A Georgia truck driver was killed recently in South Carolina, and a school bus driver injured, when the 18-wheeler jackknifed. The truck driver was thrown from the truck and killed, and the vehicle caught fire. Thankfully, no children were on the school bus at the time of the crash and no other motorists were injured in the fray. Truck crashes often create complicated accident scenes. A truck accident lawyer must be able to devote significant time and resources to investigate a personal injury or wrongful death claim that may arise from the scene.

“The crash dynamics that cause the crash are different because of the different set up and size of the commercial truck,” says Chris Glover, who is Managing Attorney of Beasley Allen’s Atlanta office. “The mass alone makes it a much different collision to investigate. Yet, it isn’t that aspect that I find to be the most challenging aspect of handling these cases. It is the fact that there is almost always another underlying reason that goes back days, months or years as to why the tractor trailer driver lost control.”

Truck driver safety

The U.S. Department of Transportation’s (USDOT) Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) provides regulations for the safe operation of commercial vehicles. Federal rules and regulations include drivers, vehicles, hazmat situations, companies and regulatory guidance. Companies and drivers must comply with rules governing such areas as fatigued driving (Hours of Service), vehicle maintenance, cargo, driver fitness, substance abuse and many other areas.

Section 2 of the Commercial Driver’s License (CDL) Manual, titled “Driving Safely,” also provides truck drivers with information about laws and regulations governing commercial vehicle safety, as well as tips for safe operation. The section covers topics including inspections, distracted driving, how to deal with road rage or aggressive drivers, and operating the vehicle safely under a variety of road conditions such as winter weather, excessive heat, fog and other conditions that might affect visibility, as well as safely navigating steep hills and mountains.

What is an 18-wheeler jackknife?

While a commercial driver can prepare in advance for many scenarios, they also must be ready to react to the unexpected. Tire or brake failure or going into a skid may turn a mundane haul into a life-or-death situation in the blink of an eye.

When a tractor-trailer goes into a skid, the driver runs the risk of experiencing a jackknife, where the heavy trailer pushes the towing vehicle sideways. This almost always results in a loss of control by the driver, and may cause a collision with other vehicles, an 18-wheeler rollover, or the ejection or other serious injury to the driver.

The CDL Manual notes that truck drivers may put themselves at greater risk of a jackknife accident by failing to respond or responding poorly while operating their truck. An 18-wheeler weighs on average 80,000 pounds, or 40 tons. In contrast, a typical automobile weighs about 5,000 pounds. Once a driver loses control, it can be very difficult to recover. A vehicle is at risk of tires losing their grip on the road and going into a skid when the driver reacts by:

  • Over-braking
  • Over-steering
  • Over-acceleration
  • Driving too fast

The skid also may result from hazardous road conditions, usually acceleration on ice or snow, or a similarly slippery roadway. Once the vehicle is in a skid, a driver must know what to do immediately to avoid catastrophe. The wrong reaction can make the situation worse, to the point the driver cannot recover control.

Truck accident statistics

The FMCSA publishes a report called Large Truck and Bus Crash Facts, which is available on the agency’s website. The report provides information about commercial vehicle trends, crashes, vehicles and people involved in truck accidents. The most recently available report, for 2018, notes that after a long downward trend in injuries and deaths involving large trucks and buses, there has been an uptick in the numbers in recent years. The report notes:

  • There was a 34% decrease in the number of fatal crashes involving large trucks or buses between 2005 and 2009, followed by an increase of 45% between 2009 and 2018. From 2017 to 2018, the number of fatal crashes involving large trucks or buses increased by 1%.
  • The number of injury crashes involving large trucks or buses decreased steadily from 102,000 in 2002 to 60,000 in 2009 (a decline of 41%). From 2009 to 2015, injury crashes increased 62% to 97,000 (based on GES data). From 2016 to 2018, according to NHTSA’s CRSS data, large truck and bus injury crashes increased 8% (from 112,000 in 2016 to 121,000 in 2018).

For jackknife crashes specifically, an FMCSA report released in May 2019, which analyzes data from 2017, indicated there were 4,657 fatal jackknife crashes, 107,000 jackknife crashes resulting in injury, and 363,000 that resulted in property damage.

“Many times, I see that jackknife collision cases were the result of poor decisions by the driver,” Glover said. “A driver acting against his training or with no training on how to respond to a roadway hazard is a big one. Another is fatigue or other causes of the driver being inattentive to his circumstances. Trucks should never jackknife when a professional driver is doing what he should.”

Truck accident investigation

Investigating a tractor-trailer crash and building a case requires an extensive amount of work that needs to take place as soon as possible following the wreck, including:

  • Sending spoliation letters;
  • Interviewing witnesses;
  • Visiting the scene and mapping it with an accident reconstruction expert;
  • Finding nearby security camera footage if available;
  • Inspecting the vehicles involved;
  • Preserving “Black Box” data from the engine control modules and airbag control modules;
  • Meeting with investigating officers and obtaining the police report of the incident;
  • Obtaining all pertinent records from the trucking company such as driver logs, driver history, medical certification, toxicology testing, maintenance records, etc.; and
  • Determining if there were any product defects or mechanical issues that contributed to the wreck.

Additionally, it is imperative to identify all potentially responsible parties, which can sometimes include the employer, owner of the tractor or trailer, leasing companies, brokers, manufacturer, and maintenance company.

Truck accident litigation

Truck accidents are complicated scenes often involving a number of factors. When investigating a claim related to an 18-wheeler or other heavy truck accident, it is imperative to have knowledge of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations, technology, business practices, insurance coverages, and to have the ability to discover written and electronic records. Expert testimony is of utmost importance. Accidents involving semi-trucks and passenger vehicles often result in serious injuries and wrongful death. Trucking companies and their insurance companies almost always quickly send accident investigators to the scene of a truck accident to begin working to limit their liability in these situations. Our lawyers, staff and in-house accident investigators immediately begin the important task of documenting and preserving the evidence.

Truck accident lawyers in Beasley Allen’s Montgomery and Atlanta offices have experience in handling these types of claims. For more information, contact Chris Glover, Rob Register, or Mike Crow. They would be happy to provide more information or work with you on a claim.

Sources: WLTX.com, CDL Manual, FMCSA

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