18-Wheeler Rollover Accidents Shouldn’t Be Fatal

Michael GrossmanSeptember 23, 2015 5 minutes

There is a huge problem that has been claiming the lives of truck drivers for years, yet most people are completely unaware that it's even a problem: minor rollover incidents that crush truckers to death.

At certain high speeds a rollover accident is simply unsurvivable, and I'm not suggesting that manufacturers build indestructible cars that can survive any impact at any speed. On the contrary, I'm referring to low-speed, minor rollover accidents --the type you'd walk away from without a scratch if you were in your family's pickup-- that are claiming the lives of truck drivers. What's worse, large truck manufacturers know about this problem and they're doing nothing to solve it.

In this article, I'm going to explain exactly what the problem is, how it can be fixed, and who you can hold accountable if your loved one lost their lives in an 18-wheeler rollover accident.

A Look at the Problem

Motor vehicles that experience a minor rollover accident (when they are traveling at a low rate of speed and did not roll multiple times) are not fatal accidents in most circumstances. In a personal motor vehicle, like a car, the roof structure is strong enough to support the weight of the car if it flips upside down; the federal government tests cars to make sure they meet certain crash standards, and most cars do. With 18-wheelers, that's not the case; no rollover tests are performed by the government, and the trucking industry has not been motivated to incorporate rollover protection for these vehicles.

If you take a look at the structure of a typical commercial 18-wheeler, the base or load-bearing part (the chassis) and the driver-occupied cab together make up what is called the "tractor." We normally think of the tractor as an incredibly strong vehicle because of its massive weight. In fact, the chassis is very strong, but the cab that the driver sits in, which is usually just made out of fiberglass, is not structurally sound at all. Imagine a really heavy skateboard with an empty tissue box sitting on top of it. If the skateboard turned upside down, the structure of the tissue box would not hold up under the skateboard's weight. That's more or less what we're talking about here. The manufacturers of these vehicles are building trucks that have a strong chassis, but the part that houses a human being is about as crash resistant a a Port-a-potty or an el-cheapo tool shed you'd buy at Home Depot.

Skateboard with tissue box.
A commercial truck is like a skateboard with a tissue box on it. The bottom part is darn near indestructible, but the top is weak.
Truck chassis with cab disconnected.
Much like the tissue box sitting atop the skateboard, the cab of an 18-wheeler is a separate piece from the base frame. It'll also crush like a cheap cardboard box in a rollover.

To give you a real-life depiction, let's look at a few examples of cases we've worked on where the weak structural design of the 18-wheeler caused a loss of life in a minor rollover accident:

  • The first case involved a gentleman who was in a tractor at a landfill. His truck was at a complete stop, but the dirt gave way beneath him the back wheels of his trailer, it tipped, and he was pulled down a "hill" that was not even ten feet tall. Even though his truck rolled over very slowly, he was still crushed to death in the cab.
  • In the second case, there was another driver who was going slowly around a curve (at only 10mph) when one of his wheels slipped off the roadway (which had a slight elevation change), causing the vehicle to roll over. He too, was crushed to death, even though it happened at a low rate of speed.

Had either of those gentlemen been driving regular cars or pickups, they'd still be alive today.

Solutions to the Problem

Unsurprisingly, manufacturers of commercial trucks like to argue that it's impossible to build an 18-wheeler where the cab provides suitable rollover protection for the truck driver, but I don't buy that for a second. Rollover protection has existed in its various forms since the early days of the automobile. There are two real ways to go about implementing rollover protection.

  • Build it into the structure of the cab of the vehicle
  • Add a roll bar, roll cage, or other supplementary structure

With 18-wheelers, it's not really feasible to implement the first option, so a roll bar or roll cage is really the way to go. A roll bar often sits outside of the cab of a vehicle. For instance, consider the roll bar on this tractor:

Tractor with rollbar
The simple steel tubular rollbar on this tractor is all it takes to keep the farmer sitting atop this vehicle was being crushed in the event of a rollover. Image courtesy of BulldozerD11 via wikimedia.

It's not terribly sophisticated, but it works. Naturally, the more robust the vehicle is, the more robust the roll structure needs to be. For instance, consider the roll structure featured on this old Rover that was equipped with ballistic protection for use in combat (i.e. it was heavy):

Pic of vehicle with robust roll bar.
This is a slightly more complex roll structure than the rollbar shown above. But it's still pretty simple and inexpensive. Image courtesy of Brian Harrington Spier.

Those structure are likely perfectly suitable for the purposes of this discussion. However, a roll cage would be better. Rather than being a simple hoop that sits behind the driver's head, a full roll cage features multiple hoops and cross braces. When built correctly, roll cages are veritable bomb shelters. Here's an example of a rollcage that was added to a passenger car:

Roll cage pic
This is a rollcage in a passenger car, as seen from the inside of the car. As you can see, it tucks up snugly against the roof, which makes it unobtrusive. Image courtesy of FastEddy760 via wikimedia.

Manufacturers of 18-wheelers would have you believe that installing such a system is not a cost-effective option. This is not true. Rollbars can be made for less than $100, and even a multi-point rollcage can be made for less than $1,000. The real reason these types of rollover systems are not being used is because of the 18-wheeler's weight limit; under federal law, the truck and the cargo together are only allowed to weigh 80,000 pounds, so the lighter the truck itself is, the more the more cargo the vehicle can carry.

There is another option known as a deformable kingpin. A trailer's kingpin is the piece that pokes into the trailer hitch (known as a fifth wheel) on an 18-wheeler. Most rollovers involving large trucks happen because the trailer drops a wheel off the side of a roadway or the cargo shifts in the trailer, resulting in the trailer rolling over, and it takes the tractor right along with it. A deformable kingpin is made to detach the trailer from the tractor when the trailer starts to roll over. Yet another solution is a rollover warning device. This device gives the driver a warning when their vehicle is approaching its handling and cornering threshold while navigating a turn or curve in the road. The point is, this has long been a problem that plagues truck drivers, and there are a multitude of solutions available. Yet manufacturers of these vehicles can't be bothered to spend the nominal amount of money to save lives. I think they should be accountable for that.