How Truck Driver Fatigue Can Cause an Accident - Hensley Legal Group, PC

How Truck Driver Fatigue Can Cause an Accident

Trucking plays a central role in American life, supplying the public with essential goods while supporting businesses nationwide.  But with as many as 13.5 million trucks weighing 10,000 pounds or more in regular use throughout the country, truck accidents may be inevitable, and even a “fender bender” with something that massive can inflict devastating, potentially […]

June 19, 2024

Trucking plays a central role in American life, supplying the public with essential goods while supporting businesses nationwide.  But with as many as 13.5 million trucks weighing 10,000 pounds or more in regular use throughout the country, truck accidents may be inevitable, and even a “fender bender” with something that massive can inflict devastating, potentially fatal injuries. 

Every collision is unique, but certain factors are frequently associated with commercial truck and semi-trailer accidents, not least of all fatigue.  Though any driver could become tired, the demands of their trade could make truckers particularly susceptible to drowsiness, and the results could be catastrophic if they succumb to it. 

Join us as we examine how truck driver fatigue can cause an accident and what you can do if you are injured by a fatigued trucker.   

Troubling Statistics About Fatigued Driving 

Fatigued driving is a significant problem in the United States, though the extent of its influence is under debate.  The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that drowsiness brought about approximately 50,000 injuries, 800 deaths, and 91,000 crashes nationally in 2017 – about 1.4 percent of the 6,452,000 crashes reported to the police that year.  In contrast, the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety insists that the toll of driver fatigue is much greater, contributing to about 109,000 injuries, 6,400 deaths, and 328,000 crashes annually – or 5.1 percent of all domestic auto accidents. 

While both of these studies evaluated accidents involving all types of vehicles, a survey that looked exclusively at truck accidents suggests that fatigue may be more prevalent amongst truck drivers.  The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMSCA) determined that 13 percent of the commercial motor vehicle drivers in the incidents reviewed were considered to have been fatigued at the time of their collisions.   

The ramifications of drowsy trucking can be dire, especially for occupants of smaller vehicles struck by trucks, who make up 72 percent of the casualties in two-vehicle truck accidents.  Even truck accident survivors may be forced to cope with debilitating injuries, including: 

  • Concussion and post-concussion syndrome  
  • Memory loss 
  • Paralysis 
  • Herniated discs 
  • Fractures  
  • Lost limbs  
  • Scarring and disfigurement 
  • Lacerated organs 
  • Comas  

And the financial impact of truck accidents can be as profound as the physical impact.  The FMCSA has calculated that the “medically related costs, emergency services costs, property damage costs, lost productivity, and the monetized value of the pain, suffering, and [lost] quality of life” for a truck accident with non-lethal injuries amount to $195,258.00 on average – a price tag that few families could afford to pay. 

How Does Fatigue Affect a Truck Driver? 

Fatigue is linked to tens of thousands of serious motor vehicle accidents each year, and even minimal sleep loss could impair a driver.  One AAA report found that drivers who sleep only six to seven hours per night have double the risk of a sleep-related crash as drivers who sleep eight hours or more, while sleeping less than five hours could quadruple or quintuple the risk of a crash.   

Other research has shown that fatigue could be as detrimental to driving as intoxication, with the degree of impairment worsening the longer a driver goes without sleep.  Being awake for 18 hours could produce the same effects on vigilance, multitasking, hand-eye coordination, and reaction time as a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of 0.05 percent, while 20 hours without sleep could give rise to effects that are comparable to a BAC of 0.08 percent, the threshold for automotive intoxication in most states. 

But while both fatigue and intoxication may harm a driver’s ability to function, they each alter behavior in distinct ways.  Drunkenness primarily makes drivers more impulsive, overly confident, and uninhibited, prompting them to act recklessly.   

So how does fatigue affect a truck driver?  Though not as prone to aggression, a truck driver who is fatigued may be beset by major deficits, including: 

  • Loss of focus – Truckers who are expending all of their mental effort on simply not falling asleep may have little left over for the drivers and obstacles around them or the challenges on the road ahead.  This loss of focus could keep them from noticing looming hazards until it is far too late. 
  • Diminished eyesight – After an extended lack of sleep, a driver’s eyes could twitch, spasm, or become more sensitive to light, which could diminish eyesight and blur the driver’s vision. 
  • Poor spatial assessment – Drowsiness may keep truckers from accurately assessing their distance from other vehicles, perhaps leading to a collision. 
  • Inadequate speed moderation – An inadequate sense of space goes hand in hand with inadequate speed moderation.  Tired truckers may erroneously believe that they are too far from the traffic in front of them and accelerate to “catch up,” which could leave them with less time to slow down when the traffic does and add to the momentum of any rear-end crash that might occur.  In other instances, fatigued truckers may move too slowly, which could put them in danger of getting rear-ended. 
  • Delayed reactions – To make matters even worse, the reactions of sleepy truck drivers may be delayed too, such that they may not be able to circumvent an accident when an issue comes up.   
  • Drifting – Fatigued drivers tend to drift in and out of their own lanes, which could precipitate a sideswipe or head-on truck accident or send a trucker veering onto the shoulder or into a median. 
  • Impeded judgment – If they cannot fully process the information coming at them, truck drivers may not have the judgment to formulate the appropriate response to a crisis. 
  • Inability to stay awake – The number one fatigue-based concern is the inability to stay awake.  When a drowsy trucker nods off for a few seconds or falls asleep altogether, a fast-moving vehicle weighing many thousands of pounds is left with nobody to control it, turning the truck into a weapon that threatens anyone in its path. 

Any of these deficits could increase both the likelihood and the severity of a truck accident, with innocent victims suffering the brunt of the consequences, which may necessitate the assistance of a capable truck accident lawyer. 

What Causes Truck Driver Fatigue? 

Fatigue can demolish a trucker’s ability to drive safely.  Though not sleeping is the main cause of truck driver fatigue, a range of other elements could add to that fatigue and rob drivers of the rest they sorely need, such as:   

  • Low sleep quality – Even if a trucker gets enough hours of sleep each night, the quality of that sleep could be low thanks to the uncomfortable setting in which it takes place, like a truck cab or a rest stop. 
  • Stress – Driving a big rig is a big responsibility, and the stress that comes with that responsibility could hinder sleep or foster insomnia. 
  • Grueling schedules – Though they are legally restricted in how many hours they can drive, truck drivers nevertheless spend most of their waking lives inside their trucks, which can be a deeply exhausting drain on a trucker’s attention. 
  • Monotonous itineraries – The routes that truckers travel may feature little in the way of variety, and these monotonous itineraries could make it harder to stay sharp in anticipation of the unexpected developments that may precede a truck accident. 
  • Bad diet and exercise habits – Truckers often have to eat whatever they can find and may have no real opportunity to get out of their cabs over the course of a day, a combination of bad diet and exercise habits that can leave a driver in a lethargic state. 
  • Medications – While professional truck drivers are less likely to abuse drugs than non-professional drivers, they could become suddenly drowsy if they are not cautious about any medications they do take. 

Laws Designed to Combat Truck Driver Fatigue 

As mentioned above, federal laws have been designed to combat truck driver fatigue by curtailing the number of hours that drivers may work in a given day.  The FMCSA’s Hours of Service (HOS) regulations impose different restraints on “passenger-carrying drivers,” such as bus operators, and “property-carrying drivers,” a classification that includes truck and semi-trailer drivers.  We will limit this discussion to truck driver fatigue laws, though they are not fundamentally dissimilar from the laws governing drivers of passengers. 

Under current HOS regulations, truckers may only drive a maximum of 11 hours during each shift, and they may do so only after they have been off duty for ten consecutive hours prior to that shift.   Moreover, they must not work more than 14 hours in a single day, only 11 of which may be spent driving.  This workday cannot begin until the driver has been off duty for ten hours, and any extensions of that off-duty time will not extend the 14-hour window, though drivers are “allowed to extend the 11-hour maximum driving limit and 14-hour driving window by up to [two] hours when adverse driving conditions are encountered.”  Drivers are further required to take a 30-minute break after driving for a period of eight cumulative hours without interruption.   

Finally, truckers must cease driving after 60 to 70 hours on duty within seven to eight consecutive days, with a truck driver only permitted to restart the next seven-to-eight-day period after taking 34 or more hours in a row off duty.  However, it should be noted that these rules only apply to long-haul truckers engaged in interstate commerce.  So-called short-haul truckers do not have to abide by these regulations if they operate within a 150-air-mile radius of their normal work reporting locations and each driver does not exceed a total duty period of 14 hours. 

These HOS regulations are supposed to be strictly enforced, and truck drivers who are subject to them are expected to maintain and carry written HOS logs documenting their last seven days on duty.  And because trucking employers have an incentive to curb truck driver fatigue, monitor job performance, and ensure the efficient operation of their companies, it should be in their interest to verify that their drivers adhere to these regulations faithfully.   

Sadly, it is also in these employers’ interest to get as much cargo delivered as possible.  This in turn could motivate them to exert pressure on truckers to push themselves beyond the letter of the law and the bounds of common sense – sometimes with tragic outcomes. 

How to Prevent Truck Driver Fatigue 

To avert these tragic outcomes, it is crucial that truckers do everything they can to keep the worst from happening. To that end, there are some basic fatigue management measures that they could implement that might help them remain awake on the job, including the following: 

  • Get sufficient sleep – As obvious as this may sound, the reality is that sufficient sleep is the best way for a truck driver to avoid excessive fatigue.  Six hours of sleep per night should be the bare minimum for any trucker, though seven to nine hours of sleep would be preferable. 
  • Take breaks – A 30-minute break is mandated for every eight hours behind the wheel, but truck drivers should not wait that long if they feel they are starting to fade.  To get the most out of their breaks, truckers should get out of their cabs and stretch their legs, as some fresh air and a brisk walk could offer vital stimulation. 
  • Stay entertained – Drivers may be able to counteract the boredom of prolonged driving by entertaining themselves with music, podcasts, audiobooks, or radio programs.  Similarly, they could… 
  • Change up the environment – Changing up the environment in a cab by rolling down the windows, adjusting the temperature, or introducing other variations could add the stimuli necessary to stay alert in traffic. 
  • Eat well – Fueling the body is as important as fueling the truck.  A trucker with a steady diet of nutritious, balanced meals is usually healthier and livelier than a driver who only eats drive-thru and junk food, which may provide short bursts of energy but are a recipe for later sluggishness. 
  • Reduce caffeine intake – Caffeine can be a powerful stimulant, but it can be a powerful diuretic as well.  A higher rate of urination could disrupt a driver’s sleep cycle and hasten fatigue, while reducing caffeine intake could improve sleep and general vigor, as could the next tip. 
  • Keep hydrated – Adults should drink six to eight glasses of water per day for proper hydration.  Truck drivers who keep hydrated will be better able to remain awake and function at a peak level. 
  • Stay away from drugs that induce drowsiness – In addition to steering clear of recreational drugs, truck drivers should closely scrutinize the labels of prescriptions and over-the-counter medications so that they can stay away from drugs that induce drowsiness, such as anti-allergens, cold medicines, and tranquilizers.  
  • Watch out for signs of fatigue – Drivers should watch out for signs of fatigue that their bodies may be displaying, like yawning, blurred vision, drooping eyelids, forgetfulness, and daydreaming, and respond to them accordingly, whether by taking short breaks or calling it quits for the day. 

Ultimately, truckers who are mindful of their own actions will be in the strongest position to prevent fatigue-related truck accidents. 

What to Do If You Are Injured by a Fatigued Truck Driver 

If you are a truck driver, we hope that you have found these recommendations useful.  But if you should ever be injured by a fatigued truck driver, you should brace yourself for the struggles you may face in the months or even years to come, when merely making ends meet could become difficult, much less staving off ruin. 

And while you might be eligible to seek compensation for your injuries, full recovery may be elusive if you enter into negotiations with an obstinate insurance company on your own.  This may be your first truck accident, but it won’t be the first for the insurance adjuster, who may exploit your relative inexperience to settle your claim for pennies on the dollar or even deny it outright.  

In these situations, many injured plaintiffs find that they could benefit from working with knowledgeable attorneys, like the dedicated Indiana truck accident lawyers at Hensley Legal Group.  A seasoned truck accident attorney will be familiar with the classic insurance industry tactics and will not let the adjuster use them to resolve your case for less than it is worth.  For this reason, personal injury plaintiffs who retain lawyers statistically obtain verdicts or settlements that are 3.5 times larger than the ones obtained by plaintiffs who represent themselves.  Furthermore, 85 percent of the funds paid out by insurance companies go to claimants with representation. 

If you hire a truck accident attorney, he or she will identify and pursue every single defendant within the time allotted by law, moving swiftly to amass the materials to build your claim, including:  

  • Police reports  
  • Tickets and dispositions  
  • Crash scene photos 
  • Dash cam, streetlight, and surveillance footage  
  • Black box data  
  • Eyewitness accounts  
  • Phone records  
  • HOS and vehicular inspection logs  
  • Forensic analysis and accident reconstruction  

On top of securing compelling evidence of liability, your lawyer will work tirelessly to assemble a case that conveys the entirety of your damages.  Whether they are short-term or long-term, monetary or non-monetary, a skilled attorney will always strive to get you compensated for: 

  • Past, present, and future medical bills  
  • Lost income  
  • Contraction of earning capacity  
  • Pain and suffering  
  • Psychological and emotional anguish  
  • Decline in daily enjoyment 
  • Mobility restrictions 
  • Loss of consortium  
  • Punitive and wrongful death damages (if applicable)  

With a formidable legal practitioner on your side, you may be able to acquire the resources to become whole again. 

Getting Justice for the Everyday People of Indiana 

We all need sleep, and when truck drivers do not get enough of it before they head out to work, disaster could be just around the corner.  If you are still reeling from a fatigue-related truck accident, get in touch with the Indiana truck accident lawyers at Hensley Legal Group, who have been getting justice for the everyday people of Indiana for more than 25 years. 

You can schedule a free consultation with an accomplished Indiana truck accident attorney by calling or texting us at (317) 472-3333, chatting with us online, or filling out our contact form at your earliest convenience.