A chain reaction crash involving four big rig tractor trailers on I-285 near Camp Creek Parkway in south Fulton County, GA, killed a woman in a passenger car on June 19, 2018.
According to the Georgia State Patrol, A tractor-trailer was traveling northbound when it struck three other big rigs and the rear of a car, pushing the car underneath another tractor-trailer.
In addition to the one fatality, five others were taken to Grady Memorial Hospital. It took several hours to clear the debris.
As with most fatal traffic crashes on Georgia highways, the Georgia State Patrol Specialized Collision Reconstruction Team (SCRT) is undertaking a painstaking reconstruction of the chain reaction collision. While news reports have not identified the cause of the fatal truck crash, experience in handling many tractor trailer accident cases over the years suggests likely factors, all of which are related to failure of safety management in trucking companies. Truck driver fatigue and distraction are common factors.
Safety management by trucking companies
Most often when commercial truck drivers crash due to fatigue, the root cause analysis leads back to corporate management issues as the motor carrier had a duty under the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations to require observance by their drivers of safety rules. Trucking companies are required to manage safety so as to require their drivers to follow the rules. The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations at 49 C.F.R. §390.11 provides: “Whenever . . . a duty is prescribed for a driver or a prohibition is imposed upon the driver, it shall be the duty of the motor carrier to require observance of such duty or prohibition.” In addition, “No person shall aid, abet, encourage, or require a motor carrier or its employees to violate the rules of this chapter.” 49 C.F.R. §390.13.
Speed too fast for conditions is almost always a factor when a tractor trailer crashes into a line of vehicles slowed by traffic conditions or in a construction zone. Excessive speed is involved in 58% of crashes and attributable to the large truck in 65% of those. I suspect that is underestimated because the data comes from police reports. The SCRT unit will gather data from electronic control module and possibly other electronic data sources in the tractor trailers and possibly other vehicle to show the speed, braking and deceleration in each vehicle.
One of the most important and most frequently violated safety rules for truck drivers, as to which motor carriers have a duty to enforce among their drivers, is one related to impaired driving. “No driver shall operate a commercial motor vehicle, and a motor carrier shall not require or permit a driver to operate a commercial motor vehicle, while the driver’s ability or alertness is so impaired, or so likely to become impaired, through fatigue, illness, or any other cause, as to make it unsafe for him/her to begin or continue to operate the commercial motor vehicle. . . .” 49 C.F.R. §392.3.
News reports are silent on possible fatigue factors in this crash, but among those we see most often are violation of work hours rules and untreated sleep apnea.
News reports are silent on whether fatigue related was have been a factor in this crash, but it is something we look into when appropriate.
Truck drivers work long, hard hours, and some tend to drive too long and sleep too little, with tragic outcomes. Trucking safety rules include “hours of service limits.” Truck drivers required to log their time driving, on duty but not driving, off duty and in the sleeper berth. The current limits are 11 hours driving out of 14 hours on duty, followed by at least 10 hours off duty, up to 60 hours in a week or 70 hours in an 8 day period on the road. But they can under certain circumstances restart the clock and get behind the wheel. That provision can allow a truck driver to legally drive at 80,000 semi rig up to 81 hours per week.
As many as one-third of truck drivers admit to falsifying their hours of service logs, often under pressure from employers and shippers to get the job done quickly, to meet financial incentives, or simply to make more money. Electronic logging systems now automate that process, but the systems are subject to being hacked in order to squeeze in more hours than are legal.
In a big rig semi truck crash we are handling in the Savannah area, we have a video of the truck driver admitting to an officer, “I must have went to sleep.”
While there is no blood test to determine when fatigue contributes to the cause of a crash, we often can dig through layers of of trip records to prove violation of the work hours rules. In once case we deconstructed trip records in the deposition of an Ohio truck driver until he admitted that he had been driving 20 of the previous 24 hours, had driven from Ohio to Atlanta, back to Ohio, and after a one hour nap started driving back to Atlanta. He ran over a family and killed their son.
When physical characteristics of at-fault big rig truck drivers suggest the likelihood of obstructive sleep apnea that if untreated can contribute to dangerous driver fatigue, we explore whether the trucking company failed to monitor that as part of safety management. The US Department of Transportation Medical Review Board has recommended that individuals with a Body Mass Index (BMI) over 40 “should be referred for diagnostic sleep evaluations.”
The National Transportation Safety Board has reported, “Drivers with sleep apnea are seven times more likely to be involved in an automobile accident than those without sleep apnea” Drivers with undiagnosed obstructive sleep apnea who are not receiving proper treatment are prone to making critical mistakes or even fall asleep while driving due to their fatigue.”
The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration has warned truck drivers that, “Untreated sleep apnea can make it difficult for you to stay awake, focus your eyes, and react quickly while driving. In general, studies show that people with untreated sleep apnea have an increased risk of being involved in a fatigue-related motor vehicle crash.”
In one fatal big rig crash we have handled, our review of the driver qualification file in the company’s records shoed that the truck driver was “morbidly obese” with a BMI of 41.5, putting him severely at risk of obstructive sleep apnea. The company had not done anything to get evaluation or treatment for sleep apnea. After crashing into a line of stopped traffic stopped at a red light, he admitted that he was impaired by fatigue only four and one-half hours after reporting for work.
There is nothing in news reports to indicate whether the big rig truck driver in this crash was distracted, but that is a common factor we investigate in major truck crashes. Cell phones, texting, fiddling with GPS units, food and beverages are among the common causes of driver distraction leading to crashes.
When fitting, we fight discovery battles with trucking companies’ insurers over production and forensic download of data from smart phones that law enforcement typically does not attempt to access. A cell phone download may reveal voice and text connections and use of other communications apps such as Facetime, Facebook Messenger, etc.
In addition, GPS data from the cell phone may be compared with electronic data from the truck regarding locations, speed and activity of the truck, and patterns and practices that may cast light upon the root cause of the crash. Cell phone data may reveal the truck driver’s off-duty activities contributing to dangerous fatigue on the job. For example, a driver was working a second job in his off hours which would have contributed to accumulated fatigue, chronic sleep deprivation, and irregular work and rest cycles which could likely lead to the inevitable result of a catastrophic truck crash.
Direct solicitation of accident victims
Victims in such big rig semi truck crashes should be aware that any lawyer who directly solicits them is violating both a State Bar ethics rule punishable by disbarment and a Georgia criminal law.
Ken Shigley‘s “singular focus has been filing lawsuits for people hit by trucks.” Atlanta Journal-Constitution, May 7, 2018. He is a past president of the State Bar of Georgia, past chair of the State Bar’s Tort & Insurance Practice Section, past chair of the Georgia Insurance Law Institute, past chair of the American Association for Justice Motor Vehicle Collision, Highway & Premises Liability Section, and a member of the board of governors of the Academy of Truck Accident Attorneys. He is lead author of Georgia Law of Torts: Trial Preparation & Practice (Thomson Reuters West, 2010-2018). His law practice is focused on catastrophic injury and wrongful death including those arising from commercial trucking accidents and those involving brain, neck, back, spinal cord, amputation and burn injuries. Work on all these types of cases requires expertise in insurance law.