Accidents Caused by Truck Driver Fatigue
Driver fatigue is a leading cause of motor vehicle accidents. When one of the vehicles involved is a tractor-trailer weighing tens of thousands of pounds, the consequences can be devastating.
Dangers of Driver Fatigue
The CDC estimates that up to 6,000 deaths may be caused by drowsy driving every year. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that driver fatigue was responsible for 72,000 crashes and 44,000 injuries in 2013, but these numbers are likely underreported. Falling asleep while driving is obviously incredibly dangerous, but even before a driver actually falls asleep he or she will start to experience a dramatic reduction in driving ability. Being sleepy means you are paying less attention to the road, you are less able to make good decisions, and you are slower to react if a situation occurs where you have to suddenly brake or steer.
Unfortunately, an estimated 1 in 25 adult drivers reported having fallen asleep while driving in the previous 30 days. Driver fatigue is incredibly dangerous to the sleepy driver and those around him or her, but when the sleepy driver is a truck driver hauling several tons worth of cargo, the consequences of an accident can be even direr.
Causes of Driver Fatigue
Driver fatigue is frequently caused by a driver who hasn’t gotten enough sleep. Drivers with untreated sleep disorders are also in danger of falling asleep at the wheel. People who work long shifts or night shifts that interrupt their sleep cycle can be prone to driving while sleepy, as can drivers who are taking medications that cause drowsiness or fatigue. The drivers of commercial vehicles including tractor-trailers, tow trucks, and buses are particularly likely to drive while fatigued.
For truck drivers, fatigue can be the result of insufficient sleep, long hours of work, or physical or mental exertion. The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration found that up to 13% of commercial motor vehicle drivers were fatigued at the time of a crash. The National Sleep Foundation says that being awake for 18 hours is equivalent to having a blood alcohol concentration of 0.08%, the level that defines legal intoxication. An FMCSA study also found that driver alertness levels were more closely related to the time of day than the time spent working. Regardless of the sleep cycle, most people are less alert at night. This effect can be compounded by being on the road for an extended period of time. The first hour after waking up is also particularly dangerous.
For these reasons, truck driving is regulated by federal law. There are limits on the number of hours a driver can work, both in one session and overall. Truck drivers are required to take a break after 11 hours of driving (following 10 hours of rest), and are not required to stop driving until they’ve driven for 14 hours. They are also mandated to not drive more than 60 hours in a week.
Realistically, these rules do not always prevent fatigue-related accidents. For one thing, 11 straight hours of driving is a very long time in general, and drivers may have irregular schedules that mean they don’t sleep properly before a shift. Drivers are also pressured to deliver cargo on time, regardless of possible reasons for delays or unreasonable deadlines.
How to Determine if an Accident was Caused by Fatigue
A vehicle that was seen weaving, speeding, or driving in the wrong lane prior to an accident may be a sign that the driver was fatigued, as can evidence of poor decisions such as cutting other vehicles off.
Truck drivers, due to the federal regulations restricting driving hours, are required to record their hours of service. Receipts from gas stations, toll booths, or hotels can be used to prove how long a driver was driving prior to an accident. Surveillance cameras from stores or gas stations can both timestamp and record behavior.