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Man killed crashing into unmarked tractor trailer on shoulder of Atlanta freeway ramp

Monday morning, an unidentified man died when he drove his Honda into the rear of an unoccupied tractor-trailer truck parked on the shoulder of a southbound ramp on to Interstate 85 in DeKalb County., according to a report by Rhonda Cash of the Atlanta Journal Constitution.

While strange to the uninitiated, this sort of event is common enough that the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations include the following rule:

49 CFR 392.22 Emergency signals; stopped commercial motor vehicles.

(a) Hazard warning signal flashers. Whenever a commercial motor vehicle is stopped upon the traveled portion of a highway or the shoulder of a highway for any cause other than necessary traffic stops, the driver of the stopped commercial motor vehicle shall immediately activate the vehicular hazard warning signal flashers and continue the flashing until the driver places the warning devices required by paragraph (b) of this section. The flashing signals shall be used during the time the warning devices are picked up for storage before movement of the commercial motor vehicle. The flashing lights may be used at other times while a commercial motor vehicle is stopped in addition to, but not in lieu of, the warning devices required by paragraph (b) of this section.

(b) Placement of warning devices–

(b)(1) General rule. Except as provided in paragraph (b)(2) of this section, whenever a commercial motor vehicle is stopped upon the traveled portion or the shoulder of a highway for any cause other than necessary traffic stops, the driver shall, as soon as possible, but in any event within 10 minutes, place the warning devices required by Sec. 393.95 of this subchapter, in the following manner:

(b)(1)(i) One on the traffic side of and 4 paces (approximately 3 meters or 10 feet) from the stopped commercial motor vehicle in the direction of approaching traffic;

(b)(1)(ii) One at 40 paces (approximately 30 meters or 100 feet) from the stopped commercial motor vehicle in the center of the traffic lane or shoulder occupied by the commercial motor vehicle and in the direction of approaching traffic; and
(b)(1)(iii) One at 40 paces (approximately 30 meters or 100 feet) from the stopped commercial motor vehicle in the center of the traffic lane or shoulder occupied by the commercial motor vehicle and in the direction away from approaching traffic.

(b)(2) Special rules–(i) Fusees and liquid-burning flares. The driver of a commercial motor vehicle equipped with only fusees or liquid- burning flares shall place a lighted fusee or liquid-burning flare at each of the locations specified in paragraph (b)(1) of this section. There shall be at least one lighted fusee or liquid-burning flare at each of the prescribed locations, as long as the commercial motor vehicle is stopped. Before the stopped commercial motor vehicle is moved, the driver shall extinguish and remove each fusee or liquid- burning flare.

(b)(2)(ii) Daylight hours. Except as provided in paragraph (b)(2)(iii) of this section, during the period lighted lamps are not required, three bidirectional reflective triangles, or three lighted fusees or liquid- burning flares shall be placed as specified in paragraph (b)(1) of this section within a time of 10 minutes. In the event the driver elects to use only fusees or liquid-burning flares in lieu of bidirectional reflective triangles or red flags, the driver must ensure that at least one fusee or liquid-burning flare remains lighted at each of the prescribed locations as long as the commercial motor vehicle is stopped or parked.

(b)(2)(iii) Business or residential districts. The placement of warning devices is not required within the business or residential district of a municipality, except during the time lighted lamps are required and when street or highway lighting is insufficient to make a commercial motor vehicle clearly discernible at a distance of 500 feet to persons on the highway.

(b)(2)(iv) Hills, curves, and obstructions. If a commercial motor vehicle is stopped within 500 feet of a curve, crest of a hill, or other obstruction to view, the driver shall place the warning signal required by paragraph (b)(1) of this section in the direction of the obstruction to view a distance of 100 feet to 500 feet from the stopped commercial motor vehicle so as to afford ample warning to other users of the highway.

(b)(2)(v) Divided or one-way roads. If a commercial motor vehicle is stopped upon the traveled portion or the shoulder of a divided or one-way highway, the driver shall place the warning devices required by paragraph (b)(1) of this section, one warning device at a distance of 200 feet and one warning device at a distance of 100 feet in a direction toward approaching traffic in the center of the lane or shoulder occupied by the commercial motor vehicle. He/she shall place one warning device at the traffic side of the commercial motor vehicle within 10 feet of the rear of the commercial motor vehicle.

The reason for such a rule is that drivers approaching at the speed limit often do not perceive that a tractor trailer is sitting still until too late to stop, and then impact with an 80,000 vehicle is much like impact with a cement barrier. Moreover, impact with the side or rear of a stopped tractor trailer with typically weak under-ride bars can easily lead to decapitation of occupants of the striking passenger vehicle.

When such incidents get into litigation, the challenge is to prove whether an unmarked tractor trailer or big rig had been sitting on the shoulder more than ten minutes. Often this requires an immediate demand for preservation of electronic data from electronic data recorders and satellite communications systems that many trucking companies employ.

In making such demands, one must anticipate that a trucking company will also demand an opportunity to download data from the electronic control module of the striking vehicle This may require an immediate investment of several thousand dollars in accident reconstruction costs.

One must also anticipate disclosure of cell phone billing records to determine whether the driver was distracted by a cell phone when he collided with the stopped big rig.

If the driver who struck the stopped truck was speeding or distracted, then rules of comparative negligence, contributory negligence and failure to avoid consequences of another’s negligence would reduce or bar tort recovery.

Thus, the starting point for survivors in such a situation may be to immediately check cell phone records and download electronic data from the car, and then make a decision about requesting data from the trucking company.

Ken Shigley is an Atlanta, Georgia, trial attorney. He has been designated a “Super Lawyer” (Atlanta Magazine), one of the “Legal Elite” (Georgia Trend), and rated “AV Preeminent” by Martindale-Hubbell Legal Directory. In addition, he is author of Georgia Law of Torts: Trial Preparation & Practice (West, 2010), a Certified Civil Trial Attorney of the National Board of Trial Advocacy, and currently president-elect of the 42,000 member State Bar of Georgia. He has extensive experience in litigation and trial of cases involving serious personal injury, wrongful death, trucking accidents, automobile accidents, products liability, premises liability, and insurance. Mr. Shigley is a graduate of Furman University and Emory University Law School. This blog post is subject to our ethical disclaimer.