A driver of any vehicle can get behind the wheel while they are too tired to drive safely, but this risk increases in the trucking industry. The pressure of keeping up with tight deadlines causes many truckers to spend longer on the road than they should. As a result, truckers may fall asleep behind the wheel, causing devastating collisions. Even if a driver does not fall asleep, drowsiness can slow their reactions to changing traffic conditions. An accident may occur that could have been avoided if they had been alert and braked promptly. A driver who is tired also may forget to check blind spots or may attempt dangerous maneuvers such as sudden turns or lane changes.
Drowsy Driving = Drunk Driving
Research suggests that a truck driver who stays awake for more than 24 hours suffers a similar impairment to their driving as a driver with a blood alcohol content of 0.10. This is well above the 0.04 legal limit for truck drivers.
Hours of service rules imposed by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration aim to combat truck driver fatigue. Truckers may be on duty for no more than 14 consecutive hours in a 24-hour period, and they cannot drive for more than 11 hours during that period. (Certain exceptions apply to situations such as traffic jams, accidents, or poor weather conditions.) Moreover, they cannot be on duty for more than 60 hours in a seven-day period or 70 hours in an eight-day period. Truckers are required to record their hours in logbooks, but sometimes they falsify these records to conceal violations.
Liability for Accidents Caused by Truck Driver Fatigue
If fatigue played a role in an accident, the driver and potentially the trucking company that employed them may be liable to a victim. The trucking company may be directly liable if it encouraged the driver to violate hours of service rules, demanded that they meet unreasonable deadlines, or looked the other way when the driver falsified logbooks. If only the truck driver was at fault, though, a victim still may recover compensation from the trucking company or its insurer under a theory of indirect liability. This involves showing that the trucker was employed by the company and was on the job when their drowsy driving caused the accident.
Most personal injury cases require showing that a defendant was negligent, which means that they failed to use reasonable care under the circumstances. When a driver or company violated a federal or state trucking regulation designed to curb drowsy driving, a victim may use a negligence per se theory in some states. This is a potential shortcut to proving negligence. Rather than showing that the defendant did not act reasonably, the victim could show that:
The defendant violated a law or regulation designed to protect people like the victim
The victim suffered the type of harm that the law or regulation was meant to prevent
Even if the traditional form of negligence per se does not apply in their state, a victim will have a strong basis for their negligence claim if they can show that the defendant violated a trucking regulation. This is because a reasonable driver generally would not break the law. Regardless of whether they are relying on negligence per se or an ordinary negligence theory, a victim will need to show that truck driver fatigue directly caused the accident. In other words, the accident would not have happened if the trucker had not been excessively drowsy behind the wheel.
Determining whether a violation occurred is not always easy, especially if a driver or company has falsified records related to hours of service compliance. A victim should retain an experienced truck accident lawyer who can review not only these records but also evidence from the event data recorder (“black box”) of the truck. This data may reveal that the driver stayed behind the wheel for longer than industry regulations allow.