Drowsy driving is a major challenge in driving safety among all drivers of motor vehicles. Four percent of drivers have fallen asleep at the wheel at some point in the last 30 days, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Nationally, truck drivers are thought to be at even more risk for fatigued driving.
In fact, driver fatigue in commercial trucks is a leading cause of truck accidents. Roughly 13 percent of commercial truck drivers were fatigued at the time of a crash, according to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA)’s Large Truck Crash Causation Study. Fatigue, according to FMCSA, can stem from lack of sleep, long work hours, physical or mental exertion that impairs performance, or strenuous activities. All too often it’s just a matter of too little sleep.
Sleepiness and fatigue can thus be major causal factors in commercial truck accidents. In Texas alone, large trucks were responsible for 129 deaths in 2017, the last year for which statistics are available. Commercial vehicles were involved in eight crash-related deaths in Bexar County and seven crash-related deaths in Travis County that year.
Truck accidents can cause much more danger and harm to life and limb than car accidents, because trucks can weigh as much as 80,000 pounds—exponentially more than a car—and are much larger than other vehicles on the road. A collision with a truck can cause catastrophic injuries and death to other parties in the accident, whether they are in cars, on bicycles or motorcycles, or walking or running.
In addition, truck accidents can cause the truck to overturn or jackknife. These types of accidents are directly harmful, of course, but they also pose a considerable risk of spreading parts of the truck, debris, or even some of the truck’s load all over the road. Even vehicles that don’t directly collide with the truck can be hit with debris, have an accident caused by debris, or be in a pile-up caused by the truck accident. An accident that causes a truck to overturn can also ignite the truck’s fuel tank, causing a fire—which itself can cause injury or death.
All of these accidents can be caused by driver fatigue, or driver fatigue can play a role in them. Driver fatigue impacts reaction time, vision, coordination, and judgment negatively. A driver may, for example, change lanes without really noticing a car in the adjacent lane, or may drift into oncoming traffic if he falls asleep. Sleep deprivation and fatigue cause symptoms that are similar to driving under the influence of alcohol. After 24 hours of sleep deprivation, in fact, a driver is as impaired as someone who has a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of 0.10 percent, more than the legal limit for drunk driving.
Why Are Drivers Fatigued?
Many factors can fatigue truck drivers. Commercial drivers are subject to federal limits on the hours of service they are allowed to drive without rest breaks. They are required to take rest breaks after driving 11 hours consecutively, after taking 10 consecutive hours off. They cannot drive once they’re driven for 14 hours. They are not allowed to drive over 60 hours in a single week or over 70 hours in eight days.
Unfortunately, drivers can become fatigued even given these rules. It is possible to become sleepy and fatigued within the 11-hour consecutive window and the weekly limits, especially if the driving schedules don’t allow the drivers to establish a regular sleep pattern. People sleep best if they can fall asleep at roughly the same time each night. Trucking schedules may not always allow this, so that drivers may not be able to sleep optimally during their time off.
In addition, some drivers may feel pressure to drive over the limits, to make the schedules set by the trucking companies or to be hired on a consistent basis. The pressure may stem from the drivers themselves or from the companies they work for. Driver fatigue can also cause drivers to use substances to help them stay alert. The substances can also be a problem in accidents.
Because driver fatigue is such a problem, companies like Caterpillar, which makes construction equipment, have devised a safety system that can monitor drivers in the cab for signs of fatigue, such as inattention to the road, yawning, head-nodding, and closing eyes. If the system detects these signs, it issues warnings (seats vibrate and bells go off). While these may help, they have yet to be widely deployed.
What Can I Do If a Fatigued Driver Has Caused My Accident?
If you believe that a fatigued driver caused a trucking accident that injured you or a loved one or killed a loved one, it’s prudent to seek legal representation. Why? Because it’s important to know the causes of an accident. If you or a loved one has been injured, it is possible to recover damages from the party who caused the accident. If they are responsible, then they can be legally liable for damages, including compensation for medical bills you’ve paid, medical bills you might reasonably be expected to incur in the future, lost wages from work, lost earnings capacity if your injury renders you unable to work for a time, property damage, loss of use of a limb, and non-economic damages, such as pain and suffering and loss of consortium.
Lawyers can work with investigators to establish the cause of an accident. They can look at police reports, any reports by Federal authorities, and the driver’s logbooks. Drivers are mandated to keep a logbook for each 24-hour period of service, which can shed light on how often the driver was in service. The driver can also be interviewed. Drivers can falsify the logbooks, however, so that they can drive longer than the federal limit. It may be possible to determine falsification based on the loads actually delivered.
The causes of truck accidents are complex, however. While the driver might be responsible for fatigue, the hiring or supervision policies of the trucking company may also be responsible, either partly or entirely. If that is the case, the truck company might be responsible, and liable for damages to victims of the accident. Trucking companies can also contract elements such as training, truck maintenance, and loading to other companies. Poor or inadequate maintenance or improper loading can also cause accidents or contribute to an accident in which fatigue plays a role.
If you need further information or assistance, contact a licensed truck accident attorney.