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How Big of a Problem Are Unsafe 18-Wheelers?

Most people are aware that commercial truck drivers occasionally make serious or even fatal mistakes at the wheel, but concerns about those misbehaviors sometimes overshadow another major issue: malfunctioning trucks, particularly those in states of terrible disrepair. A significant number of trucks and trailers in bad shape hit the road every day, but how big of a problem are those unsafe 18-wheelers?

Answer: There's reason to believe that as many as 20% or more of active tractor-trailers are not roadworthy.

How Widespread is This Problem?

It would likely be impossible to thoroughly check every single tractor-trailer on U.S. roads for serious damage or hazardous mechanical problems, so knowing exactly how many of them are ticking time bombs isn't feasible. However, it's possible to get an idea the problem's scope through smaller-scale representative sampling.

The Litmus Test: International Roadcheck

International Roadcheck is an annual inspection blitz conducted by the Commercial Vehicle Safety Association (CVSA). Over the course of three days, CVSA-certified inspectors across North America conduct compliance audits on thousands of commercial vehicles (straight trucks, tractor-trailers, buses, etc). Every year a disturbing number of those vehicles are taken out of service after inspectors find crucial parts and systems aren't roadworthy.

The most common audit conducted is the North American Standard (NAS) Level I Inspection, a 37-step examination of commercial vehicles and their drivers. Below are the results of Level I truck inspections from the last five years, including how many failed them.

YearTotal Level I InspectionsTotal Trucks Pulled from ServiceFailure Rate
Source: CVSA

We first became aware of just how big this problem is when we learned about a similar operation performed by the Texas Department of Public Safety in 2014. The operation involved troopers randomly pulling trucks over for inspection right there on the side of the road. They checked approximately 8,700 trucks over three days and sidelined almost 1,900 of them, meaning a shocking 21% of the trucks weren't roadworthy. Numbers gathered over the next few years, including those displayed in the table above, seem to show pretty consistently that at least one in five commercial trucks had to be put out of service for dangerous problems.

We'd already worked on plenty of cases where an 18-wheeler or other large commercial vehicle wasn't roadworthy, so we knew there was a problem in the industry. However, we never could have guessed the problem was actually so widespread. Just to put it in perspective, consider that the Texas legislature recently considered abandoning the inspection requirement entirely for normal passenger vehicles because so few of them failed the basic safety inspection. In other words, the number of non-roadworthy commercial vehicles is hugely disproportionate to the number of non-roadworthy passenger vehicles.

The Big Picture

The American Trucking Association estimates there were about 4.06 million Class 8 trucks, including 18-wheelers and straight trucks, operating in the U.S. in 2022. Keeping in mind that not every vehicle inspected during Roadcheck was a semi-truck or trailer, we can use the years' average failure rate to do some "back of the envelope" math:

4,060,000 trucks * 22.14% out-of-service rate for Roadcheck sample group = 898,884 trucks with potential safety problems.

That math is oversimplified and the result may be much too high, but even allowing for a healthy margin of error there could still easily be tens of thousands of malfunctioning or poorly-maintained 18-wheelers traveling across the U.S. at any given time.

What Kinds of Maintenance Issues Are We Talking About?

Disturbingly, the main category that caused trucks to fail their inspections every year was bad brakes. Other problems included damaged or worn tires, lack of markers and lighting, and issues with cargo securement. Any one of those issues is enough to get a truck pulled from service, yet many of them had multiple violations discovered.

The problems aren't limited to the categories used by the CVSA, either. For instance, off the top of my head I can recall more than one accident where pieces of an 18-wheeler's suspension broke loose, then crashed into other vehicles and people on the roadway. Trucks are complicated machine; without regular attention and upkeep they can have all kinds of problems, many of which endanger their drivers and everyone else.

Why Isn't the Danger More Well-Known?

Few people outside of the trucking industry (and certain sectors that deal with it regularly) realize just how rampant the issues with disrepair and malfunctions really are. But why doesn't everyone know? There are a few possible reasons:

  • The news rarely reports truck malfunctions. The press is often at the mercy of what officials can tell them about a crash and the tight deadlines of their industry. To ensure swift publication, they often report only that a tractor-trailer crashed—but not how or why. Moreover, by the time more details are available they've moved on; barring unusual developments, they may not revisit or update their preliminary fact pattern. The public generally relies on the news to learn of current events, but they don't always get the whole story.
  • Law enforcement doesn't find them. Standard police traffic investigators are often ill-equipped to determine that worn-out parts caused a truck accident. Lacking the necessary tools and training, officers may miss serious problems with the truck's operation or condition. That leads to many truck accidents getting misattributed to other factors, which in turn makes unsafe trucks seem like less of a problem than they actually are.
    To be clear, when police departments make a concerted effort to conduct safety inspections during traffic stops of 18-wheelers they usually do a thorough job. However, when you combine that check with a conventional accident investigation they usually focus more on the skid marks/witness statements side of things. Therefore, in practice we often get hired to investigate a truck accident case where the police report will say nothing about the truck being poorly maintained, and then our inspection of the truck will reveal all kinds of problems the police missed. That's another argument for the importance of an independent investigation.
  • The trucking industry won't admit them. Whatever their internal audits and memos may show about their fleets' condition, trucking companies are highly unlikely to broadcast those findings—particularly if they learn the trucks desperately need maintenance. Keeping potentially-damning details under wraps is a longstanding corporate tradition in many industries, and commercial transportation isn't likely to break that mold.

That's an incomplete list of contributing factors, but put everything together and what comes out is a public unaware of how often they're traveling next to a hazardous big rig. Those that do realize the danger may reasonably wonder why trucking companies put them in that position to begin with.

Why Are So Many Dangerous Trucks on the Road?

There may not be one definitive answer to that, but in my opinion one of the main causes of trucks running until they fall apart is financial. Large corporate fleets accept truck maintenance as simply a cost of doing business, but smaller firms and owner-operators looking to save money sometimes look for corners to cut. One such corner is putting off maintenance and avoiding inspections (including annual blitzes) as long as possible, all while their trucks continue to degrade.

The point is that from a trucking perspective, every minute off the road is lost earnings. Companies gamble every time they let a dicey truck leave their lot, betting the cost of downtime and repairs against the likelihood of a lawsuit if the truck goes haywire and crashes, yet many still ultimately decide to "put the load on the road" in an unsafe vehicle.

How Do I Know if an Unsafe 18-Wheeler Caused My Accident?

As concerning as damaged and malfunctioning trucks are, it's not always clear right away whether such issues were behind an 18-wheeler accident. Trucking companies are rarely keen to admit they put a truck held together by Bondo and prayer on the interstate, so when the truck fails and causes a crash with injuries the typical party line is to deny everything and point fingers anywhere else that blame might stick.

The best way to overcome that and prove they sent out a rickety rig is to find clear evidence of the truck's failure. That means taking possession of the vehicle, conducting a careful forensic investigation of its parts, reading its ECM data for signs of malfunctions, examining its maintenance records, and in general rounding up and processing any and every source of data about the truck's history. That thorough analysis can often be intimidating for victims and families whose chief concern should simply be recovering the best they can from a terrible experience.

That's where an experienced attorney can be of aid. The Texas truck accident lawyers at Grossman Law Offices have decades of combined experience assisting people after 18-wheeler accidents, including those caused by malfunctioning or poorly-maintained trucks. If you were hurt or lost a loved one in a collision with a tractor-trailer, call Grossman Law any time for a free and confidential consultation.

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