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This week in north Georgia there was a fatal crash between a tour bus en route to a North Carolina casino and a tractor trailer blocking traffic lanes while waiting to turn left. This happened on Georgia Highway 515 (also known as the Zell Miller Mountain Highway) at the intersection with Whitestone Road in Gilmer County.  The bus driver was killed and 43 passengers suffered a variety of injuries.

The preliminary investigation by the Georgia State Patrol  blamed the truck driver. Troopers reported that the truck driver was making a left turn onto Highway 515 southbound when he paused for traffic, leaving the trailer projecting across and blocking northbound lanes. The northbound bus driver was reportedly unable to avoid crashing into the truck’s trailer. However, first reports are not always conclusive.

This crash highlights issues with both tractor trailer operation and tour bus operation.

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On Scene Doug Stephens DOT (39)Imagine that a commercial airliner crashed every other week in the United States, month after month, year after year. That is the level of carnage we have today in large truck crashes on America’s highways. In 2013, there were 3,964 people killed and an estimated 95,000 people injured in crashes involving large trucks, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. That year an estimated 342,000 large trucks were involved in police-reported traffic crashes during 2013. Of the fatalities in 2013, 71 percent were occupants of other vehicles, 17 percent were occupants of large trucks, and 11 percent were nonoccupants.

In our law practice, we see a portion of this carnage all the time. After years of seeing the aftermath of immeasurable damage to human bodies, and tucking into sealed files the photos I can never show to family members of the deceased, I still cringe at those sights.

Why does this mayhem continue on our highways, year after year? Here are some of the major cause:

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burritoDistracted driving accidents often involve cell phones, texting and other electronic devices. For example, we recently concluded a case in which a truck driver was talking on his cell phone with someone in South America for nearly half an hour before he ran over a line of stopped traffic.

But something as apparently innocuous as eating and drinking is very often a fatal distraction too. We have had several cases in which a truck driver leaned over to pick up a dropped water bottle when he ran over other vehicles, killing or seriously injuring the occupants.

In this recent case in Albequerque, New Mexico, a bus driver was caught on video eating a burrito with both hands when he crashed into another vehicle and caused a chain reaction with other cars.

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pinball different pathWhat do you do when insurance coverage is grossly inadequate for a catastrophic truck crash personal injury or wrongful death case?

Big truck wrecks can cause a lot of carnage. When a small passenger car is run over at highway speed by a 80,000 pound tractor trailer bigger than a Sherman tank, a tremendous amount of kinetic energy is unleashed. The results are often than catastrophic.

Unfortunately, the liability insurance required for big trucks has not been adjusted since President Reagan’s administration. Minimum insurance for general freight tractor trailers in interstate commerce was set at $750,000 in 1981. Minimum coverage for interstate hazmat trucks and passenger buses was set at $5,000,000 in 1985.

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truck.jpgIn Chattooga County, GA, near where I spent my childhood, a log truck jack knifed Friday and struck an oncoming passenger car. Two women in the car were transported to a hospital in Rome. Fortunately, an infant in the car, apparently secured in an infant seat, appeared to be unharmed.

From the news photo and map, it appear that the crash occurred as the log truck was driving into Summerville from the direction of Menlo while the women in the car were going the opposite direction toward Menlo.

I’ve been down that road hundreds of times. I still pass that way several times a year, most recently on Memorial Day weekend going to tend to family graves on Decoration Sunday at Mentone. My father was principal of Menlo School, back when Menlo had both a red light and a high school. I may be the only lawyer in Georgia who knows most of the words to the old Menlo Alma Mater and fight song.

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The minimum insurance requirements for interstate general freight trucking have remained unchanged since 1980 while the purchasing power of that amount of money can continually eroded. Such long delays can produce updates that, when they come, can seem abrupt.

Last week, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) Motor Carrier Safety Advisory Committee (MCSAC) recommended updating the minimums coverage for interstate general freight trucking from $750,000 per collision, which set in 1980. Adjusting this number by the inflation rate for health care costs results in a present day value of $4,422,000.

After lengthy study, on May 20, 2014, the MCSAC voted to recommend the FMCSA begin rule making to change the minimum financial responsibility requirement to $4.422 million, with some phase-in period and with automatic adjustment to the medical CPI every four years. From what I hear, the inflation-adjusted insurance minimums will not likely go into effect until about 2017.

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Sleep deprivation among overworked big rig truck drivers is a well-known safety hazard on the highways. For years there have been political, regulatory and court battles over which driver fatigue and hours-of-service regulations should be implemented.

It is intuitive common sense that sleep deprivation reduces alertness in any job, including one that involves operating an 80,000 pound vehicle across the county on our highways so that dozing off can be a major threat to safety of others. Truck drivers are not different from the rest of us. They just operate bigger machines on the roads.

Now we have a little more science to explain the need for sleep. Researchers at the University of Rochester have found that sleep serves a function of cleaning out toxic waste products produced by cells in the brain that accumulates while we are awake. Those byproducts include beta-amyloid protein, clumps of which form plaques found in the brains of Alzheimer’s patients. Other neurodegenerative disorders, such as Parkinson’s disease or chronic traumatic encephalopathy, are also associated with a backup of too much cell waste in the brain.

Thus, sleep has been called the “ultimate brain washer.”
As we sleep, neurons shrink, widening channels for cerebrospinal fluid to flush out metabolites, cellular waste products, twice as fast. This a network that drains waste from the brain, called the glymphatic system, works by circulating cerebrospinal fluid throughout the brain tissue and flushing waste into the bloodstream, which then carries it to the liver for detoxification and elimination. All of us need sleep to allow this to happen.

When we become chronically sleep derived, gunk builds up in our brains. As most of us have experienced, too little sleep causes slower reactions, worse decision making, mental fog and crankiness. If sleep deprivation persists, it can cause increased risks of migraines, seizures and even death. As the body craves sleep, it will take precedence over our work duties.

In my law practice, I have often discussed fatigue issues with truck drivers. One who stands out in my memory was a trucker from Ohio who reluctantly admitted in deposition that his entire log was falsified to make his trips look good. But the truth was that he had been driving 20 of the previous 24 hours when he hit a family and killed their son. His plan to was to make a quick turnaround in Atlanta and go straight back to Ohio. If he had made it that far, he would have been driving for something like 32 hours out of 40. His employer had no system in place to guard against that. A federal judge stated in an order that the company “turned a blind eye to safety.”

Other interstate truck drivers have told me informally, sometimes over many cups of coffee at a Waffle House or truck stop along the interstate, of being pressured by trucking companies, shipper and brokers to make delivery runs that could not possibly be made without violating hours-of-service rules. Sometimes there are long delays in getting loads, which they are then expected to get across the country by a delivery deadline that is not adjusted to the load time. The entire malfunction of the logistics system is dumped on the weary shoulders of a truck driver who is only human.

That is why in trucking cases we seek the root cause of a crash, which often is in the company’s management system that ignores the body’s need for rest, rather just a tired driver’s actions in the last ten seconds before a crash.

Most of us who have endured long periods of chronic sleep deprivation due to demands of work, parenting or other activities, can relate to the effects of chronic fatigue and sleep deprivation on professional truck drivers. While there is a temptation to take pride in ability to soldier on without adequate sleep, biology ultimately catches up with us all.
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As usual when there are efforts to combat fatigue-related hazards in the trucking industry, there has been a lot of controversy about a change in the hours of service for trucks issued by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration. As a trucking personal injury attorney in Atlanta, over the years I have watched several rounds of the tug of war between safety and profitability on hours of service rules.

The newest regulation states large trucks will have to stick to a schedule that requires taking a 30 minute break in the first eight hours of driving and cut the maximum work week to 70 hours from 82. There also is a rule that those 70 hours must be “restarted” after a 34-hour break once a week.

Personally, I think a 30 minute break during a driving shift makes sense. Whenever I drive long distances, I have to take pit stops, sometimes take a “power nap” before driving on. I have heard truck drivers complain that they are penalized under the current rule and under their companies’ policies if they take a rest break in order to be able to combat fatigue and drive safely costs them both money and criticism. The new rule requires that the trucking companies, brokers, and shippers make more allowance for human physiology.

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Atlantans woke this morning to the news that at 5:30 AM a hit and run tractor trailer caused a chain reaction accident on I-285 southbound in DeKalb County near Ponce de Leon Avenue. It hit a Ford Focus, knocking it into a Toyota Camry. Those drivers got out of their cars, apparently to inspect damage, and were hit by a fourth vehicle. Both were killed.

The tractor trailer left the scene and and last report had not been identified but law enforcement officers had launched a search. I am confident that the Georgia State Patrol SCRT(Specialized Collision Reconstruction Team) team will give this very high priority and do a superb job. The tractor trailer could well be in South Carolina or Florida by now.

The impact on morning rush hour traffic throughout the east side of metro Atlanta was monumental.
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Stability of semitrailer tanker trucks with high and shifting centers of gravity is a significant issue in tanker truck accident cases.

Now the National Transportation Safety Board has recommended for commercial vehicles over 10,000 gross vehicle weight:

– that the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration require retrofitting of stability-control systems on tanker rigs; and
– that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration develop stability control system performance standards for all commercial motor vehicles and buses, and require installation of stability control systems on all newly manufactured commercial vehicles.

These recommendations arise from the NTSB investigation of a fiery crash nine months ago in Indianapolis, in which a propane tanker trunk rolled over due to oversteering on an exit ramp. The tank ruptured, allowing gas to escape and exploded. Drivers of the truck and a passenger vehicle were seriously injured.

In my trucking accident litigation experience, I have found that tanker truck drivers often operate under extreme stress due to the knowledge that their rigs could easily explode in an accident, causing death or serious injury. In litigating one case, I learned that one tanker truck line that delivers gasoline to service stations in Georgia carries “peasant life insurance” payable to the company in the event that one of its drivers is killed in an explosion. That happens about once a year.

I have also found tanker truck drivers who are inadequately trained about the handling characteristics of tanks with a high and shifting center of gravity. This is particularly common in the concrete industry, where companies may hire drivers who just have a commercial driver’s license (CDL) with no training about the speed at which a tanker or concrete mixer truck will roll over in a turn.
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