Truck Crashes and Violations of Safety Regulations
Despite the danger you may feel when driving on the highway next to the giant “18-wheelers” and “tractor-trailer” trucks that cause you to squeeze your steering wheel and grit your teeth every time they pass, every commercial motor vehicle (and driver) on the road is subject to a complex set of federal regulations designed to ensure your (and their) safety on the road.
The federal law that governs the trucking industry is called the “Motor Carrier Safety Improvement Act of 1999.” Pursuant to this law, on January 1, 2000, the Department of Transportation created the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA), which was formerly part of the Federal Highway Administration. The FMCSA’s mission is to prevent or reduce crashes, injuries and fatalities involving large trucks and buses by:
- Enforcing safety regulations;
- Targeting high-risk carriers and commercial motor vehicle drivers;
- Improving safety information systems and commercial motor vehicle technologies;
- Strengthening commercial motor vehicle equipment and operating standards; and
- Increasing safety awareness.
Unfortunately, you don’t always experience these safety measures when sharing the road with large trucks. In fact, according to 2021 statistics from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), there were over 150,000 people injured in truck crashes in 2019 alone. Many of the crashes in which these injuries occurred involved violations of the federal truck safety regulations.
What Are Some of the Common Safety Regulations that Apply to the Trucking Industry?
To accomplish its mission of preventing or reducing truck-related accidents, injuries, and fatalities on the nation’s highways, the FMCSA develops and enforces regulations directed at specific aspects of the trucking industry. Here are some of the most important regulations that directly affect the safety of every driver and passenger on the road.
Regulations governing trucking companies.
The regulation of the trucking industry is broad and includes rules that apply to trucking companies that hire, train, and supervise individual truck drivers. For example, if an employer operates vehicles that require a commercial driver’s license on the public roads and has more than one employee in the company, the employer is required to participate in the Department of Transportation (DOT) Supervisor Training program. This includes training such as:
- Drug and Alcohol Supervisor Training. Federal law requires supervisors of commercial truck drivers to take 60 minutes of training on the symptoms of alcohol abuse and another 60 minutes of training on the symptoms of controlled substances use. The purpose of this training is to teach supervisors to reasonably suspect that a driver is using or under the influence of alcohol or drugs and to refer that employee for testing.
- Entry-Level Driver Training Requirements. Federal law requires employers to provide all entry-lever drivers (a driver with less than one year of experience) with training addressing the following four areas:
- Driver qualification requirements. These include rules on medical certification, medical examination procedures, general qualifications, responsibilities, and disqualifications based on various offenses, orders, and loss of driving privileges.
- Hours of service. This refers to the limitations on driving hours, the requirement to be off-duty for certain periods of time, maintaining a record of duty status preparation, and fatigue countermeasures as a means to avoid crashes.
- Driver wellness. This regards basic health maintenance including diet and exercise, and the importance of avoiding excessive use of alcohol.
- Whistleblower protection. This pertains to the right of an employee to question the safety practices of an employer without risking losing their job or being subject to negative consequences simply for reporting a safety concern.
- Longer Combination Vehicle “LCV” Requirements. When driving on the highway, you likely have seen trucks with a cabin that is pulling what looks like two or more trailers connected together like train cars. This is what is called a “Longer Combination Vehicle” or “LCV.” An LCV is defined as a vehicle that is comprised of any combination of a truck-tractor and two or more trailers or semi-trailers, with a gross vehicle weight of more than 80,000 pounds. Federal law requires companies that operate LCVs to maintain:
- Minimum training requirements for operators of LCVs;
- Minimum qualification requirements for LCV driver-instructors; and
- Procedures for determining compliance by operators, instructors, training institutions, and employers.
- Safety Ratings. Carriers must satisfy strict safety ratings, especially if qualified to transport hazardous materials.
Regulations governing drivers.
Of course, there are specific regulations that apply to individual drivers to ensure that they are properly trained and are otherwise qualified to operate commercial vehicles. In general, the regulations relevant to drivers:
- Prohibit drivers from having more than one commercial motor vehicle driver's license;
- Require drivers to notify their current employer and the State of certain convictions;
- Require drivers to provide information about their previous employment when they apply for employment as an operator of a commercial motor vehicle;
- Establish periods of disqualification and penalties for any drivers convicted of certain criminal or other offenses or serious traffic violations, and for drivers who are subject to any suspensions, revocations, or cancellations of certain driving privileges;
- Require drivers to pass testing and licensing requirements;
- Require drivers to pass knowledge and skills tests that satisfy federal standards for procedures, methods, and minimum scores. The knowledge requirements include knowledge of the following 20 general areas:
1. Safe Operations.
- Motor vehicle inspection, repair, and maintenance requirements;
- Procedures for safe vehicle operations;
- The effects of fatigue, poor vision, hearing impairment, and general health upon safe commercial motor vehicle operation;
- The types of motor vehicles and cargoes the drivers will operate; and
- The effects of alcohol and drug use upon safe commercial motor vehicle operations.
2. Safe operations and vehicle control systems.
This includes the purpose and function of the controls and instruments commonly found on commercial motor vehicles.
3. Safety control systems.
This requires knowledge of:
- Proper use of the motor vehicle's safety system, including:
- Side and rear-view mirrors
- Proper mirror adjustments
- Fire extinguishers
- Symptoms of improper operation revealed through instruments, motor vehicle operation characteristics, and diagnosing malfunctions;
- Correct procedures needed to use these safety systems in an emergency situation, such as skids or loss of brakes.
4. Basic control.
This means knowledge of proper procedures for performing various basic maneuvers, including:
- Starting, warming up, and shutting down the engine;
- Putting the vehicle in motion and stopping;
- Backing in a straight line; and
- Turning the vehicle.
This includes knowledge of the basic shifting rules and terms for common transmissions, including:
- Key elements of shifting, including controls, when to shift, and double clutching;
- Shift patterns and procedures; and
- Consequences of improper shifting.
This entails knowledge of the procedures and rules for various backing maneuvers, including:
- Backing principles and rules; and
- Basic backing maneuvers, such as straight-line backing and backing on a curved path.
7. Visual search.
This requires knowledge of the importance of proper visual search, and proper visual search methods, including:
- Seeing ahead and to the sides;
- Use of mirrors; and
- Seeing to the rear.
Drivers must demonstrate knowledge of the principles and procedures for proper communications and the hazards of failure to signal properly, including:
- Signaling intent, such as signaling when changing direction in traffic;
- Communicating presence, for example, using the horn or lights to signal presence; and
- Misuse of communications.
9. Speed management.
This involves knowledge of the importance of understanding the effects of speed, including:
- Speed and stopping distance;
- Speed and surface conditions;
- Speed and the shape of the road;
- Speed and visibility; and
- Speed and traffic flow.
10. Space management.
Drivers must understand the procedures and techniques for controlling the space around the vehicle, including:
- The importance of space management;
- Space cushions ahead and to the rear;
- Space to the sides; and
- Space for traffic gaps.
11. Night operation.
Drivers must know the preparations and procedures for night driving, including:
- Night driving factors (vision, glare, fatigue, inexperience);
- Roadway factors (low illumination, variation in illumination, unfamiliarity with roads, other road users, especially drivers exhibiting erratic or improper driving); and
- Vehicle factors (headlights, auxiliary lights, turn signals, windshields and mirrors).
12. Extreme driving conditions.
Drivers must know the basic information on operating commercial vehicles in extreme driving conditions and the hazards encountered in such conditions, including:
- Bad weather (snow, ice, sleet, high wind);
- Hot weather; and
- Mountain driving.
13. Hazard perceptions.
This includes knowledge of basic information on hazard perception and clues for recognizing hazards, including:
- Road characteristics; and
- Road user activities.
14. Emergency maneuvers.
This regards basic information concerning when and how to make emergency maneuvers, including:
- Evasive steering;
- Emergency stop;
- Off road recovery;
- Brake failure; and
15. Skid control and recovery.
This means information on the causes and major types of skids, as well as the procedures for recovering from skids.
16. Relationship of cargo to vehicle control.
Drivers must understand the principles and procedures for the proper handling of cargo, including:
- Consequences of improperly secured cargo, drivers' responsibilities, and Federal, State and local regulations;
- Principles of weight distribution; and
- Principles and methods of cargo securement.
17. Vehicle inspections.
Drivers must know the objectives and proper procedures for performing vehicle safety inspections, including:
- The importance of periodic inspection and repair to vehicle safety;
- The effect of undiscovered malfunctions upon safety;
- What safety-related parts to look for when inspecting vehicles (fluid leaks, interference with visibility, bad tires, wheel and rim defects, braking system defects, steering system defects, suspension system defects, exhaust system defects, coupling system defects, and cargo problems);
- Pre-trip/enroute/post-trip inspection procedures;
- Reporting findings.
18. Hazardous materials.
All drivers must have knowledge of the following:
- What constitutes hazardous material requiring an endorsement to transport;
- Classes of hazardous materials;
- Labeling/placarding requirements; and
- The need for specialized training as a prerequisite to receiving an endorsement and transporting hazardous cargoes.
19. Mountain driving.
This includes practices that are important when driving upgrade and downgrade, including:
- Selecting a safe speed;
- Selecting the right gear; and
- Proper braking techniques.
20. Fatigue and awareness.
Drivers must know and understand the practices that are important to staying alert and safe while driving, including:
- Being prepared to drive;
- What to do when driving to avoid fatigue;
- What to do when sleepy while driving; and
- What to do when becoming ill while driving.
In addition to these knowledge requirements, the regulations mandate that drivers possess the following skills:
Pre-trip vehicle inspection skills.
Drivers must be able to properly inspect the class of vehicle the driver operates or expects to operate, including test vehicles and vehicles with air brakes. Specifically, the driver must identify each safety-related part on the vehicle and explain what needs to be inspected to ensure a safe operating condition of each part, including:
- Engine compartment;
- Cab/engine start;
- Side of vehicle; and
- Rear of vehicle.
Basic vehicle control skills.
All drivers must possess and demonstrate the following basic motor vehicle control skills for the vehicle class that the driver operates or expects to operate:
- Ability to start, warm up, and shut down the engine;
- Ability to put the motor vehicle in motion and accelerate smoothly, forward and backward;
- Ability to bring the motor vehicle to a smooth stop;
- Ability to back the motor vehicle in a straight line, and check path and clearance while backing;
- Ability to position the motor vehicle to negotiate safely and then make left and right turns;
- Ability to shift as required and select appropriate gear for speed and highway conditions; and
- Ability to back along a curved path.
Safe on-road driving skills.
All drivers must possess and demonstrate the following safe on-road driving skills for their vehicle class:
- Ability to use proper visual search methods;
- Ability to signal appropriately when changing direction in traffic;
- Ability to adjust speed to the configuration and condition of the roadway, weather and visibility conditions, traffic conditions, and motor vehicle, cargo, and driver conditions;
- Ability to choose a safe gap for changing lanes, passing other vehicles, and crossing or entering traffic;
- Ability to position the motor vehicle correctly before and during a turn to prevent other vehicles from passing on the wrong side, as well as to prevent problems caused by off-tracking;
- Ability to maintain a safe following distance depending on the condition of the road, visibility, and vehicle weight;
- Ability to adjust operation of the motor vehicle to prevailing weather conditions including speed selection, braking, direction changes, and following distance to maintain control; and
- Ability to observe the road and the behavior of other motor vehicles, particularly before changing speed and direction.
In addition, the regulations:
- Require drivers to maintain proper documentation of their licenses.
- Prohibit a driver from operating a commercial motor vehicle unless:
- The cargo is properly distributed and adequately secured;
- The tailgate, tailboard, doors, tarpaulins, spare tire, and other equipment used in its operation, and the means of fastening the cargo, are secured; and
- The cargo or any other object does not obscure the driver's view, interfere with the free movement of his or her arms or legs, prevent free and ready access to accessories required for emergencies, or prevent the free and ready exit of any person from the vehicle's cab or driver's compartment.
- Require drivers to:
- Inspect the cargo and the devices used to secure the cargo within the first 50 miles after beginning a trip and adjust the cargo or load securement devices as necessary
- Ensure that cargo cannot shift on or within, or fall from the commercial motor vehicle; and
- Reexamine the cargo and its load securement devices during the course of transportation whenever:
- The driver makes a change of his or her duty status; or
- The vehicle has been driven for 3 hours; or
- The vehicle has been driven for 150 miles, whichever occurs first.
Drivers also must abide by specific driving rules for specific conditions or circumstances. For example, there are specific regulations with respect to approaching and crossing railroad tracks. Specifically:
- Upon approaching a railroad grade crossing, the driver must drive at a rate of speed at which he or she can stop the vehicle before reaching the nearest rail of the crossing and shall not drive upon or over the crossing until he or she takes due caution to ascertain that the course is clear.
- A driver may not cross a railroad crossing unless he or she first:
- Stops the vehicle within 50 feet of, and not closer than 15 feet to, the tracks;
- Then listens and looks in each direction along the tracks for an approaching train and ascertains that no train is approaching.
- When it is safe to do so, the driver may drive the vehicle across the tracks in a gear that permits the vehicle to complete the crossing without a change of gears. The driver must not shift gears while crossing the tracks.
- A driver may not cross the tracks without having sufficient space to drive completely through the crossing without stopping.
Of course, in addition to any specific industry regulations, which may be stricter than commonly-applicable federal, state and local laws, all drivers must follow all common motor vehicle laws, such as those governing:
- The use of seatbelts;
- Speed limits;
- The use of hand-held mobile devices; and
- Emergency stopping and the use of emergency flares and signals.
Regulations governing drug and alcohol testing.
Federal law requires employers to provide programs designed to help prevent accidents, injuries, and fatalities resulting from the misuse of alcohol or use of controlled substances by drivers of commercial motor vehicles. These requirements include specific protocols for various types of testing, including:
- Pre-employment testing;
- Post-accident testing;
- Return-to-duty testing;
- Reasonable suspicion testing;
- Random testing; and
- Follow-up testing;
Specifically, the regulations provide that:
No driver shall report for duty or remain on duty requiring the performance of safety-sensitive functions while having an alcohol concentration of 0.04 or greater. No employer having knowledge that a driver has an alcohol concentration of 0.04 or greater shall permit the driver to perform or continue to perform safety-sensitive functions.
The regulation also prohibits a driver from:
- Performing pre-duty safety-sensitive functions within four hours after using alcohol;
- Consuming alcohol for eight hours after an accident or until he or she undergoes a post-accident alcohol test, whichever occurs first.
A driver may not refuse to submit to any of the required alcohol or controlled substances tests. If they do, the employer must prohibit the driver from performing any safety-sensitive functions.
Likewise, the regulations provide that “no driver shall report for duty or remain on duty requiring the performance of safety sensitive functions” when the driver uses any prohibited drug or substance identified in the regulations.
Regulations governing hours of service.
“Hours of service” refers to the maximum amount of time a driver is permitted to be on duty, including driving time. To help assure that drivers stay awake and alert behind the wheel, the regulations specify the number and required length of rest periods a driver is required to take while on duty. The rules vary depending on whether a driver is transporting property or passengers.
Regulations governing vehicle safety.
The federal regulations also detail requirements for all commercial vehicles and accessories. For example, there are specific requirements addressing the following aspects of commercial vehicles, which relate directly to safety. These include detailed requirements for:
- Lamps and reflective devices;
- Head lamps;
- Auxiliary driving lamps;
- Front fog lamps;
- Wiring systems;
- Required brake systems;
- Parking brake system;
- Brakes required on all wheels;
- Breakaway and emergency braking;
- Front brake lines, protection;
- Brake performance;
- Warning signals, air pressure, and vacuum gauges;
- Window construction;
- Emergency exits;
- All fuel system;
- Coupling devices and towing methods;
- Sleeper berths;
- Exhaust systems;
- Warning flags on projecting loads;
- Television receivers;
- Seats, seat belt assemblies, and seat belt assembly anchors; and
- Cargo securement standards and devices.