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DrIver Fatigue in Truck Accidents in Massachusetts

Driver fatigue has historically been – and remains – a major cause of serious truck accidents in Massachusetts.

Truck driving is well-noted for being a tough and unforgiving profession, with demanding long hours spent on tedious drives operating 80,000-pound machines on dull, lonely roads. Add to this the fact that most truckers are under intense pressure to deliver their hauls within strict time limits – or risk a sizable chunk of their paycheck – many truckers push themselves as long as they can without hitting the breaks and taking a rest. But as a truck driver who is less-than-alert will quickly learn, lack of rest significantly reduces reaction time when seconds count.

The National Transportation Safety Board estimates truck driver fatigue contributes to as many as 4 in 10 large truck accidents. Updated federal hours of service regulations, and more recently, electronic logging devices, are supposed to help with this, but fatigued driving will be an issue as long as we place machine-like expectations on humans who aren’t infallible.

If you are injured in a Massachusetts truck accident caused by a truck driver who either fell asleep or whose reaction time was suspect, contact The Law Offices of Jeffrey S. Glassman for a full assessment of your possible claim. There is often a strong chance that lack of rest impaired the truck driver to the point he/she could not have safely operated their rig – which enhances both the odds the carrier will have to pay damages as well as the amount of damages they’ll be compelled to pay.

How Does Drowsiness Impact Driving?

Not getting enough sleep has a similar impact on the human brain as certain intoxicants like alcohol. Even if a truck driver doesn’t fall asleep, the mere fact of being fatigued results in:

  • Slowed reaction time;
  • Shorter attention span;
  • Impacted executive thinking skills.

Some traffic safety experts consider it an even bigger problem than drunk driving because at least with the latter:

  • Motorists are well-informed of the risks;
  • Laws regarding drunk driving are clear-cut;
  • Detecting a person’s level of fatigue is a lot tougher than determining their blood-alcohol level.

The reality is, driving tired is incredibly risky. Conservative estimates from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration are that on average, fatigued motorists cause 83,000 crashes, resulting in some 890 deaths and 37,000 injuries. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention notes the actual number could be a whole lot higher – as much as 6,000 deadly collisions a year (the wide disparity is thanks to the trouble we have identifying sleepy drivers).

When the drowsy person is behind the wheel of a tractor-trailer, those risks are most often burdened by those who share the road.

Despite all this, truck drivers are among those at highest risk for fatigued driving.

Which Truck Drivers are at Highest Risk

Truck drivers tend to work more overnight shifts (when the body is pre-programmed to sleep) and often get fewer than 6 hours each night.

Factors that weigh into how much sleep a truck driver regularly gets, according to recent analysis by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, include:

  • The regularity of their schedule;
  • The types and lengths of routes they drive;
  • What sort of duties for which they’re responsible day-to-day;
  • How they’re paid.

Drivers for smaller carriers generally travel longer distances on monotonous-but-unfamiliar highways, have fewer opportunities for regular rest in their own beds (at night) and will be more likely to have extended wait times loading-and-unloading as well as actual responsibility for loading/unloading.

Truckers who have responsibilities in addition to driving may find it helps break up the monotony of the road, but then there are the long wait times, physically-demanding labor and pressures of an economy that wants everything yesterday. Smaller carrier drivers may also have less control over their own schedules, and thus don’t always feel at liberty to pay attention to those bodily cues telling them they need to rest.

As far as compensation, the way a truck driver is paid can come into direct conflict with Hours of Service regulations. Some truck companies have tiered compensation for drivers, paying more to workers the safer, more skilled they are. Other companies pay by the mile or hour or number of trips, which can push workers not only to skimp on rest breaks (if they can get away with it) but also loading/unloading work, the latter leading to its own set of hazards.

Federal Hours of Service Regulations

Evidence that a truck driver violated federal Hours of Service rules (limits on truck driver work and drivetime) can prove to be powerful evidence in a truck accident case. The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration makes rest breaks non-negotiable for truck drivers. The most a truck driver can drive is 11 hours straight – and that is only after taking a mandatory 10 hours off.

Some truckers try to break it up a bit to avoid the 11-hour straight rule, but no driver is permitted to continue after they hit 14 ours on-duty. Commercial drivers are also barred from traveling in excess of 60 hours in a single week or 70 hours in an eight-day stretch. The law requires truck drivers to maintain logbooks – and carriers are supposed to ensure they do this too. Trucking companies can often tell if a logbook has been fudged based on the timing and number of loads delivered. If discrepancies are noted and the carrier does nothing, the company may be found liable for negligent supervision – even if they didn’t direct the driver to bend the Hours of Service rules. That’s why the logbook historically has been such a substantial piece of evidence in these cases.

By regulation, logbook data must be retained for at least six months (another reason to contact a lawyer as soon as possible after a truck crash), though it has been suggested that destruction of driver logs can give rise to a presumption of evidence spoliation, i.e., that the evidence destroyed would have reflected favorably on the plaintiff.

Record retention is now easier than ever since ELDs have become the norm. As Boston truck accident attorneys can explain, electronic records now leave little doubt about violations of federal Hours of Service rules and employers or carriers turning a blind eye to it. As noted in the 1987 Massachusetts appellate case of Thurston v. Ballou, violations of federal statutes can be used as evidence of negligence. However, the violation alone doesn’t mean a plaintiff is automatically going to win their case. Strict compliance to federal service hour restrictions won’t necessarily kill your case either because it’s not a guarantee the driver wasn’t fatigued (or otherwise impaired) or that there was no negligence.

For example, logbook data won’t tell us whether the driver suffered a condition like sleep apnea that left a driver more prone to fatigue. This is the type of condition for which trucking companies have a duty to screen because of its risk of impairing driver alertness. Failure of a carrier to screen for or act on this can be a violation of 49 CFR § 392.3.

Examining employer/carrier/lessor liability is imperative because while most truck drivers are insured, the catastrophic injuries and wrongful death caused by fatigued truck drivers often means even those limits are insufficient. That’s why your injury lawyer may consider aggressive pursuit of the truck driver’s employer – for the best chance of recovering full and fair damages for truck accident victims. Trucking firms tend to carry higher-limit commercial auto insurance, which is another reason it’s worth exploring after a serious crash.

Employers of fatigued truckers can be found liable without proof of negligence under the doctrine of respondeat superior, wherein an employer is inherently responsible for the negligent actions of an employee trucker even if the employer wasn’t directly negligent. Discussing your legal options with an experienced lawyer as soon as possible after the crash is in your best interest.

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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