Early investigation is more important in a collision involving a tractor trailer and an automobile than in any other type of accident. The Federal Motor Vehicle Safety regulations only require the truck driver and trucking company to keep the “record of duty” status or driver logs for a maximum of six months. Failing to act quickly can result in the loss of important information about the driver’s activities and rest periods before the accident.
Drivers are required to record their daily activities by keeping a log of their routes and all stops they make during the trip. This information can be used to show that the driver was operating over the hours of service, to show evidence of speeding or to prove that the driver was not operating the vehicle in accordance with the regulations. The logs must be read in connection with the federal hours of service regulations which require that the driver may drive a maximum of 11 hours after 10 consecutive hours off duty. The importance of these logs cannot be overstated.
For as long as there have been truck drivers on the road, drivers have been falling asleep at the wheel. It is called driver fatigue. The worlds leading sleep experts agree that driver fatigue is the largest identifiable and preventable cause of accidents in the transportation industry. Driver fatigue was listed as the cause in a recent bus accident inVirginiawhere four people were killed. Despite the fact that we know fatigue plays a great role in most trucking accidents, we still have no medical test to determine whether a driver was fatigued when he or she was involved in a crash. There is also no way to determine if a driver is suffering from fatigue while driving. Fatigue is more than just insufficient sleep. A driver does not need to fall asleep at the wheel to have his or her ability to operate a tractor trailer impaired by fatigue, the number of hours that he or she has been on duty, certainly effects his or her ability to see, perceive, and react in certain situations when an emergency occurs. An expert in the human factors field is the best way to determine whether or not the long hours of driving have affected the driver’s ability to react in case of emergencies.
One of the best ways to prove driver fatigue is to determine if the driver has been driving over the maximum number of hours allowed without the required breaks for sleep or rest. This is where the driver log books come in as critical evidence. Assuming the log books are accurate and the company has not gotten rid of the log books under their retention policy, these books will show how many hours the driver was on the road. By investigating the log books, obtaining fuel receipts and other documents, it’s easy to determine the driver’s route and time on the road at the time of the accident. This can be coordinated with the log books to see if they are accurate.
We handled a case where the driver had gone back two months after the accident and made up his log book entries. In our investigation we found a fuel receipt fromNew Jersey, which showed the time he stopped for fuel. This receipt proved he could not have arrived inCrossville,Tennesseeat the time of the accident if he had gotten the 8 hours of sleep time he recorded in his log.
It is important for the injured person’s attorney to put the trucking company on notice to retain the log books and other documents which the company may be otherwise inclined to discard in the regular course of business under their document retention policy. The attorney for the injured person should also obtain immediately other important information such as the traffic crash reports and photographs, the fire and rescue reports, the tow company records, tire marks of the crash site, roadway evidence, inspection of the braking system on the tractor trailer, the electronic data recorded on the truck known as the electronic control modules (ECM) or commonly referred to as the black box. Once the data in the black box on the tractor is downloaded it can tell the speed of the tractor at the time of the initial braking. It is important to get this electronic data quickly since the truck could be put back in service and the data may be overwritten. The motor carrier or the owner of the truck may not preserve or be able to produce the black box if it is not turned over early in the investigation. It is also important to obtain any data from possible satellite devices on the trailer recording GPS information which the company may use to track the location of the driver and the truck
The employment of an attorney in the case allows the attorney to write a spoliation letter to the owner of the tractor trailer truck advising him not to get rid of any documents or evidence including log books and electronic data. This may be key to proving the case later on and the trucking company will be sanctioned if they are put on notice to preserve this information and allow the loss or destruction of any evidence.
If it can be shown that the owner of the truck known as the “carrier” has been a habitual violator of the hours of regulation through his drivers, then there may be a claim for punitive damages. We are not just talking about the negligence of the driver, here we are talking about the negligence of the company who employs the driver.
These are just a few reasons why an early investigation is important and gives the injured person a real advantage if he or she has to press this claim in court.