Lawsuits Against Distracted Truck Drivers
This article discusses the safety hazards and legal ramifications that stem from distracted 18-wheeler drivers. Essentially, most truck drivers are very safe and highly-skilled professionals, yet there are some truck drivers who take their eyes off the road to eat, talk on the phone, text, or even watch TV while driving. As you can imagine, this can result in significant damage to innocent people on the road. But while it may seem simple, it is vital that your attorney prove that the truck driver was committing these acts in order for the driver and his trucking company to pay you the compensation you need.
Questions answered on this page:
- What kinds of things distract truckers on the road?
- Who takes responsibility when a trucker causes an accident by being distracted?
- What kind of lawsuit can be filed against a distracted trucker?
- Is a lawyer really necessary?
Types of Distraction
While driving a car is relatively easy for most people with experience behind the wheel, driving a truck for a living is a different story altogether. When you spend up to 11 hours a day rolling down a highway that seems to go on forever, the monotony can lend itself to any distractions. The truck driver must maintain focus at all times, and even the slightest, momentary lapse in concentration, judgment, or execution can lead to disaster. The ways in which a truck driver can become distracted are numerous, including:
- Falling asleep – In the 25 years that our lawyers at Grossman Law Offices have been litigating truck accident cases, we’ve seen countless examples of truck drivers falling asleep at the wheel. There’s a reason why the federal government places limits on how long commercial truck drivers can remain on the road – because it’s far too easy for the driver to get lulled to sleep by the long hours and repetition of the job. All truck drivers must rest 10 consecutive hours for every 11 hours they spend in consecutive driving, and commercial truck drivers are not allowed to drive more than 70 hours in eight days. For every eight hours of driving, the truck driver must take a 30-minute break. Despite these regulations, many independent truck and commercial truck drivers ignore the guidelines in favor of risking exhaustion to drive longer miles, make deliveries more quickly, and increase their earning output. This leads to the occasional truck driver falling asleep at the wheel, and his 18-wheeler careening into other traffic.
- Eating – Another way truck drivers can make quicker deliveries is by eating on the go. A stop at a sit-down restaurant could take as long as an hour, but a fast food chain can be completed in a matter of minutes, with the truck driver back on the road and chowing down. The problem with doing this while driving an 18-wheeler as opposed to a car is that a big-rig is much harder to maneuver, shift, and stop. Even when a car is standard transmission, it only typically has five gears at tops. On the other hand, 18-wheelers are always manually operated with a multi-speed transmission and multi-speed differential. Thus, shifting a big rig compared to a car is roughly akin to riding a 10-speed bicycle as opposed to a one-speed. If the truck driver looks down for a second, then this could lead to a wide variety of problems. First, the truck driver might miss a sudden hazard or change in road direction or condition. Second, he may have problems reacting to the change. Beyond just the need to rest, eating is one of the main reasons truck drivers are required to take 30-minute breaks.
- Using the phone – Twenty five years ago, the big distraction for truck drivers trying to keep themselves company was the CB radio. But those are dinosaurs now, as everyone owns a cell phone. Truck drivers who are spending a week or more on the road can keep in touch with friends or loved ones by talking or texting on the phone while they drive. As we described above, driving a truck takes two hands and not one, so texting and talking while driving is even more dangerous than doing so while driving a passenger car. The danger presented by cell phones has been made very clear by the federal government, as the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration banned texting by truck drivers in January of 2010 and followed by banning the use all cell phones by truck drivers back in November of 2011. Still, as with any law, while most people follow it, some will break it. Texting and talking while trucking is still a major problem on our roads.
- Intoxication – When truck drivers drink and drive, they impair their abilities to see, think, and judge the world around them and to react to what they see. Since an 18-wheeler is so much harder to operate than a passenger car, intoxication is invariably even more hazardous to the operation of a big rig. Still, alcohol is not the only intoxicating problem for truck drivers. In order to stay awake for long hours, some truck drivers turn to stimulants like methamphetamines or even cocaine. While these drugs can keep the driver awake, they can also make him jumpy, encourage him to speed, and take away his ability to drive at his best. Furthermore, when the drugs wear off, the drug-dependent truck driver can suffer severe exhaustion, leading to a far greater likelihood of his falling asleep at the wheel. Still other truck drivers try to pass the monotony of their profession by smoking marijuana. This creates a truck driver who is easily distracted by signs and sites by the side of the road and has trouble keeping his eyes and mind on his task.
- Dealing with problems within the cab – When a truck driver is rolling down the road, rarely will he or she stop the truck to fix a problem within the cab. Say, for instance, that in braking, the truck driver’s backpack flies off the front seat and onto the floor. Most people will just bend down and pick it up. Even that momentary distraction can be dangerous. In one recent case, we represented the mother of a woman who was violently killed by an 18-wheeler because the temperature had dropped and the truck driver leaned over to get his gloves out of his glove compartment, in so doing, causing the truck to swerve onto the shoulder and strike the woman.
- Music and radio – If there are truck drivers who like to drive down the road in silence, we’ve never encountered them. Most truck drivers like to listen to something to keep their minds occupied, whether they turn to music, talk radio, or even books on tape. This means that truck drivers can take their eyes off the road to change a CD, fiddle with the radio dial, or to find a particular tune on their I-Pods or other MP3 player. A truck driver who is listening to a book on tape may just get lost in the story and forget about the task at hand.
- Television – Have you ever looked inside one of the extended cabs some of the truck drivers out there have on their trucks? It’s like a tiny rolling apartment complete with satellite television and a bed. While a truck driver can’t very well climb in bed while he’s driving, he can leave the television on to listen to a ball game or a movie.
- Computers and internet – While you wouldn’t immediately think about computers being a distraction to drivers, they are. Truckers will occasionally bring laptops on the road with them and then email friends or surf the Internet while driving. We recently litigated a case where a truck driver hit one of our clients, and his laptop was not only found powered up when the accident occurred, but his Internet browser was still on displaying content he probably didn’t want anyone else to see.
- Tandem driving and passengers – In order to drive longer distances and haul more goods, some truck drivers work in teams called “tandem drivers.” While one driver rests, the other drives, and the truck can keep moving without having to stop. However, part of the time the person who isn’t driving can remain in the passenger seat and can then say or do something to distract the truck driver. This can also be a problem if the truck driver picks up any passengers and explains why most trucking companies forbid their truckers from picking up hitchhikers or bringing along passengers.
- External stimuli – Of course, a truck driver could be distracted by anything he or she sees along the road, whether it’s a peculiar car with a motorcycle front chassis attached to the backseat of an old Volkswagen bug, a clever billboard, or the pretty young lady in the car that’s passing the truck. No matter what else is going on around the truck, the truck driver needs to keep his or her eyes on the road.
In a lot of cases, looking at the ECM data (black box information) on a semi-truck or 18-wheeler will give you insight into what happened during the accident in question. It’s a bit like looking at someone’s browser history on their computer. For example, ECM data can be used to determine whether the brakes were applied at all before a collision occurred, which can indicate whether the driver was paying attention to the road. Looking at cellphone records can be helpful as well. By looking at the data from nearby cell towers, we can tell when a cellphone last sent out a signal, or a “ping,” to determine whether a trucker was using their phone at the time of the wreck.
There are all kinds of ways to investigate and prove that a trucker was distracted, but the key is that you need proof, otherwise a jury won’t be inclined to believe your word against the truck driver’s.
Holding the Trucking Company Responsible
In the late 2000s, we had a case that involved a distracted trucker. A young man was in a fender bender along a highway here in rural Texas, which caused his car to become disabled in the middle of the road. A semi-truck driver came upon the accident scene, but didn’t brake in time, crashing into the back of the young man’s car and killing him. After the police arrived, the trucker swore that the accident happened right in front of him and that he had no time to brake.
After our team of experts investigated the accident and got ahold of the truck’s internal video surveillance footage (this trucking company was wise enough to have installed it), we found that the trucker was actually hundreds of yards away when the young man’s accident happened. As it turned out, the trucker had plenty of time to stop, but wasn’t looking at the road in front of him. Instead, he was looking at a cellphone video, completely distracted from the task at hand.
Needless to say, we took that evidence and made sure that a jury would see how irresponsible this trucker was that day — and also how irresponsible the trucking company for hiring him in the first place. They ended up settling out of court, and our clients were compensated for the loss of their son. But that’s not an automatic process, we had to prove that the trucker was distracted and that that constituted negligence. Once we established that, we were able to hold the trucker and, by extension, his company liable for the young man’s death, which twisted their arm, legally speaking, into doing the right thing.
A Duty to Be Safe
Trucking companies are expected to hire trained truck drivers who have been instructed on the importance of staying focused on the road and allowing themselves sufficient rest. Moreover, trucking companies are expected to make sure their drivers are adhering to legal travel schedules and to test them randomly to ensure they’re not drinking or driving on the road.
If you were injured in an accident with an 18-wheeler, and you suspect the accident may have been caused to driver distraction, then call Grossman Law Offices today for a free consultation at 1-855-326-0000 (toll free). As with any legal issue, it’s not what you think you know but what you can prove that matters. Acting now is critically important so that a professional investigator can go into action while there is still available evidence to find.
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