Truck accidents can be devastating because of the size and weight of trucks vis-à-vis other vehicles on the road. Pennsylvania has an extraordinarily high number of large commercial trucks on its roads, as they traverse both our state and the entire country. According to the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation, there were 6,124 heavy truck crashes in Pennsylvania alone during the last year for which statistics are available—and 136 of them were fatal.
While many factors can contribute to a truck accident, driver error was the cause of 87 percent of accidents reviewed by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration.
Unfortunately, unqualified truck drivers may be more prone to causing accidents. Trucks are complex. Braking and driving up hills, for example, are very different than they are in a car. Drivers are also required to know enough to check their trucks to see if weight and loading, for instance, are appropriate. If they are not, the truck may be difficult to operate and more likely to crash.
But what if drivers don’t know the complex driving requirements, or the mandate to check trucks at specific intervals? The result could be injuries and death to people throughout Pennsylvania.
Let’s look at what makes a qualified driver, and the reasons that companies might be tempted to hire unqualified drivers.
What Makes a Truck Driver Qualified?
A driver with a regular driver’s license for cars is not qualified to get behind the wheel of an 18-wheeler or other big rig and drive it. The Federal government mandates standards and requirements for the qualifications of commercial truck drivers.
The Pennsylvania Department of Transportation Driver & Vehicle Services (PennDOT DVS) issues commercial driver’s licenses (CDLs) in compliance with these Federal standards. Commercial truck drivers must have a valid CDL to qualify.
There are several different classes of commercial licenses, primarily having to do with qualifications for the size of the truck. A truck weighing 10,000 pounds, for example, requires a different class of CDL than one weighing 26,001.
In addition to a CDL, truck drivers must obtain endorsements from PennDOT DVS to qualify to drive certain types of commercial trucks. There are separate endorsements that authorize truck drivers to operate the following:
- A vehicle carrying hazardous materials
- A tank
- A commercial vehicle carrying passengers
- A school bus
- A double or triple trailer
- A combination of hazardous materials and tank
Perhaps most importantly, the receipt of a CDL and endorsements signify that the driver has been adequately trained. Like the type of car driver’s license that most people are familiar with, getting a CDL requires that truck drivers pass both a written test and skills test, the latter with a qualified assessor. But unlike a car driver’s license, the skills test has three separate components: one for basic vehicle control, one for vehicle inspection, and one for on-the-road skills.
If a truck driver passes all these tests, he or she receives a CDL.
The material on basic vehicle control and on-the-road skills covers all aspects of driving a commercial truck, including the elements that are very different from driving a car. Braking, the necessity of leaving a great deal of space between the truck and other vehicles (because trucks can take up to 40 percent more space to stop than a car), the larger blind spots in trucks, and going up and downhill are all covered extensively.
All of these elements and more can potentially cause accidents if drivers have not been trained in them.
Why Drivers Need to Inspect Trucks
Drivers perform several separate inspections of trucks, to check the condition of the truck and to check the cargo and its loading. They must do these inspections are specific times: before beginning the trip, at required intervals during the time, and at the end.
The Condition of the Truck
A truck in poor or inadequate condition can cause accidents. Worn tires, inadequate brakes, broken or missing mirrors, inoperable horns, problems with steering or other operational systems are just some of the poor maintenance issues that can cause a truck to have a serious accident, such as a rollover or jack-knife.
Trucking companies are mandated to regularly inspect their fleets to make sure they are in safe condition, to maintain them in good condition, and to repair anything that might make them unsafe. The driver is not solely responsible for ensuring the safety of the truck’s condition—nor are drivers responsible for fixing items that need to be fixed.
However, the requirement to check the vehicle does provide a layer of protection against unsafe vehicles threatening the safety of both the truck driver and other people on Pennsylvania’s roads. If drivers do see anything requiring attention, they should bring it to the attention of the appropriate people, before starting the driver, at appropriate intervals, and at the end of the run.
The Load and Cargo
Commercial trucks are on the road for one reason only: they are carrying cargo from one locale to the other. The range of cargo is very wide: products for stores at the mall, components for local businesses, natural gas or oil for heating, and even livestock and sides of meat—all are carried by commercial trucks.
But all the cargo has several factors in common, despite the diversity. It needs to be loaded appropriately to maintain proper balance and weight in the truck. It also needs to be properly secured, so cargo doesn’t either move around in the truck or fly out. The openings in the cargo area also need to be properly secured, so cargo can’t fall out.
If a truck isn’t properly loaded or balanced, it can make the truck prone to a rollover or other accident, especially if the driver applies brakes quickly, makes a sharp turn, or is driving in inclement weather. If cargo isn’t properly secured, it can either unbalance the truck, by movement during shipment, or fall out. Either is dangerous. Cargo itself, on the road or in the process of flying out, can hit other vehicles, cause obstacles that vehicles have to navigate around, and even hit passersby.
Drivers obtaining a CDL are instructed in how and when to inspect the cargo load and security. These inspections too, need to take place at intervals, including the start of the trip and when the cargo load changes during the trip.
Like inspections for the condition of the truck, these inspections are required, but the truck driver is not responsible for loading and securing. Many companies have specific teams that load and secure freight, or there may be separate companies responsible for those activities. Truck drivers should bring any issues they notice in the inspections up to the appropriate channels, however.
Other Qualifications in the CDL License Process
In studying and preparing for the CDL license, truck drivers will also be cautioned against alcohol and drug use while driving. Driving under the influence of alcohol and drugs can cause an accident, as it can in any vehicle. Truck drivers are periodically tested for alcohol and drugs in their system. Failure of these tests, or being in an accident while under the influence of alcohol or drugs, can cause CDL holders to lose their license.
Truck drivers will also be reminded of the dangers of fatigue. Driving for long stretches, not taking adequate breaks, or not getting enough sleep can cause drivers to be drowsy, fatigued, or even to fall asleep behind the wheel. Accidents caused by fatigue can be catastrophic.
Truck drivers are particularly prone to fatigue, for several reasons. The length of their shifts is Federally mandated, but the shifts are long, at 11 hours maximum. In addition, if they have changed shifts, such as beginning to drive at night after driving days or vice versa, it may be difficult for them to actually sleep. Finally, some companies may pressure their drivers to drive above the Federal limit, to make deliveries quicker.
Why Would an Unqualified Driver Be on the Road?
Once you understand the qualifications, training, and responsibility required of truck drivers, as well as the ways large commercial trucks differ from other vehicles, it’s easy to wonder why an unqualified driver would be on the road. After all, they pose dangers to themselves and everyone else who’s ever passed by a truck.
However, companies may hire unqualified drivers for several reasons. First, they may simply not check an applicant for a valid CDL and relevant endorsements.
Second, they may have a policy of hiring family and friends of people already in the company. These personal relationships may matter more than the existence of a CDL. They may feel that an informal training system with a personal network is equally good.
Third, some companies may not feel there any enough qualified drivers to go around. There is a severe shortage of qualified truck drivers in the U.S. currently. Industry observers estimate that roughly 900,000 qualified drivers are needed going forward to fill existing demand. The industry is aging—the average truck driver is 55 years old—and the shortage may become more pronounced in the future, as these folks retire.
Companies who have tried to find qualified drivers and find they can’t due to the shortage may be tempted to hire unqualified drivers as a result.
Who Is Responsible if I’m in an Accident Caused by an Unqualified Truck Driver?
If you or a loved one were in an accident caused by an unqualified driver in Pennsylvania, you may be able to bring a legal suit against the responsible parties.
The truck driver may be responsible for errors or omissions caused by lack of training. But other parties may be responsible as well.
The truck company or owner may be responsible for several factors related to the accident. First, trucking companies must have hiring policies ensuring that holders of CDLs are hired. They should also ensure routine testing for alcohol and substance abuse, health records, and, of course, the truck driver’s record as a driver. Truck companies are responsible for hiring qualified drivers, period.
Second, trucking companies must adequately supervise their drivers. Part of supervision includes making sure that CDLs and relevant endorsements are carried by the drivers. But ensuring that the drivers are performing the required inspections is also part of supervisory responsibilities. In addition, if a driver does bring any concern triggered by the inspection to management, they need to act on it responsibly.
Third, a driver with problems in driving, whether they stem from driver error, traffic violation citations, accidents, or citations for substance abuse, need to be suspended. Management should direct them to retraining or treatment, as necessary, but drivers need to be requalified before they drive again.
Fourth, if a driver has communicated a problem with loading or balance to a company responsible for those duties, those companies also need to act on the concerns appropriately. If they did not, they can be responsible for the accident.
Responsible parties can be liable for damages sustained in a truck accident, such as medical bills and wages lost from work.
However, because truck accidents are complex, an investigation into the causes of the accident is often needed to establish responsibility. Is a driver responsible for brakes that needed to be replaced, for instance? A driver has some responsibility to notice a problem if it manifests before the truck begins its run. But the primary responsibility is more likely to be the entities responsible for regulation maintenance, inspections, and repair, which could be the trucking company or the company responsible for these functions. It could also be the responsibility of manufacturers of defective or malfunctioning parts or components.
Insurance payments from responsible parties can also be complex. If several different entities could be responsible, they may carry different insurance, with different carriers, different terms, and so on.
A personal injury suit in civil court is an option as well. Injured people can seek damage compensation for medical bills, lost wages from work, and more.
Consult an experienced truck accident attorney for more information and help in obtaining justice for the harm done to you in an accident where the driver was unqualified.