Truck accidents in Texas are not uncommon. They are usually the result of a combination of reasons, many of which are avoidable. The commercial trucking industry has a nasty reputation of violating safety standards in order to pinch pennies and maximize profits. As a result, the industry is brimming with safety violations – such as fatigued drivers and overloaded trucks. With a freight transportation market share of over 67 percent and nearly 11 million trucks on the road each year, these unsafe – and often egregious – practices take thousands of innocent lives and endanger countless others each year.
According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), nearly 4,000 people were killed in crashes involving 18-wheelers in 2013. 536 of these fatalities occurred on Texas roads, the highest in the nation by far.
Texas is also home to the highest number of overall traffic deaths, but fatalities involving big rigs are almost double the next closest state. What is it that puts drivers on Texas roads at a higher risk of being killed in a truck accident? Is it the roads themselves, a lower rate of seatbelt use, alcohol? Or, is it something else entirely?
The Lone Star State’s leading role in the oil and gas industry may be one of the key factors.
All Eyes On Texas
Texas is the king of oil. It leads the nation in oil production with over 9 billion barrels of proven reserves and 27 operating refineries, accounting for nearly a third of both crude oil and natural gas reserves in America, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA).
But all this oil surfaces at a deep price.
Since 2009, deaths attributed to big rigs in Texas have risen dramatically by 52 percent, from 352 in 2009 to 536 in 2013. Could it be that this spike in fatalities has something to do with the oil drilling that began several energy-rich shale areas in 2008? As it turns out, the answer is a resounding yes.
In a March 2015 report, the Texas A&M Transportation Institute (TTI), found a very strong correlation between the significant increase in oil drilling with the rise in commercial vehicle crashes in the state’s major oil regions of Eagle Ford Shale (EFS) in South Texas and the Permian Basin (PB) in West Texas. Conversely, they found that a decline in natural gas drilling in the Barnett Shale (BS) in North Texas led to a drop in vehicle crashes in that region. In the rest of Texas as well, a decrease in the number of new wells was linked to a decline in rural 18-wheeler crashes.
TTI compared two periods of time – 2006 to 2009 – the years before a surge in oil drilling in the EFS and PB – and 2010 to 2013- when the oil drilling craze was at a peak, but gas drilling in the BS went into a decline.
The lead author of the study believes the relationship between drilling and accidents is so clear and concrete that they are predictive. As the price of crude oil drops, drilling will diminish and commercial truck accidents will decrease significantly – just as they did in the Barnett Shale.
The group of counties that make up the EFS, PB and BS regions are home to busy roads that regularly fill with big rigs hauling water, workers and supplies to oil and natural gas well sites, as in urban counties that serve as thriving centers for the oilfield industry.
While highway deaths have dropped steadily across the nation, roads and major highways in Texas – like Interstate 20 – that serve busy drill sites have seen – and likely will continue to see – an increase in fatalities.
To make matters worse, inspection statistics found that with each year, a higher percentage of Texas 18-wheelers have failed to meet federal and state road safety standards compared to the U.S. average. 27 to 30 percent of Texas big rigs were found to have been operating under potentially life-threatening circumstances – with a bald tire, defective brakes, inoperable safety lights – with unfit or inebriated drivers behind the wheel, according to the Department of Public Safety’s troubleshooting program, “Road Check.”
U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT) records show Texas leading all states in motor vehicle fatalities, surpassing California as the previous national leader.
Common Causes of Truck Accidents
As the number and size of 18-wheelers on U.S. roads continue to grow, so do the dangers to all motorists.
While the industry focuses on maximizing profits and drivers are pressured to push the limits of their minds and health, the consequence is significant collateral damage. Occupants in passenger vehicles comprise 97 percent of deaths in fatal two-vehicle crashes that involve a passenger vehicle and a big rig, according to a report by the American Association for Justice (AAJ).
Below are some of the preeminent causes of accidents involving semitrailers and automobiles.
Driver fatigue is a factor in at least 30 percent of truck crashes, and data has shown that the risk of a crash doubles after eight hours of consecutive driving.
In 2011, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) issued a new rule to decrease the number of fatigued drivers by making changes to its hours of service regulations for trailer truck operators. However, the FMCSA later discovered that the rules were not being enforced, with some truck drivers operating under the old statutes; some were even adding one full work shift per week. Many drivers were operating at the maximum hours allowed.
Big rig operators- who are compensated by the number of miles driven versus the number of hours worked – were discovered to have been spending more time driving after the new rule changes were implemented. They even reported more instances of falling asleep at the wheel, with 20 percent of truck drivers admitting to dozing off at the wheel compared to 13 percent before the changes were implemented.
Additionally, there is a shortage of big-rig operators around the nation. The American Trucking Association (ATA) reports a scarcity as large as 40,000. Trucks are responsible for transporting nearly 70 percent of all U.S. inland freight, and the scarcity of 18-wheeler drivers means current drivers are overworked and more likely to suffer from driver fatigue.
Drug and Alcohol Use
Legal and illegal drug/alcohol use is a component in an estimated 65,000 truck crashes annually.
The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has reported gaps in drug and alcohol testing enforcement and the medical fitness of drivers operating 18-wheelers. Data from the NTSB also discovered that many big rig drivers were job-hopping to avoid recognition of a positive drug test.
According to the FMCSA, drug and alcohol tests occur during the following phases:
- reasonable suspicion
- return to duty
Employers must receive a negative drug test result before permitting a CDL driver to operate a commercial vehicle. Drug and alcohol tests may also be required after certain crashes.
FMCSA regulations restrict motorists of semitrailers to a 0.04 percent blood-alcohol concentration limit and also prohibit driving within four hours of consuming alcohol.
However, in 2012, the FMCSA identified 287 drivers in violation of drug and alcohol regulations, and furthermore, over a hundred truck and bus companies had hired drivers who had tested positive for illegal drugs or had failed to institute drug and alcohol testing.
Data from the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) has found that 22 percent of truck drivers were driving while receiving disability benefits for epilepsy, alcohol addiction, or drug dependence.
Texting and Driving
The chances of being involved in a safety-critical event (such as a crash, near-crash, or unintentional lane deviation) are 23.2 times greater for big rig operators who text while driving than those who don’t, according to research from the FMCSA.
Although the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) and FMCSA have banned texting or using handheld mobile phones by operators of 18-wheelers and those who transport large quantities of hazardous materials, distracted drivers still continue to roam the roads on which we travel.
Civil penalties of up to $2,750 and driver disqualification for multiple offenses can be brought upon a driver. Employers can also be punished with fines reaching up to $11,000 for violating the FMCSA bans.
Additional miscellaneous influences can attribute to accidents involving trailer trucks, such as the following:
- Cargo security: size and weight violations, dropped cargo, or unsafe handling of hazardous materials
- Driver fitness: failure to have a valid and appropriate commercial driver’s license (CDL) and / or being medically unqualified to operate a semitrailer
- Previous crash indicators: histories or patterns of high crash involvement, including frequency and severity based on information from state-reported crashes involving 18-wheelers
- Vehicle maintenance: problems with brakes, lights and other mechanical defects, and failure to make required repairs.
Although big rig drivers account for the majority of reported accidents, everyday motorists can also be at fault. Some of the top causes when it comes to vehicle-driver error include:
- Cutting abruptly in front of a trailer truck
- Driving in a commercial vehicle’s blind spot
- Failing to exercise caution around an 18-wheeler making a turn
- Pulling in front of a large truck and causing the driver to brake quickly
- Unsafe passing, such as not allowing enough headway
The Current State and Future of Big Rigs
Drivers of semitrailers are regulated by the FMCSA which provides a set of rules intended to help keep big rig operators safe.
Presently, those who drive 18-wheelers are limited by the number of hours they can work on a daily and weekly basis. According to the FMCSA, the following hours of service regulations are enforced around the country:
- 11-Hour Driving Limit: Commercial motor vehicle operators may drive a maximum of 11 hours after 10 consecutive hours off duty
- 14-Hour Driving Window: Drivers may not work (work includes driving and activities for off-duty time such as taking a lunch break or a nap) for more than 14 hours per day
- 30-Minute Rest Break: Regulations require that if more than eight consecutive hours have passed since the last off-duty period of at least 30 minutes, a driver must take an off-duty break of at least 30 minutes before driving
- 60/70-Hour Duty Limit: Drivers cannot exceed 60 hours on duty over a week, or 70 hours on duty over eight days
- Drivers must be provided 10 consecutive off-duty hours per shift
The trucking industry has also been slow to adopt certain safety measures and new technologies intended to make trucking safer, claiming high costs as a deterrent.
According to the IIHS, a combination of the following four technologies would prevent as much as 28 percent of all trailer truck crashes annually, and save as many as 835 lives:
- Forward collision warning / mitigation
- Lane departure warning / prevention
- Side view assist
- Vehicle stability control
To further inhibit a functioning insurance market, a system of outdated insurance requirements exists. Currently, the FMCSA requires that employers only carry insurance for up to $750,000 per incident – a figure implemented during the Reagan era that has remained static for 33 years and has not been altered for inflation.
For 18-wheelers carrying hazardous material, the insurance regulations have similarly remained unchanged. For instance, hazmat insurance requirements are locked at the 1980 level of $1 million, which in today’s currency is equivalent to $3 million.
The percentage of freight traveling via big rigs is expected to increase to 70 percent within the next 10 years, and by 2023, 12 billion tons of goods is expected to travel annually.
But the progress of the trucking industry also means a possible growth in the fatality rate for commercial vehicle accidents. The AAJ estimates 58,000 more people will lose their lives in accidents involving semitrailers.
With the number of 18-wheelers on the road only expected to increase in the coming years, ultimately, safety and accident prevention may fall into the hands of everyone – both average motorists and big rig operators.
Here’s what you can do to create a safer commute.
Tips for everyday drivers:
- Maintain a safe distance. Keep in mind that semitrailers require a longer distance to brake, accelerate, change lanes, and travel up and down hills. It is advised that you leave at least 25 feet between your car and a large truck to avoid having to make any abrupt moves.
- Stay out of blind spots. Be aware of an 18-wheeler’s blind spots and avoid traveling in them. This action can prevent your car from being clipped or hit by trailer truck drivers who are unaware that another vehicle is next to them.
- Practice good driving skills. Utilize turn signals, follow the speed limit, and refrain from distracted driving (i.e. texting, talking on the phone, etc). Avoid sudden lane changes or other impulsive movements, and recognize that 18-wheelers can not react as quickly as cars.
Tips for big rig drivers:
- Do not tailgate. Be patient and maintain proper space with the vehicle in front of you. According to the DMV, the most common vehicle that trailer trucks hit is the one in front of them due to tailgating.
- Signal early. Give other motorists ample warning of your intended direction.
- Minimize lane changing. Check your side mirrors at least once every 10 seconds and exercise caution when changing lanes.
- Use your brake lights early. Give yourself ample time and space when slowing down for a complete stop. Most motorists don’t realize how long it takes for a big rig to stop.
- Slow down in work zones. Close to one-third of all fatal work zone crashes involve 18-wheelers. Additionally, you could lose your commercial driver’s license if caught speeding in a posted work zone.
- Take extra precautions during inclement weather. Operate below the posted speed limit when driving in wintery conditions. Maintain additional space with the vehicles in front of you when driving in rain or snow, and exercise caution when approaching bridges. Bridges freeze faster than roads, creating elusive black ice.
Strictly adhere to commercial driver hour restrictions. By law, you cannot exceed 11 continuous hours of driving. If caught violating this law, you could jeopardize your career and have your license suspended or even revoked