Articles Posted in Truck driver distraction

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As a trucking safety trial lawyer, based in Atlanta, Georgia,representing people in personal injury and wrongful death cases, I am scheduled to speak on truck driver distraction issues to the Interstate Trucking Litigation Group at Vancouver, British Columbia, in July.

I was therefore quite interested in a recent report of a truck accident on the New York Thruway near Pembroke, New York, when a young mother of two sons was killed on Christmas Eve. She was a teacher of special needs children and had sons ages 3 and 1. According to a Buffalo News report, she had just dropped off her older son at a relative’s house in Rochester (where my daughter attends RIT), and was on her way to finish her Christmas shopping.

New York State Police are investigating whether the truck driver was using his laptop computer when he crashed into the young mom’s car, which was disabled after striking a deer. Other vehicles had swerved around her but the trucker did not.

Electronic distractions are a huge issue in traffic safety, particularly in trucking. Cell phones, text messaging, and the various electronic devices for communication with trucking dispatchers, are increasingly subjects of study.
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As a trucking accident trial attorney in Atlanta, Georgia, I often litigate about trucking accidents. As a seminar speakers, I often talk about them at continuing legal education seminars around the country. On this blog, I frequently write about them.

But last Sunday, I saw one.

While helping my son move his car and his stuff home from California, I was taking a turn driving east of Albuquerque when we saw a column of black smoke just ahead. As traffic ground to a halt, we saw that about 200 yards ahead on the westbound lanes of I-40, one tractor trailer had rear-ended another, and was beginning to burn.

Another bystander said that her husband had broken out a window in the cab of the striking vehicle and pulled the unconscious driver out before his rig burst into flames.

As traffic was blocked in both directions, my son and I waited over an hour, watching as the truck was engulfed in flames and a huge column of black smoke rose into the clear New Mexico sky.

Numerous emergency vehicles responded. Eventually a helicopter landed in our eastbound lanes and evacuated the truck driver.

While we waited, I talked with the drivers of trucks stopped behind us. A bulk freight tanker filled with plastic pellets was stopped behind me at an angle blocking both lanes. One of the other truckers thanked him for blocking both lanes that way, so that others would not get closer to the fire before stopping. He responded that he had no choice. Due in part to handling characteristics with that load, he had a hard time stopping without hitting us, and wound up at an angle across both lanes.

The truck drivers waiting on the road talked some about the new CSA 2010 (Comprehensive Safety Analysis) program coming online soon at the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration. A seasoned truck driver (about my age) was concerned that anyone who has been driving over the road for 30 years, with the diet and exercise difficulties that go with that, is bound to have medical conditions that require medication that would be reported under the new system.

They also talked a little about how they manage rest, diet and exercise. Or don’t manage it, as the case may be. One mentioned the near monopoly in the truck stop business, and the lack of healthy food or exercise facilities at truck stops. If the giant players in the truck stop industry would put in healthy food and fitness facilities, it would help a lot in improving truck driver health and public safety.

Eventually the helicopter took off and we were able to drive away. As we passed the burned out tractor trailer, it was difficult to recognize the completely incinerated tractor. Traffic was backed up for many miles on the westbound lanes of I-40 and probably was not cleared for quite a while longer.

No, I don’t know the causes of the crash — fatigue, distraction, speed, following too closely, or even sudden stopping in the middle of an open interstate through the desert.

Fortunately, it was another tractor trailer that was hit. While the trailer of the lead vehicle was destroyed, there was no direct impact to the cab. If a small vehicle had been hit in that manner, and then involved in the truck fire, it is unlikely any occupants would have survived.
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A prominent highway safety organization, Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, has petitioned the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration to evaluate risks posed by drivers of commercial vehicles using electronic devices and to then issue regulations to limit such distractions.

Electronic distractions that cause concern include cell phones, text messaging, CB radios, email, on-board computers and navigation devices.

Recent studies have shown that driving while talking on a cell phone — even hands free — increases accident risk equivalent to driving with 0.08 blood alcohol, the threshold for DUI, and that texting while driving increases accident risk 23 times.
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No matter how often it happens, the useless tragedy is never less shocking.

About 4 AM last Friday on I-65 in Indiana, a family of five was killed when a tractor trailer rear-ended their vehicle which had slowed for traffic

Several years ago, something similar happened to a family in our neighborhood in Sandy Springs. The parents survived but their lovely teenage daughter, who had been a friend of my daughter since kindergarten, was killed instantly when a tractor trailer ran right over them as they slowed for congested traffic on I-20 in Alabama. After seeing so many incidents of this sort, I automatically hit the hazard flasher button whenever traffic slows ahead of me on the expressway.

The predawn hours are an all too common time for this sort of crash. Driver fatigue and efforts to keep driving despite sleepiness are often a factor.

Investigation of such incidents should include tracking down and examining all driver logs, trip receipts, Prepass records, weigh station records, bills of lading, etc., etc., to determine whether there were violations of hours of service rules in the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations. It should also include investigation of the driver’s medical history, including any disqualifying medical conditions and use of prescription or non-prescription medications that may affect alertness.
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A Florida truck driver admitted that he was on his cell phone yesterday when he slammed into a school bus, killing a 13-year-old student. According to reports, the school bus, which had stopped to let children off , had its warning lights on and stop signs out. The truck failed to stop for it and rammed the school bus forward 294 feet.

See our recent posts on cell phone distractions and the absence of seat belts on busses.
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As a “seasoned” Georgia trial lawyer, I’ve seen considerable evolution of thinking about safety issues. When I was a young Assistant District Attorney, we occasionally prosecuted DUI cases but still treated them lightly, still laughing at bad jokes about drunks. Then our consciousness was raised by news stories about carnage caused by drunk drivers. Judges, prosecutors and legislators rightly began to take drunk driving more seriously. The term “designated driver” was not in the vocabulary when I was in college, but it is assumed as a necessity in my kids’ generation.

When cell phones and then text messaging came along, a lot of folks just figured they could drive as safely talking on a cell phone as talking to a passenger. A couple of years ago we began to see reports of studies showing that driving while talking on a cell phone was as dangerous as driving drunk and that text messaging while driving is an even bigger distraction.

Now we learn that the train wreck in the LA area that killed 25 and injured 130 occurred when the train engineer missed a signal light while text messaging with teenage train enthusiasts. This may be the consciousness raising event that leads to changes in laws and enforcement practices comparable to what we saw a quarter century ago about driving while intoxicated.

Current state laws about cell phone use and text messaging while driving include:
* Handheld cell phones: California, Connecticut, New Jersey, New York and Washington, the District of Columbia and the Virgin Islands have banned driving while talking on handheld cell phones.
* Text Messaging: Alaska, Louisiana, Minnesota, New Jersey and Washington have a text messaging ban for all drivers.
* Novice Drivers: 17 states and the District of Columbia restrict all cell phone use by novice drivers.
* School Bus Drivers: In 16 states and the District of Columbia, school bus drivers are prohibited from all cell phone use when passengers are present, except for in emergencies.
* Other rules: Some cities, such as Phoenix and Detroit, have cell phone laws, but nine states have preemption laws that prohibit local jurisdictions from enacting restrictions. Utah and New Hampshire treat cell phone use as a larger distracted driving issue.

In the wake of the LA commuter train tragedy, my hunch is that legislators in states around the country will pass more laws requiring use of hands free devices when talking on cell phones while driving and banning text messaging while driving. Most any call phone user who does not now have a Bluetooth or other hands-free device in the car will do so within the next couple of years.

In auto and truck accident litigation, we have already become even more diligent and aggressive about discovery of cell phone and text messaging records. With heightened sophistication about electronic discovery, this will be an increasingly significant factor in lawsuits.

There are at least three potential uses of cell and text evidence:

1. The defendant’s cell phone and text usage while driving may be considered “conscious indifference to consequences” sufficient to support an award of punitive damages, similar to drunk driving.

2. The plaintiff’s cell phone usage at the time of the incident may be used as comparative negligence evidence to reduce or eliminate a damages award.

3. If the evidence reveals that a defendant driver was communicating with an employer, or to a customer on the employer’s business, then the employer and its insurance policy may be drawn into the case.
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The inside of a truck cab offers more electronics and gadgets than ever before. A trucker can monitor how his truck and engine are performing, GPS mapping to stay on the right route, email communications with his dispatcher, cell phone conversations with family, and perhaps a reckless few play a movie or surf the web while driving.

A recent study of driver distraction by Volvo concludes:

It is positive that the number of safety and information systems in modern vehicles is increasing. Taken individually, they offer many benefits as regards traffic safety and productivity, for instance, but the driver does risk being over-burdened by too much information. Especially bearing in mind that many drivers also have their mobile phones and perhaps also a GPS navigator in the vehicle. In order not to jeopardise traffic safety, we have developed solutions that allow all the systems to interact smoothly,

If you are driving 60 mph and take your eyes off the road for three seconds, you will drive the equivalent length of a football field without knowing what’s going on around you. Therefore, it is perhaps not surprising that a major 2006 study, sponsored by National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and Virginia Tech, found that nearly 80% of crashes, and 65% of near-crashes, involved some form of driver inattention, such as cell phone use and drowsiness, within three seconds before the event.

The reports a study last year found high numbers of drivers who were distracted by talking on cell phones, sending text messages, reading the newspaper and even shaving while driving. A followup study cites the availability of technology was mentioned by 35% as the reason distracted driving is so common, and 48% considered cell phones and other technology use to be the most dangerous distraction. Nearly half of teens and Gen Y drivers blamed having to stay connected socially as a reason why they drive while distracted. For boomers, the pressure was more work-related.

When I started out as a young prosecutor, public awareness of the problem of drinking while driving was nowhere near what it is now. It was too often a matter of jokes rather than revulsion.

It appears that public awareness of the dangers of cell phone use and texting while driving is now about where awareness of drinking and driving was in the late seventies.
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