Should Semi-Truck U-Turns Be Illegal?

By Michael GrossmanJanuary 10, 2017Reading Time: 9 minutes

It's difficult for a truck accident law firm to ask questions about commercial truck safety without those who drive trucks for a living taking offense and thinking we're "anti-trucker." I'd like to dispense that notion right off the bat. We have the utmost respect for 99% of professional truck drivers who drive their whole careers safely and without incident. I'll be the first to admit that most professional truck drivers can do things in vehicles that I certainly can't.

Exhibit A:

That being said, a recent accident on highway 239, just west of Tivoli, Texas has some of us at the office asking whether or not 18-wheeler U-turns should be illegal, or at the very least, greatly restricted.

The accident occurred on December 21, 2016 at around 7:15 pm in the evening. According to reports, a truck driver was attempting a U-turn on a highway 239. This might not sound like such a big deal, but when you look at the road where the accident happened, you can see part of what the problem is:

There really isn't a good place to make a safe U-turn for a car on this stretch of the road, let alone an 18-wheeler. For reasons unknown, the driver of the truck attempted a U-turn and a car, driven by John Reyna, 70, was unable to avoid the trailer of the truck, which stretched across the entirety of the road. Mr. Reyna was killed in the accident. A second car driven by Sheldon Greenwood was also unable to avoid the accident and he suffered serious injuries.

Complicating matters is that the stretch of highway where the truck driver attempted his U-turn has a speed limit of 75 miles per hour. For those whose instinct is to defend truck drivers, regardless of the facts of a specific case, one of their go to rebuttals is that the driver of the passenger car must have been speeding. While I have no doubt that in some situations, that is absolutely the case, in this instance, even if the drivers were obeying the speed limit, they were going to come up on any trailer in the roadway in a hurry.

If the driver had attempted this ill-advised maneuver in broad daylight, perhaps the truck would have been visible from a mile or two away, but that he chose to do so at night, with only the reflective tape on the trailer to alert other motorists of his presence, greatly reduced the visibility of his trailer. Most of the truck-driving literature that I have found recommends leaving at least 500 feet between a truck attempting a U-turn and any potential oncoming traffic. For a truck relying on reflective tape for the trailer to be seen, this is at the outer range of its effectiveness.

At the speeds on this highway, it takes a motorist doing the speed limit over 400 feet to come to a complete stop, when reaction time is added to the time is takes for a vehicle to brake. Cars traveling at 75 mph travel over 110 feet every second. This means that even if the driver allowed for the recommended distance of 500 feet while performing the maneuver, any drivers would have literally a split second over the absolute minimum amount of time necessary to bring their vehicles to a stop.

When looking at the known facts in the Tavoli crash, it's hard to see how the truck driver's decision was not reckless. While acknowledging just how dangerous it was to attempt a U-turn on this particular stretch of road, one can look at map to see what might motivate a driver to attempt such a maneuver; In this particular part of rural Texas, the nearest place to turn around in a safe manner might have been 10 or 15 miles away.

It is the conflict between the impracticality of U-turns in many areas of the country and the dangers of the maneuver, which make the topic of banning U-turns for 18-wheelers so potentially contentious.

The Case for Banning 18-Wheeler U-Turns

The reason to make 18-wheeler U-turns illegal would be that ridding the roads of this dangerous maneuver would likely save lives. While there are no accurate statistics for how many accidents occur because a truck is making a U-turn in a dangerous place, our anecdotal experience handling truck accident cases has brought to our attention dozens of cases with fact patterns like the one in this case.

It also appears that the private sector hasn't let the dangers of 18-wheeler U-turns go unnoticed. In researching this article, I was able to confirm that both Schneider and Werner, two of the bigger players in the trucking industry, ban their drivers from making U-turns. In fact, if a driver for either of these companies is caught making a U-turn, they can be fired on the spot. I would normally be skeptical of such a rule and wonder if it's actually enforced, but I have seen some accounts that drivers have actually been fired for violating the rule.

If you happened to check out the videos of truck drivers skillfully making U-turns, there is one thing you might have missed. In both videos it takes the driver almost 2 minutes to execute the U-turn. Granted the roads they are on are less improved than almost any highway in the country, but the fact remains there is no quick way for trucks to make these turns. Even if a truck could make a U-turn in half the time on the stretch of road where Mr. Reyna's and Mr. Greenwood's accident occurred, that still means the truck would have been blocking the roadway for a whole minute.

If a driver can't execute a maneuver without blocking road for at least a minute, it doesn't seem like it should be legal to do such a turn without flaggers, markers, and flares to alert other drivers.

To recap, the case for banning 18-wheeler U-turns is that they're dangerous and if there were illegal fewer drivers would perform the maneuver, which in turn would save lives. It wouldn't even be a difficult law to implement, since a fair number of larger companies in the industry already have such a policy in place.

Why We Shouldn't Ban 18-Wheeler U-Turns

Perhaps the biggest reason not to pursue a law against 18-wheelers making U-turns is that there is already one on the books that prevents the consequences of this behavior, which is the obstruction of a highway.

Texas Penal Code Section 42.03

OBSTRUCTING HIGHWAY OR OTHER PASSAGEWAY

  • (a) A person commits an offense if, without legal privilege or authority, he intentionally, knowingly, or recklessly:
    • (1) obstructs a highway, street, sidewalk, railway, waterway, elevator, aisle, hallway, entrance, or exit to which the public or a substantial group of the public has access, or any other place used for the passage of persons, vehicles, or conveyances, regardless of the means of creating the obstruction and whether the obstruction arises from his acts alone or from his acts and the acts of others; or
    • (2) disobeys a reasonable request or order to move issued by a person the actor knows to be or is informed is a peace officer, a fireman, or a person with authority to control the use of the premises:
      • (A) to prevent obstruction of a highway or any of those areas mentioned in Subdivision (1); or
      • (B) to maintain public safety by dispersing those gathered in dangerous proximity to a fire, riot, or other hazard.

       

  • (b) For purposes of this section, "obstruct" means to render impassable or to render passage unreasonably inconvenient or hazardous.
  • (c) An offense under this section is a Class B misdemeanor.

In Texas, Class B misdemeanors are punishable by up to 6 months in jail and/or a $2,000 fine. When applied to trucker U-turns and the deadly consequences that often arise, this may seem like a slap on the wrist. However, it is difficult to envision any U-turn ban that would have penalties that are much stiffer. Any ban will certainly not be a felony and even Class A misdemeanors only carry the possibility of 1 year in jail and a $4,000 fine.

So if we have a law on the books that already applies to these types of accidents and it doesn't appear to prevent them, how much sense does it make to enact another law just so we can feel like we're doing something?

A semi-truck U-turn ban would also ignore that there are vast swaths of our very large country where there really is nowhere for a truck to change directions. This often presents truckers with a dilemma, they can drive an hour out of their way to avoid a U-turn, or they have to attempt the dangerous maneuver. This choice appears to be behind most deadly trucker U-turns.

This is most likely why current laws against obstructing roadways are sometimes ignored. I'm not saying that this is right or wrong. I've read of a lot of truckers who will drive an hour out of their way to avoid any potentially dangerous situations, but human nature being what it is, it would be silly to expect that in practice every single driver will be so selfless. Instead effective laws and regulations account for the fact that when it comes to doing the right thing, but being greatly inconvenienced, or taking an illegal short-cut that doesn't "really hurt anyone," a lot of us are taking the short-cut.

Solving the Problem of 18-Wheeler U-Turns Without a Ban

I'm not saying that we shouldn't ban 18-wheeler U-turns because there's a good chance that some people will ignore that ban and it won't really solve the problem. By that logic we wouldn't have any laws.

It just strikes me that had this same scenario occurred in broad daylight, it is unlikely that an accident would have resulted. That stretch of road is straight and flat with potential visibility for miles. This means that the heart of the matter is a question of trailer visibility. Having viewed some accident photos, it appears that the truck in question had reflective tape running down the side, as required by law.

This suggests that simple reflective tape doesn't do an adequate job alerting oncoming motorists of the presence of a trailer. While it may provide some added visibility, reflective tape regulations are ill-suited for highways when vehicles are traveling at high speeds. If the underlying cause behind these accidents is that there simply isn't enough time to for drivers to react to a trailer that is illegally blocking the road, then a solution might not involve banning maneuvers that are already illegal, but requiring better illumination on trailers.

Just as many large trucks are equipped with warning systems that beep when they are backing up, it doesn't strike me as beyond the realm of our current technology to equip trailers with flashing lights for side illumination during these maneuvers. This could potentially increased visibility beyond the range of simple reflective tape, allowing drivers approaching blocked roads and intersections to spot the trailer from a much greater distance, preventing situations like the one outside of Tivoli, where John Reyna may not have had sufficient to see the trailer and then apply the brakes.

If it sounds too expensive to equip trailers with side lighting then you haven't looked around for a flashlight on Amazon lately. High powered LED flashlights can be had for as little at $10. While it is still possible that these won't work in truly awful weather conditions, a better illuminated trailer would, if nothing else, given people like John Reyna and Sheldon Greenwood more time to avoid trailers blocking the roadway.

Another reason to increase trailer visibility during dangerous maneuvers is that it would likely prove more effective than a U-turn ban. As noted before, many times the only solution for a driver in a rural part of the country to avoid a dangerous U-turn is to drive up to an hour or hour and a half out of their way. Some, who aren't familiar with the trucking industry and the regulations imposed on truckers, might think that a ban would work, because it just means drivers have to go out of their way. What these folks forget is that truck drivers are bound by Hours of Service regulations.

Hours of Service dictate how much time a truck driver can spend behind the wheel. Undoubtedly, many of these dangerous U-turn accidents coincide with drivers who don't have enough hours of service left to go an hour out of their way and not go over their hours of service. Going over a truck driver's allotted hours of service and carry fines for the driver ranging between $1,000 and $11,000 as well penalties that can ultimately lead to other sanctions, including the loss of their livelihood. In some situations, this presents a real dilemma for truck drivers. Do they go over their hours of service in the interest of safety, or do they save time to get off the clock, by making a risky maneuver?

A U-turn ban doesn't solve this dilemma. To be fair, neither would regulations requiring better illumination of trailers when the truck is in reverse. In the latter instance, at least other drivers would be more likely to spot a hazard on the road and have a better chance of avoiding it.

Some may argue that requiring better illumination on trailers would be a costly regulation. I don't deny that there would be a cost to this course of action, but compared to the loss of life, as well as the large sums of money that trucking companies have to pay out in cases like this, over the long-term, better illumination would not only save lives, but money as well.

In Texas, commercial trucks are required to have at least $1 million in insurance. Even if we suppose that a regulation requiring better trailer illumination would cost $100 per trailer, each trailer collision prevented could potentially save trucking companies and their insurers enough money to add better lighting to 10,000 trailers. While there are millions of such trailers in the United States, the dozens of accidents that are avoided could pay for these life-saving upgrades in a matter of years.

Other than living with the status quo and accepting that some people, like John Reyna, are just going to die in accidents where trucks attempt dangerous U-turns, which I won't, the only other solution would be to re-engineer roads with places for trucks to make safer turns at reasonable intervals. While this goal should certainly be a consideration in any new road construction, the sheer size of our country with its vast, empty spaces makes it far more expensive to have truck turnarounds every few miles than to require that trailers be better illuminated.

Owning a truck accident injury law firm means that I have seen this fact pattern in numerous other instances. While the ensuing crashes, deaths, and gruesome injuries that result from trucks making U-turns and blocking roadways are not always the truck driver's fault, the maneuver is always risky. While it is a perfectly natural impulse see a dangerous behavior and attempt to pass a law against it, the fact remains that laws aren't magic. Bad laws often result from trying to stop a behavior instead of ameliorating its worst consequences. However, unless we're comfortable with more people being killed like Mr. Reyna, or seriously injured like Mr. Greenwood, a solution must be found.