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Pickup driver dies in I-20 early morning crash in DeKalb County, striking tractor trailer stalled in traffic lane

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The 30-year-old driver of a pickup truck was killed in predawn darkness at 5:30 AM this morning when his pickup truck he was driving ran into the back of a tractor-trailer that had broken down in the middle of I-20 in DeKalb County, according to news reports. The pickup driver was not identified.

DeKalb police Capt. Stephen Fore told an AJC reporter that the preliminary investigation indicates that the tractor-trailer “experienced problems with the air brakes and came to a stop in one of the travel lanes.

WSB-TV news video shows that the tractor trailer was stopped in a middle lane , not parked in an emergency lane, and without any flares or reflective triangles deployed to warn oncoming drivers.

Media reports do not identify the trucking company. However, news photographs show the name “Triple Crown Services” on the trailer. Based in Fort Wayne, Indiana, Triple Crown Services has reported to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration that it has 740 power units and 699 drivers. It has disclosed $5,000,000 liability insurance coverage with Zurich American Insurance Company.

Triple Crown Services had had notable problems with vehicle maintenance. The Motor Carrier Safety Management System (SMS) reports that Triple Crown has a 78 % bad rating for vehicle maintenance. Anything above 75% is unacceptable. This rating is based on 675 truck inspections in the past 24 months, 320 of which discovered a total of 573 vehicle safety violations. I haven’t gone through all of it, but a quick glance reveals that a lot of their violations involve problems with reflective devices, lights and brakes.

We see crashes with trucks stopped in the roadway too often.

Drivers moving at highway speed cannot be expected to perceive, react and avoid a tractor trailer stopped dead in a traffic lane at night with no warnings when other traffic is moving.
Experts on conspicuity (visibility), human factors and trucking industry standards are often useful in such situations.

Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations are very specific about measures required to prevent this very sort of tragedy from happening. 49 CFR 392.22 requires emergency signals for stopped commercial motor vehicles as follows:

(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)(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 a tractor trailer stalls on a freeway and cannot even make it to the emergency lane on the side of the road, questions immediately arise about vehicle maintenance, truck driver impairment due to fatigue or other factors, hours of service compliance, etc.

The Georgia State Patrol Specialized Reconstruction Team (SCRT) should undertake a complete investigation and reconstruction of this crash. But sometimes I am disappointed to find that they have not done so after fatal collisions.

You can bet that the trucking company and its insurer had a rapid response team on the scene by the time the decedent.

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.
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Ken Shigley is a past president of the 45,000 member State Bar of Georgia and currently Chair-Elect of the American Association for Justice Motor Vehicle Collision, Highway & Premises Liability Section. Author of Georgia Law of Torts: Trial Preparation & Practice, he is a board certified civil trial attorney of the National Board of Trial Advocacy. His statewide law practice is based in Atlanta.