Do Trucking Companies Need Safer Delivery Rules In Residential Neighborhoods?

Michael GrossmanJanuary 11, 2017 6 minutes

Commercial trucks are serious business. Freight needs to get all over the country, and every year over $9 trillion in freight is hauled to and fro by trucks. We can talk all day about some glimmering future of electronic drones making deliveries (thanks for the raised expectations, Amazon), but our infrastructure right now depends largely on these diesel behemoths to get people what they need. They provide a valuable service, and truckers work hard for long hours to make their deliveries on time and keep the economy's lifeblood flowing.

Despite the importance of the industry to our country, as well as the number of injuries resulting from large trucks moving even larger amounts of freight around, scant attention is paid by the media at large to the many issues that surround commercial truck safety.

One such area that could use improvement is trucking firms' policies about appropriate road navigation. It's already a problem when someone in a regular car "creatively interprets" the rules of the road, making inappropriate U-turns or recklessly changing lanes. If we multiply the weight of that passenger vehicle by roughly 20 and its length by 3, we can probably also multiply the damages caused in a wreck with it by a similar factor. An 18-wheeler is a whole lot of vehicle to pilot, and reports come in almost every day about misuse of all that metal. There may not always be specific rules governing the behaviors that cause injuries, but where those rules are absent, some should be written.

For the sake of clarity, we're not suggesting that government should step in and micro-manage the trucking industry, but that as a matter of prudence, trucking companies should have very clear policies of their own concerning safe vehicle operation when their trucks are making deliveries in residential neighborhoods. We firmly believe that this is a matter than can be addressed best by those who own and operate trucks every day.

You Can't Back a 50-Foot Truck Into Just Anywhere.

What brought all of this to mind is what happened over the weekend in a residential neighborhood in San Antonio. According to news sources, 49-year-old Ines Arnoldo Sanchez died after crashing his Ford F-150 pickup into a stalled 18-wheeler. The reports allege that the big rig was reversing its trailer into a driveway near West Kirk Place and Southwest 21st Street on the city's Southwest Side when it stalled, placing the bulk of the truck across all the lanes of the road. Witnesses stated they saw Sanchez run into the side of the trailer, apparently without applying his brakes. No charges have been filed against the unnamed truck driver.

Given the presented facts of the situation, we suspect the driver was trying to make a delivery to a local business in the neighborhood. Rather than pull to the side of the road and set up a safety perimeter while the freight was unloaded, though, it appears he decided to angle the truck so he could back it into the home-based business' driveway.

Officers say that the driver of the 18-wheeler took measures to alert other motorists to the presence of the vehicle by directing traffic with a flashlight. This is an important safety measure for commercial drivers, especially in situations where the truck is blocking more or less the entire road. In those circumstances, it would likely behoove a driver to take further precautions to make absolutely certain his presence cannot be overlooked--otherwise, as is demonstrated here, a flashlight may not be enough. Furthermore, the driver could only have been on one side of the truck or the other waving his flashlight, leaving the other side exposed and without forewarning. The addition of flares or reflective cones on both sides as further indicators of the truck's presence would likely not have gone amiss. I don't mean to discount the driver's attempts entirely, only to suggest that additional effort might have been prudent.

Of greater concern than the driver's expended effort in raising awareness of the disabled truck is his attempt to arrange the vehicle so he could back into a residential driveway. That's almost 50 feet of vehicle creating what amounts to a wall across both lanes of the street. To further this dangerous proposition, the truck then broke down while reversing. There are separate questions there about vehicle maintenance, but the more immediate problem is why the driver thought this made sense given his surroundings.

This is an aerial view of the area where the collision occurred, courtesy of Google Maps. Again, I don't want to blast this specific trucker, but what about this street made him hopeful that he could orchestrate a back-in delivery here? That's a move best reserved for large-scale shipments to warehouses or facilities with specialized delivery bays, with a wide surrounding area in which to turn fully around. Even when a semi-truck has all the space it needs, it has the turn radius of a drunk freight train. It's a known problem, to the point where virtually every big rig has a big warning sign about it. It doesn't appear from the map view that there's any place particularly well-suited to accommodating a tractor-trailer's turn radius.

With that said, it looks from images taken at the scene like he at least managed to finagle the truck into perpendicularity with the road before it broke down. I suppose it makes a perverse kind of sense that the truck wouldn't stall until it completely blocked the lanes. Try as we might, though, we can't pin liability to the mischievous nature of the universe.

The Industry Needs Stronger Internal Regulations about Lane-Blocking Behavior.

Would better internal policies have prevented the death of Inez Arnoldo Sanchez? We'll never know, but it certainly seems wise to take action to prevent future giant, dangerous obstructions across residential roads.

It may not specifically be illegal to make use of the roadway to make wide turns--one can't safely outlaw that without crippling freight hauling--but it's hard to contend that it's safe. Had the trucker pulled to the side of the road, it might have presented more trouble with unloading, but it would have removed the truck from traffic, making it significantly less likely to precipitate a crash. When we weigh "inconvenient" or "time-consuming" methods against "possibly fatal" ones, the scales are not even close.

It's unlikely that a coherent law could really be passed to prohibit this behavior on the macro level; no legislator would try to tackle "how trucks turn or back up." Moreover, I'm not the sort of person to demand more hand-holding policy from the government as a general rule. The best bet is probably private regulations from the firms themselves that dictate which methods are permissible for certain kinds of deliveries. In residential streets, for example, making use of the whole thoroughfare to turn and reverse the truck should be prohibited at every level of business. It's a good maneuver when there is space, and of course some facilities do require the truck to be backed up to a delivery bay, but if at any point that maneuver prohibits all use of a road, it's probably not the right venue to try it. Saturday's incident shows a drastic example of what can happen when it goes wrong.

Solving this problem might not even require specific policies to be entered in the books. Looking at Saturday's example, it could probably have been handled with a different logistical approach. Unless that trailer was packed to the rafters with freight, a smaller truck might well have been able to accomplish the same goal with less inherent risk. If there was too much for a single smaller truck, send several at staggered intervals to give the first one time to unload and take off. Even if that method occupies more trucks and drivers, consider those elements versus the cost of settling a lawsuit when the larger truck becomes an immobile obstacle across a public road. If it all still seems like too much hassle, at least institute some guidelines.

Some companies have already issued strong company rules about another issue that leads to many accidents, in which 18-wheeler drivers attempt to make U-turns in their unwieldy trucks. The logistics firms Werner Enterprises and Schneider National, each of them major players in freight shipping, already have policies whereby drivers caught making dangerous U-turns on the clock are immediately terminated. If that seems draconian, that should suggest how seriously the matter is taken. Neither firm is willing to risk the inherent costs and bad press of a lawsuit because a driver tried to take a shortcut, and it seems like the industry in general should follow suit.

We're not trying to reinvent 18 wheels, here. We're just suggesting that firms and drivers keep in mind the scale of the vehicles they're sending out on the road. A lot of accidents can be prevented if recklessness can be kept to a minimum, which includes not "winging" driving or delivery methods. Tailor the approach to the area, and create protocols to follow. 40 tons of improvisation blocking a roadway can have tragic consequences, as I'm sure the families of those who have been killed or injured by trailers blocking roadways would agree.