It is universal knowledge that driving while under the influence of drugs or alcohol is extremely dangerous. Public service announcements and awareness campaigns have successfully shined the spotlight on the dangers associated with texting while driving and other forms of driving distractions. However, what many people don’t realize is that, depending on the extent, fatigued driving can be just as dangerous as these more notorious hazards. When a big rig truck is thrown into the mix the dangers amplify exponentially due to their large size and road footprint.
HOW PERVASIVE IS THE PROBLEM?
Estimates indicate that the total percentage of big rig trucks on the road at a given time is about 4%, a relatively small figure. Yet, they are involved in about 11% of all crashes involving at least one or more fatality. A typical 18-wheeler may weigh about 60,000–80,000 pounds, whereas a car or truck will typically weigh about 2,000–4,000 pounds and a large SUV may weigh about 6,000 pounds. Thus, even comparing a large passenger vehicle to a relatively small eighteen wheeler, the difference in scale is tenfold. Given this huge size disparity it is easy to understand why a crash with an 18-wheeler is all too often a deadly occurrence.
The numbers are just as troubling when looking at the role driver fatigue plays in those accidents. It is estimated that roughly 30–40% of all crashes involving big rig trucks are due in part to driver fatigue. Additionally, driver fatigue was cited as the main cause of about 13% of all 18-wheeler related fatalities. Stepping back from the numbers, it isn’t uncommon for people to have personal anecdotal stories involving collisions or near collisions with drowsy truck drivers. Even the truck drivers themselves often report, especially in an unofficial capacity, harrowing accounts of sleepy driving, and routinely mention pushing themselves to deliver their load despite long hours and exhaustion.
WHY DOES THE PROBLEM EXIST?
The reasons why truck drivers are so frequently fatigued while operating their trucks are diverse and often vary from driver to driver. However, the most commonly cited reason is due to the nature of the industry itself. In many cases a driver’s compensation is directly proportionate to how quickly he or she can deliver the load. This inherently creates financial incentives for drivers to keep driving, even when fatigued.
Another major reason for driver fatigue within the trucking industry is that the trucking companies are likely to schedule the drivers with very long hours across inconsistent, irregular schedules. Hours of Service (HOS) regulations set limits on how many consecutive hours a truck driver can drive. They are also regulated on overall total driving hours within a week, required break frequency, and minimum number of hours off. However, despite these regulations the driving schedules themselves are still very demanding and there is often pressure, implicit or explicit, placed on the driver to push themselves to the limit, or even exceed it in some cases.
Even when regulations are followed, the quality of breaks, downtime, and sleeping for drivers is often very poor. Most people find it difficult to “sleep on demand,” especially when keeping erratic hours. Many drivers often find themselves in noisy, dangerous, or simply unfamiliar settings during their downtime, making it difficult to sleep and sleep well. Personal commitments, health problems, monotonous routes, bad driving conditions, and a host of other factors also contribute to the likelihood of driver fatigue.
HOW TO IDENTIFY THE SIGNS
So what can you do to protect yourself from becoming another fatigue-related, big rig crash statistic? There are steps you can take to reduce and mitigate the risk as much as possible:
Drive Defensively Don’t tailgate an 18-wheeler or abruptly cut into their lane of traffic. If one wants to pass you, let them.
Watch for Erratic Driving If the big rig is swerving a lot, or frequently accelerating or slowing down, these could all be signs that the driver is drowsy or even nodding off for brief intervals.
Be Vigilant for Hazards One of the major dangers of fatigued driving is reduced reaction times. Thus if you are vigilant for road hazards such as lane closures, debris in the road, etc., and react early, it allows any drivers behind you to also have more reaction time.
Obey Traffic Regulations Traffic regulations exist to protect drivers; obeying speed limits and traffic signs put you in a safer position to handle unexpected dangers.
Consider Timing Try to avoid driving at peak traffic times, during night hours, and in bad weather. All of these factors can exacerbate driver fatigue and lead to a more dangerous trip in general.
If you or a loved one has been involved in a collision with a big rig truck and suspect that driver fatigue played a role it is important to understand your legal rights. Document your situation carefully, keep all records, and consult with an attorney trained in accident litigation. An accident cannot be undone, but justice can be served.