Some Commercial Drivers Still Hit the Road Despite Being Unfit to Drive.

By Michael GrossmanJanuary 09, 2018Reading Time: 5 minutes

Some think of the law as a "gotcha" instrument that deals justice indiscriminately, punishing many who don't truly deserve it and ruining lives in the process. On the contrary, it's entirely capable of recognizing different circumstances--for instance, it deals with genuine accidents differently than it does foreseeable events, and treats each accordingly. The law acknowledges that injuries can be caused by those surprised by unpredictable situations, like medical emergencies.

There are legal safeguards for such cases; without them, an honest trucker who suffers a seizure at the wheel for the first time ever might be treated the same as a hedonist who has a heart attack from a lifetime of turduckens and filterless cigarettes. However, those safeguards become problematic when parties who are genuinely liable try and hide behind them alongside the people they're truly meant to protect.

The trick is determining which is which, and not letting frauds stand in the way of helping those who deserve it. Separating the two often requires thorough investigation when an accident occurs; an example of this principle is a recent bus crash in Utah.

What Happened?

On New Year's Eve, a Greyhound bus left the highway blacktop and fell into a deep wash, which is a dry stream bed at the bottom of a ravine.

According to authorities the bus was westbound on Interstate 70, en route from Denver to Las Vegas. To the west of the rural town of Green River, near the scenic Devil's Canyon view area, the bus left the shoulder of the highway around 11 p.m. and traveled around 200 more feet before crashing into the wash.

14 people including the driver were aboard the Greyhound when the incident occurred. The driver and two passengers had to be airlifted from the scene due to the severity of their injuries; they were flown to hospitals in Utah and Colorado for treatment.

13-year-old Summer Pinzon from Azusa, California was killed in the crash; her mother and nine other passengers were taken by ambulance to nearby hospitals for injuries varying in severity, described as neck and back injuries but also some broken bones and a fractured skull.

Investigators from the Utah Highway Patrol and Greyhound are still unclear about the cause of the crash. A UHP trooper said that the roads were clear and weather conditions fair for travel on New Year's Eve, so neither is believed to have been a factor. Troopers say there was a camera aboard the bus, and they are trying to obtain its video for clues about what may have caused the bus to leave the road.

According to the statement released by the UHP, one passenger indicated that the bus driver may have had a "medical issue" that could have influenced his driving. The report did not specify what kind of issue it might be.

What Caused the Accident?

It seems like this accident has a layer or two of mystery attached to it. The earliest investigations seem to say external factors weren't obviously at play, but they can't necessarily be ruled out right away--for instance, "phantom cars" can strike anywhere at any time, if we believe commercial transport defense attorneys. The bus might have been cut off, forcing the driver to swerve; it can't be child's play to rapidly course-correct seven tons of vehicle moving at interstate speeds.

Based on the available information, though, it seems like the driver's unconfirmed medical episode (only suggested by a single passenger so far) is high on the list of possible causes. As such, it needs further investigation as soon as possible. It will be crucial information if the driver is found to have some kind of life-impacting condition: Physiological or neurological problems that could make commercial driving unsafe. Depending on what turns up, the question would then be this: Could the driver's employer have foreseen that he might suffer a medical emergency of some sort?

The law mandates that commercial drivers must meet certain minimum health requirements in order to perform their work. "Commercial driver" as a term tends to have associations with big-rig truckers, but it also applies to other jobs, including bus drivers. To comply with federal requirements, they must undergo physical (though not psychological) checkups. These involve a fairly standard battery of tests, from blood pressure checks to drug screenings, and most employers require them annually.

If the Utah incident is deemed a genuinely spontaneous event--the bus driver didn't have known health issues and the checkups didn't reveal any red flags--then it's possible Greyhound won't have any legal liability in this case. Even if the tests had some concerning results, though, the driver might have been on the road anyway.

Unfit Drivers Still Hit the Road All the Time.

Our firm has dealt with hundreds of cases in which commercial-driving firms failed to keep their unhealthy employees off the asphalt. I don't think this lack of oversight is malicious so much as it is desperate; the firms want--need--to keep their fleet on the road at all costs, and to do that they need more drivers than they might have with tighter rules. If they must relax their hiring standards or even occasionally turn a blind eye to medical problems, then so be it. Business can't be slowed for something as petty as federal regulations, after all.

Leaving aside that the industry's medical tests and their administrators have problems of their own, one of the biggest myths associated with the tests is that commercial drivers absolutely must pass them to remain on the road. In some circumstances they are allowed to continue driving provisionally as long as they receive treatment for whatever made them fail their exam. In other words, they didn't meet the Department of Transportation's (more accurately the FMCSA's) minimum health standards, but they are permitted to keep working as they try to reach those standards.

I don't have to be a safety zealot to think it's weird to say "You can keep driving while you work on being fit to drive." Unless or until someone meets the requirements of a job, especially a potentially dangerous one, they simply shouldn't do it. Because trucking firms have a tough time finding drivers, though, they take advantage of those "fake it 'til you make it" exceptions and put unhealthy people on the road. If that sounds like their decision gambles with the lives of their passengers and other motorists on the road, that's because it does.

So in circumstances like this we must ask: "Were there warning signs that any reasonable employer should have known about?" Did Greyhound know the driver could fall unconscious? Could they at least have suspected it was possible? If it's determined that the driver's episode could have been foreseen, plaintiffs might have a cause of action in the form of negligent hiring or supervision.

Here's the Takeaway.

Thanks to the news reports we know that something terrible happened in rural Utah. We know a bus crash hurt several people and tragically cut short the life of a teenage girl. What we don't yet know is what really happened, and as such it's far too early to definitively say what or whom is to blame.

Just because news sources allege that a medical emergency may have caused an accident--a crash, a fall, or another harmful situation--that's really only the beginning of the story, not the end. We can't know the context of that emergency from a news article based on preliminary investigations. What makes the law even-handed rather than an instrument of indiscriminate punishment is that it's capable of considering nuance before absolving or punishing someone. Further investigation will conclusively determine whether Greyhound put an unfit driver on the road, or if the driver was genuinely surprised by an unknown condition on New Year's Eve.