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Driver Distraction in Truck Accidents in Massachusetts

Distracted drivers are more than a nuisance – they are lethal. This is especially true when the driver in question is tasked with operation of a 40-ton mass of solid metal, rubber and glass. Truck driver distraction – which can mean anything that siphons attention from activities inherent for safely driving a truck – substantially increases the risk of a collision.

Boston truck accident attorneys at The Law Offices of Jeffrey S. Glassman know those who pay the highest price for a trucker’s distraction are those not inside the truck – other motorists, passengers, bicyclists, pedestrians and motorcyclists.

How Common – and Dangerous – is Truck Driver Distraction? Truck driver distraction is associated with all three most common causal events noted by the FMCSA.

  • Running out of one’s travel lane (either into another lane or off the road entirely). This accounts for 32 percent of large truck collisions.
  • Loss of control of truck. This can be attributed to traveling at an excess speed too fast for conditions, failure of vehicle systems, adverse road conditions or “other reasons.” This is cited as causal in 29 percent of all truck crashes.
  • Rear-end collisions with other vehicles ahead of the truck in the same travel lane. This accounts for 22 percent of all large truck crashes.

Each of these can often be traced back to the fundamental consequences of driver distraction, which are:

  • Loss of physical control. When one’s hand is on the phone – dialing or otherwise – it can result in a loss of critical physical control imperative at a moment’s notice.
  • Loss of visual control. On average, a person texting will peel their eyes from the road for about 4.6 seconds. If a vehicle is traveling 55 mph, that amounts to driving more than the length of a football field – blind.
  • Loss of mental ability. Even if one has both hands on the wheel and is physically looking at the road ahead, the reaction time of a person whose mind is wandering elsewhere may be impaired.

The risks of being involved in a truck accident or near-truck accident by deviating from one’s lane are 23 times higher for truckers who text while driving.

A study conducted by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) just before the widespread proliferation of smartphones found that 71 percent of large truck accidents happened when the rig operator was “doing something other than driving the truck”.

Distracted driving in general has increased exponentially since then. Drivers are allowing their attention to be diverted not just with spoken or written exchanges with another person, but with video, photographs and instant messaging with dozens if not hundreds of others in real-time on smartphone social media apps.

The Massachusetts Commercial Vehicle Driver Distraction Demonstration Project (funded by the FMCSA) indicated that while there had been an overall decline in commercial crashes in Massachusetts over the study period, there was an increase in both:

  • Truck accidents involving at least one distracted driver;
  • Truck accidents in which authorities cited truck driver distraction as the cause of the crash.

Distractions for truckers are much the same as they are for other types of motorists. They can include dialing a cell phone, texting, eating or adjusting the radio. They can also include things like using various trucking dispatch devices. In some cases, they involve a driver’s attention being grabbed by something ahead of them, such as a billboard or a person walking. A 2018 gas tanker truck accident in Massachusetts was reportedly caused by a driver distracted when he spilled coffee on himself.

Inattention in some form was specifically cited in 25 percent of all large truck crashes, though the actual percentage that involved a distracted trucker is likely much higher. The problem is that unlike alcohol or drugs, distraction is often not traceable in the same way.

If you suspect the trucker involved in a crash was distracted at the time of the accident, your Boston personal injury lawyers will need to piece it all together using some combination of:

  • Witness statements;
  • Circumstantial evidence;
  • Electronic records from the driver’s cell phone company;
  • Records from the trucks’ electronic data recorder (EDR).

In many cases, your truck accident attorney will rely on assistance from truck accident reconstruction experts to help present a cohesive case to the court.

Commercial Driver Distraction Laws

All motor vehicles have the power to maim and kill when operated by drivers who aren’t attending to the most critical tasks. Like everything else about large trucks, the risk of operator distraction is outsized. This is underscored by the fact that laws written expressly for commercial drivers are more stringent than most state statutes on driver distraction.

Let’s Start With State-Level Restrictions

Massachusetts enacted its Safe Driving Law (banning use of handheld electronic devices to send, type or read messages while operating a vehicle) in 2010. Despite this, traffic safety officials report the total number of distracted driving crashes increased 170 percent between 2014 and 2016.

Federal restrictions outlined in the Code of Federal Regulations for commercial drivers are much tighter. These include:

  • 49 CFR 392.80Prohibition against texting. No commercial driver is allowed to engage in texting while driving and no motor carrier is to allow or require drivers to engage in texting while they are driving. Driving means not just while the vehicle is moving, but also while it is running and stationary, either because of traffic, a traffic control device or just because of a momentary delay.
  • 49 CFR 392.82Prohibition against use of hand-held mobile phones. No commercial driver is to talk on a handheld phone and no motor carrier is to allow or require it while the operator is driving.

Tuckers are permitted to use hands-free communication devices, provided they can be either voice-activated or dialed using no more than a single button. Beyond that, the only exception to these two provisions is in the event of an emergency where it’s necessary to communicate with law enforcement or other emergency service crews. Violations of federal prohibitions on mobile phone use carry civil penalties of up to $2,750 for the driver (plus disqualification for multiple offenses) and up to $11,000 for commercial motor carriers. These are separate from damages that are paid to individuals injured or killed by distracted truck drivers.

Types of Distracted Driving Truck Accident Lawsuits

At The Law Offices of Jeffrey S. Glassman know most often, distracted driving cases come to the courts by way of either a criminal case or the persons injured in a truck accident lawsuit pursuing claims against the distracted driver and/or the motor carrier involved.

In either case, there may be multiple defendants, as there often are in any truck accident, where the motor carrier, shipper/supplier and others may be named also. But even these aren’t necessarily the only claims. Examples of other distracted driving claims made in truck accident injury cases:

  • Product liability. Although rarely successful, these cases are filed by victims of distracted driving against companies, such as manufacturers of cell phones or GPS devices they allege to be unreasonably dangerous and responsible for the distraction that caused the accident.
  • Third-party liability. Individuals who call/text individuals they know to be behind the wheel at the time have been sued for playing a contributory role. This kind of liability claim is most successful when the third-party is an employer and there was an expectation the employee would be available at all times – including while driving. As noted by one human resources industry guide, companies that lack a company cell phone use policy for employees might be at higher risk.

If you are injured in a truck accident in Massachusetts, it’s important to seek legal counsel as soon as possible. Even if local police or some other government agency investigates a truck accident, sometimes your own expert accident reconstruction investigation is necessary to measure, take pictures, estimate other vehicle paths and speeds, and ultimately determine what happened and who was responsible.

At the very least, in no case should you sign a truck accident settlement agreement before carefully reviewing your legal options with an attorney.

Contact the Law Offices of Jeffrey S. Glassman today for a free and confidential consultation.

Call (617) 367-2900 – NO FEE UNLESS SUCCESSFUL

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