Collisions and single-vehicle accidents involving big trucks represent a real and constant danger for Kentuckians. Every year, Kentucky roads see thousands of accidents involving big trucks that result in injuries and fatalities. This year alone, through mid-October 2019, there have been over 2,300 reported collisions in Kentucky involving semi-trucks. Accidents involving that single truck-type have already resulted in 20 fatalities and over 350 injuries, according to Kentucky State Police data.
What causes these catastrophic semi-truck accidents? And what can drivers on Kentucky roads—truckers and passenger car drivers alike—do to help prevent them? In this blog, we explore the answers to those questions, in hopes of educating the public and protecting our community from tragedy. If you or a loved one has been involved in a accident with a truck and would like to know more about your legal rights, contact a truck accident lawyer today.
What Counts as a Truck?
Not to sound simplistic, but to have a discussion about the causes of truck accidents, it’s important to say clearly what we mean by truck. The official definition of a truck used by Kentucky authorities who investigate and analyze accident data is “a vehicle with a registered weight of 10,000 pounds or more.” That definition captures a wide range of vehicles. It includes, for example:
- Tractor trailers (also known as semis, 18-wheelers, or big rigs);
- Box trucks (such as rental trucks and delivery trucks);
- Construction and heavy industrial vehicles (such as dump trucks and cement mixers);
- Garbage trucks;
- Specialty trucks, such as tankers and car-carriers;
- Some emergency vehicles; and
- Oversize load vehicles.
In this blog post, when we talk about trucks, we mean this entire category.
Kentucky Truck Accident Causes
The Commonwealth collects and reports comprehensive data about the factors that contribute to motor vehicle accidents on our highways and byways. Helpfully, that data includes detailed crash information about the causes of truck accidents. We review the most common of those reasons below. For each, we identify the percentage of accidents reported as having had that reason as a contributing factor, according to the official data for 2018 (the most recent year available).
1. Driver Inattention (35 percent of All Collisions/37 percent of Fatal Collisions)
The single most common cause of truck-involved collisions on Kentucky roads in 2018, according to the official data, was driver inattention. That one word, inattention, refers to a wide range of behaviors, however. Let’s break it down.
In a collision between a big truck and a passenger vehicle, there are two drivers. The data show the collision could result from the inattention of either of them or both of them. What causes inattention on the part of truckers and/or drivers who share the road with big trucks? The two most significant factors are:
- Fatigue. For truckers, in particular, inattention results all-too-often from feeling tired or drowsy behind the wheel. Driving a big truck requires constant focus on road conditions and other, mostly smaller vehicles that constantly flow into, out of, and around a big truck’s blind spots. It is tiring work in the best of circumstances. But truckers, particularly long-haul drivers of big rigs, regularly work while fatigued. Their jobs make it difficult to get consistent, predictable sleep. They have relatively poor health and nutrition. They are an aging population. All of these factors contribute to truckers feeling fatigued and, in turn, to them losing their ability to focus on the task of driving on the highway safely. Believe it or not, fatigue has the same effects on a driver’s motor and cognitive abilities as driving drunk.
- Screens and other in-vehicle distractions. By now, we are all aware of how dangerous it can be to text and drive. But typing out a message on a screen while behind the wheel isn’t the only way to drive distracted. Any action that takes a person’s hands off the wheel, eyes off the road, or mind off the task of driving, constitutes a dangerous distraction that can lead to a truck accident. That includes tuning a radio, turning to talk with a passenger, or programming a GPS. Distraction affects truckers and passenger vehicle drivers alike, causing them to drift from their lanes, fail to stop and slow down for hazards, and ignore warnings and traffic signals.
2. Misjudging Clearance (17.5 percent of All Collisions/2 percent of Fatal Collisions)
Surprisingly, truckers incorrectly thinking their vehicle would fit under a bridge or highway overpass was the second-most-common contributor to truck accidents as a whole in Kentucky in 2018. Though these accidents rarely cause fatalities, they have the potential to inflict severe injuries and damage to critical infrastructure, as this news story about an overheight accident illustrates. Debris left on the roadway from these accidents can also lead to dangerous secondary collisions.
3. Vehicle Not Under Proper Control (14 percent of All Collisions/29 percent of Fatal Collisions)
The second-most-common cause of fatal truck-involved collisions in Kentucky in 2018 was driver failure to keep a vehicle under proper control. Somewhat similar to driver inattention, a failure to keep a vehicle under proper control encompasses a wide variety of driving behaviors and scenarios by both truckers and ordinary passenger car drivers. In fact, you could argue that that inattention, itself, is a form of lack of control. Some other examples of lack of control include:
- Speeding/unable to stop. Driving too fast for any given road situation makes it difficult, if not impossible, for drivers to stop their vehicles when safety requires them to do so. Virtually all drivers speed from time-to-time in the sense of exceeding the speed limit by a few miles per hour. But driving in a manner that makes it likely you will not be able to stop if you need to represents a dangerous lack of control. Truckers, in particular, must pay close attention to their speed in relation to road conditions and road features. A big truck driving too fast for a highway exit ramp, for example, risks rolling over. A big truck driving too fast in heavy traffic risks not having enough stopping distance to avoid a rear end if traffic suddenly slows (it also bears noting that Kentucky includes following too close and too fast for conditions as additional categories of causes of truck accidents, even though they are arguably sub-categories of not under proper control).
- Jackknifing. A tractor-trailer that jackknifes is more-or-less the dictionary definition of a semi-truck completely out of its driver’s control. In a jackknife, the tractor part of the semi-truck swings perpendicular to the trailer. The truck continues its forward motion without the driver being able to steer or adjust speed, coming to rest only when it strikes other vehicles or roadside objects, or when (miraculously) friction with the road surface slows it to a stop. In the best case, a jackknifed tractor-trailer causes substantial traffic tie-ups. In the worst, it results in catastrophic injuries, fatalities, and widespread property damage.
- Operating under the influence of drugs or alcohol. Another prime example of a driver lacking proper control of a motor vehicle is whenever the use of drugs or alcohol impairs the driver’s physical and mental abilities. Drunk driving is a persistent problem among drivers of passenger vehicles. When it comes to long-haul truckers, in contrast, accidents involving their use of alcohol are relatively rare. It is more common for truckers to operate their vehicles under the influence of drugs. Truckers have been known to use illegal stimulants to keep themselves alert on long stretches. And because of their statistically poor state of health, truckers commonly take medicine that may impair their driving abilities.
4. Failure to Yield the Right of Way (8.6 percent of All Collisions/8.5 percent of Fatal Collisions)
Whenever two or more vehicles share the same stretch of road, there is potential tension over which of those vehicles has the right of way. The tension can grow particularly acute when cars and big trucks encounter each other. As a general safety matter, the needs of smaller vehicles should trump those of larger vehicles, because they are more vulnerable in an accident. In practice, it is unfortunately common for drivers of big trucks to violate that rule. Here are some factors contributing to truck accidents involving a failure to yield the right of way.
- Blind spots. All vehicles have blind spots, but on big trucks they are very large. Larger, in fact, than most people realize. According to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, the typical tractor trailer has substantial blind spots on all four sides. They extend 20 feet in front of the truck cab, 30 feet behind the trailer, one lane-width on the driver’s side of the truck, and two lane-widths on the passenger side. Mirrors help truckers minimize the size of their blind spots, but they do not eliminate them. The rule is: if you cannot see the trucker in his mirrors, then he cannot see you. What happens when a trucker does not see a vehicle in his blind spot? The danger is that he will change lanes or turn into the path of that vehicle, resulting in an accident.
- Merging. Traffic merging from an on-ramp onto a highway must yield until it is safe to enter a travel lane. Big trucks can pose problems at these merge points, both when traveling in the flow of traffic, and when they are supposed to be yielding. Big trucks are heavy. They need running room to get up to speed. A big truck entering a busy highway from an on-ramp may need to merge because it will otherwise run out of room in the merge lane. A big truck already traveling at speed may struggle to move over to allow merging traffic to enter. These situations can result in big trucks running smaller vehicles off the road.
- Downhills. If you have ever traveled the Cut-in-the-Hill stretch of I-75 in Northern Kentucky, you have driven one of the most dangerous stretches of road in the United States. When I-75 first opened, the Cut quickly earned the nickname Death Hill because of how difficult it was for big trucks, in particular, to navigate its sharp grade and curves. The road has been improved, but the Cut remains a deadly corridor. Why? In part because big trucks traveling downhill have difficulty maintaining a safe speed. If their brakes or transmissions fail, they may have no choice but to change lanes abruptly to avoid rear end crash with slower vehicles in their lane. But that risks cutting off other vehicles who have the right of way. Always beware of big trucks traveling downhill and give them the berth they may need to change lanes quickly if they lose the ability to control their speed.
How Kentucky Truck Accidents Compare to the Nation
Nationwide, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration’s numbers differ slightly from Kentucky’s.
With the exception of brake problems and roadway problems, most of the top ten causes listed by the FMCSA relate to some type of driver error:
- Brake problems:(29 percent of accidents)
- Traveling too fast for conditions: (23 percent)
- Unfamiliar with roadway: (22 percent)
- Roadway problems: (20 percent)
- Over-the-counter drug use:(17 percent)
- Inadequate surveillance: (14 percent)
- Fatigue: (13 percent)
- Driver felt under work pressure from carrier: (10 percent)
- Inattention: (9 percent)
(Note: these percentages do not add up to 100 percent because this study allowed for more than one factor to be identified as contributing to an accident.)
Tips for Preventing Truck Accidents
We can all, trucker and ordinary driver alike, do our part to prevent big truck accidents on Kentucky roads by taking some simple precautionary measures along with regular truck maintenance. To that end, here are three potentially life-saving tips:
- Drive well-rested. Yes, we all live hectic, busy lives. It can feel difficult to find time to rest. But remember, taking to the road without proper sleep is functionally no different than drunk driving. Some of the most horrific head-on accidents on Kentucky roads every year happen when drivers, particularly truckers, doze off behind the wheel. In just five seconds of that sort of micro-sleep, a vehicle traveling highway speeds will cover more than the distance of a football field. If that vehicle leaves its lane, tragedy will almost surely follow.
- Drive at a safe speed, no matter the speed limit. The speed limit is a general recommendation based on an ideal set of road conditions. Like any one-size-fits-all rule, it does not address specific driving situations. Never assume that what the speed limit says is safe generally is actually safe right now. Adjust your speed to assure the safety of yourself, your passengers, and the other drivers around you, according to the weather, time of day, road surface, the condition of your car, and even your own state of physical and mental health.
- Big trucks need room. No matter what kind of vehicle you drive, you should always keep in mind that the largest vehicles on the road—big trucks—have the largest blind spots, need the largest distance and time to stop, and can cause the largest accidents. As a passenger car driver, give big trucks the room they need to operate safely. As a trucker, pay constant attention to the smaller vehicles around you to make sure you have enough room to keep them, and yourself, safe.
Flora Templeton Stuart
If you have questions about your rights after a truck accident, an experienced Kentucky truck accident attorney can help you understand your options. Contact Flora Templeton Stuart today to get the compensation you need.