How Truck Accidents Differ From Standard Motor Vehicle Collisions

If you’ve seen one you know what a trucking accident involves. Due to the size of commercial vehicles and, oftentimes, how fast they are moving at the time of the incident, trucking accidents tend to be spectacular, expensive, and frequently fatal. It’s often a matter of physics and force; when something so big moves with a great amount of speed and then hits an object barely moving or going slowly, bad things happen destructively.

There is no similar comparison between a personal vehicle accident and one involving a commercial truck. It’s like trying to compare an accident with a wheel barrow with that involving an entire school bus. However, those defending truck driver mistakes frequently try to blur the lines by arguing that road conditions, weather conditions, and the far greater number of personal vehicles or numerical probability explaining why truck accidents aren’t unique. However, the basic details of how a commercial truck operations punches holes in these assumptions very quickly.

Size Matters

The biggest difference between a commercial truck and a regular car accident has to do with how much impact is involved. A typical commercial semi can carry well over 80,000 lbs of moving weight. The typical personal car isn’t even 5 percent of that mass at an average of 3,000 lbs. No surprise then, cars literally get smacked aside or squashed by an impacting commercial truck, similar to a bear swatting flies or bees.

On today’s modern highways trucking accidents are extremely common. Produced by a large stew of factors ranging from driver’s exhaustion to training to weather conditions, accidents involving 18-wheelers and tractor-trailers almost always produce serious injuries, trauma and fatalities. Statistically, such accents add up to over 4,000 deaths and well over 75,000 injured annually, per federal government figures. In almost every instance the accident has involved multiple vehicles, lots of property damage, and multiple parties. Ironically, commercial trucking accidents are a small bite of the total risk out on the roads and highways, but their involvement accounts for most of the damage suffered. Trucking accidents also occur in ways that are entirely unique to the size and assembly of the commercial truck.

4 Common Causes of Truck Accidents

  • Jackknifing accidents – These incidents involve bad stopping and braking by the driver in most cases. The momentum of the truck is suddenly slowed by extreme braking. The rear wheels carrying the trailer lock up and lose contact with the road. The trailer begins to slide sideways on its own speed, going faster than the rig. Eventually the trailer makes contact and usually takes out two or three lanes of traffic.
  • Fuel line fire accidents – In these cases the fuel line has some kind of a leak, allowing fuel vapors to escape. If that volatile gas makes contact with a batter spark, ignition occurs. Due to the large tank sizes on a typical commercial truck, the explosion potential is very larger and can be very damaging to anyone nearby.
  • Rollover accidents – While vans and pickup trucks can have rollover accidents, commercial trucks are often far more dramatic and dangerous. In these cases the driver has frequently made some kind of operator error or the road conditions were poor and the vehicle was going too fast. The rollovers often occur on turns or S-bends where traffic is going too fast to make quick changes, especially at night.
  • Brake failures – Commercial trucks carry multiple sets of brakes to slow down and control the momentum of the large vehicle design. However, if these are not maintained and checked regularly, the systems can frequently be overwhelmed by the momentum demand of the truck and trailer. Failure is particularly focused on the air brake design. These systems can only handle heat buildup to 600 degrees Fahrenheit, and stopping can produce far higher temperatures. Without proper load balancing, one brake can be overwhelmed and loss of control can then occur.

Federal Laws

Trucking accidents also differ from personal vehicle accidents in the fact that the drivers come into the traffic situation with requirements for specific driving training, higher licensing requirements and a criteria for compliance with more road safety. In this regard commercial trucking accidents are frequently pegged for driving error mistakes and operator mistakes versus general accident conditions. Personal vehicle drivers have their own operating responsibilities, typically tested every few years with the local department of motor vehicles, but these private party requirements are nowhere as comprehensive as a truck driver’s licensing and frequent checking at highway weigh stations or by highway patrol officers.

Finally, national trade agreements have allowed for foreign truck drivers to navigate American roads with training that may not meet the standard required of U.S. truck drivers.

International agreements from the 1990s under the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) allow free transport access without barriers for import movement.

At first this was a major accident problem due to drivers hitting highways with far less basic training than required from a personal car driver. However, over the years some of the looseness in driver training criteria has been tightened, but it is still not to the level of American commercial drivers under their own licensing from state agencies. That then contributes to risk on the roads.

Legal Differences

From a legal perspective trucking accident cases for recovery also frequently take a different tack as well. The facts and details are often more complex. That’s because there can be multiple layers of causes versus a few in the case of a personal vehicle accident. Instead of just two drivers and the decisions they made, the trucking accident can go back months or years before the incident with regards to bad decisions in training, licensing, equipment maintenance, and statements made to regulatory checks. For example, the causes of an accident can easily involve decisions and choices made for expediency or lower operating cost that only contribute to higher risks that ultimately put other drivers at risk on the road. Because truck drivers, their trainers, managers and the companies that employ them are under these obligations, the accountability involved is far higher than that on a personal car driver as well.

Because of the complexity that can come up quickly in trucking accidents, a general vehicle accident lawyer or practicing attorney is not going to have the experience or knowledge to pursue such a case as much as possible. Practical time in court and having worked trucking accident cases specifically is what gives an attorney a huge advantage, knowing where the pitfalls are in such accident claims. The opposite side typically involves a company and major insurance carrier who have no shortage of trained lawyers on their side, so legal skill for plaintiff counsel matters tremendously. As a result, if you or a loved has been involved in a trucking accident, don't just pick up the most available attorney; take the time to consider the right skill-set and knowledge for such cases. It can have a huge influence on the case results and outcome.

Additional Resources

What to Do in the Case of a Truck Accident When You're Not at Fault

6 Steps to Take After a Semi Truck Accident