Rear-End Collisions by Commercial Trucks Are Avoidable and Can Be Deadly

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Commercial trucks come in all shapes and sizes, the largest being semi-trucks that can weigh 80,000 pounds. If such a truck rear-ends another vehicle, especially at highway speeds, the results are often dead or seriously injured vehicle occupants. These types of accidents arenít acts of God -- theyíre often the result of distracted, fatigued or sleeping truck drivers in trucks lacking the latest safety equipment.

There are about 1.7 million rear-end collisions on U.S. roads annually, causing about 1,7000 deaths and injuring about 500,000 according to statistics released by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) in 2015.

About 80% of the fatalities and injuries caused by rear-end collisions accidents could be prevented by collision avoidance systems, the agency stated. A study by the
National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) found that 87% of rear-end collisions were caused by drivers' not paying attention to the road in front of them.

New Technology Can Prevent Rear-End Collisions

Collision avoidance systems are becoming more common in passenger vehicles and are starting to be introduced in some commercial trucks. They use a number of sensors, cameras, lasers and short- and long-range radar. They monitor the activity around the vehicle and the vehicle itself. Onboard computers process the information and issue a warning to the driver or initiate a response from the vehicle itself.

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) found that vehicles equipped with front crash prevention systems are far less likely to rear-end other vehicles, based on a study using police reported crash data. Automatic braking systems reduce rear-end accidents by about 40%, while forward collision warning systems reduces them by 23%. IIHS also found that auto-brake systems also greatly reduced the severity of injuries in these crashes.

If all vehicles, including commercial trucks, were equipped with auto-brake systems there would have been an estimated 700,000 fewer police-reported rear-end crashes in 2013. Not only would accidents be avoided, but if vehicles are slowed when the collision occurs, injuries may be avoided or lessened.

Researchers reviewed information on police-reported rear-end collisions in 22 states from 2010 to 2014 involving Acura, Honda, Mercedes-Benz, Subaru and Volvo vehicles with optional front crash prevention systems. The crash rates of those vehicles were compared with the crash rates of the same models without the front crash prevention option installed.

Another technology that could prevent rear-end collisions detects whether a driver is tired or is falling asleep. Mercedes-Benz released one of the first systems. It uses an algorithm that compares a driverís current steering behavior with those recorded when the trip began.

Other systems determine whether the vehicle is within its travel lane and detects erratic maneuvers which may indicate the driver is not paying attention. One system tracks the driverís eye movements with an in-car camera, noting rapid or prolonged eye blinks. Alerts to try to wake up the driver can include a chime, a slight use of the brakes, a tug on the shoulder belt or a warning light on the instrument panel.

Automakers, but Not Commercial Truck Manufacturers, Agree to Implement New Braking Systems

Front crash prevention is becoming more common, but in most vehicles itís optional. In the future, all passenger vehicles sold in the U.S. will have this feature as standard equipment. In September of last year the NHTSA and IIHS announced an agreement in principle with automakers to make auto-brake systems standard on all models standard by 2022.

Who wasnít part of that agreement? Commercial truck manufacturers, despite the fact that the NTSB has recommended these systems be required in these vehicles. As it now stands, there are requirements for two-ton passenger vehicles to have improved collision-avoidance technology, but this does not extend to forty-ton commercial trucks.

Some truck companies are moving in this direction on their own. Truck maker Paccar announced last year that automated safety systems will be standard on some of its Peterbilt and Kenworth semi-trucks. Since mid-2017, Peterbilt Model 579 has included in-lane object recognition and adaptive cruise control, with automatic braking and collision-avoidance technology.

A group of safety advocate organizations, including the Truck Safety Coalition, the Center for Auto Safety, Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety and Road Safe America, in 2015 filed a petition for rule-making with the NHTSA to require commercial trucks to have front collision-avoidance systems.

The group stated that, from 2009 to 2012, deaths caused by commercial truck accidents increased 16% and injuries increased 40%, causing about 104,000 injuries and nearly 4,000 fatalities in 2012. Many of these accidents were rear-enders.

Commercial Truck Manufacturers Can Be Held Liable for Making and Selling Dangerous Trucks

By failing to use well-known safety systems that have proven to be effective, commercial truck manufacturers, while avoiding federal regulation on the issue, have opened themselves up to potential negligence lawsuits when one of their trucks rear-ends another vehicle. Normally these types of lawsuits claim that the driver was negligent because of distraction, fatigue or speeding.

As safety technology improves and the industry continues to ignore it, the easier it is for attorneys representing those injured in rear-end collisions to claim that the trucks themselves -- not just the drivers -- are dangerous and contributed to the accident. This can be an instance where if an industry doesnít do the right thing and government agencies fail to put in place regulations to limit the harm from a known danger, the court system may be the branch of government that brings about change.

If juries agree to substantial awards to injured plaintiffs and the families of those killed in accidents involving commercial trucks without advanced braking systems, insurance companies will raise premium rates on those who own commercial trucks without these safety features. This may result in greater demand for safer trucks, due not only to higher costs but to the bad publicity these unsafe trucks and their owners deserve.

Times change and technology improves. If regulators donít do their job and commercial truck manufacturers donít adapt and make their vehicles safer, the courts and the marketplace may force this change upon them.

Mark Evans is a Missouri trial attorney and partner at the Bley & Evans law firm.

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Disclaimer: While every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this publication, it is not intended to provide legal advice as individual situations will differ and should be discussed with an expert and/or lawyer. For specific technical or legal advice on the information provided and related topics, please contact the author.

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