for badly stowed cargo. A truck traveling at 40mph has substantial forward momentum. If the truck driver has to brake suddenly or swerve, unsecured cargo will continue to move at 40mph, despite the driver braking. The effect as the cargo continues to move across or down the trailer can be disastrous. As the cargo slides inside the trailer it destabilizes the overall handling characteristics of the truck, because the laws of physics state the energy must travel in a straight line. In this example the truck is trying to go one way and the trailer another, resulting in the driver losing control and an otherwise avoidable accident occurs.
The truck company has the responsibility to ensure safe transportation of cargo, including the way it’s loaded and stowed. This said, the ultimate responsibility of the truck driver is to make certain they oversee the loading and secure stowing of cargo before the truck goes on the road. The truck driver’s duty is no different than an airplane pilot checking the aircraft before departure; once it’s left the ground it’s too late to rectify an error.
Drivers hired without the necessary experience or formal driver training
There can be no justifiable excuse for poor driver training or lack of experience, but it occurs all too often. Demand by customers for on-time delivery of goods is essential to a truck company’s reputation. These business pressures may mean a truck company puts on-time delivery before safety. Rather than getting cargo delivered late, some truck companies hire a driver not trained for the type and size of rig, or hire a driver who is not experienced. Research has shown that lack of training and experience is responsible for many avoidable accidents.
In addition, some trucking companies hire drivers without getting their driving history. They may have the correct license, but the company hasn’t checked to find out whether he or she has a history of driving convictions and accidents.
Companies operating trailer trucks have a duty to ensure that any driver they hire is fully qualified and experienced to drive a particular truck. Regular re-evaluation and re-training is essential, if the number of major accidents is to be reduced.
Poor maintenance and repairs
Truck owners have a duty to ensure their trailer trucks are roadworthy at all times. Maintenance procedures need to be carried out efficiently and safely. All repairs need to be double checked and signed off, and most of all, trucks and equipment with known defects should not be allowed out on the roads.
Checking a trailer truck at intervals specified by the manufacturer isn’t enough. Trucks need to be professionally serviced and maintained at shorter intervals. A broken down truck on a highway may not directly be the cause of a major accident, but many incidents occur indirectly when a lane is blocked, particularly if they’ve broken down in a place where forward visibility is poor, such as a bend.
One particular area where regular maintenance is necessary is the truck’s braking system. Many accidents result from brake failure which would never occur with regular inspections. Detailed records of all repairs and maintenance need to be kept, state inspections complied with and federal rules and regulations adhered to as an absolute minimum standard of business and road safety practice.