Approximately 13 percent of commercial truck drivers who are in truck accidents report that they were drowsy at the time of the accident. From this survey, truck driver fatigue is clearly a major cause of truck accidents in the United States, despite federal efforts to curb the practice of driving drowsy in the commercial truck industry .
If you were injured or lost a loved one in an accident caused by truck driver fatigue, we don’t need to tell you how severe the injuries from this type of accident can be or how profound the financial and psychological impacts of truck accident injuries are.
What we can tell you is how to pursue compensation for your injuries. An experienced truck accident attorney can help you understand your legal options.
Contact one as soon as possible following an accident, and let them begin offering their experience and knowledge of the legal process in your truck accident case.
What Is Truck Driver Fatigue?
The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA)—the federal agency responsible for overseeing the trucking industry—notes that fatigue is the result of mental or physical exertion, and that it impairs driving performance. Driver fatigue is often the result of factors such as lack of adequate sleep, extended work hours, strenuous work or non-work activity, medical conditions that affect the amount or quality of sleep that the driver receives, or a combination of these and other factors.
Some of the signs of truck driver fatigue include:
- Excessive yawning.
- Blinking a lot, or heavy eyes.
- Slowed reaction times.
- The inability to remember the last several miles of the journey.
- Driving speed randomly increasing or decreasing.
- Signs of impaired driving, such as poor gear changes or ineffective braking.
- Microsleeps, which are brief periods of unconsciousness often notable by the head jerking suddenly as the individual awakens.
- Missing an exit or driving on the rumble strip.
The Causes of Truck Driver Fatigue
Quality sleep is integral to maintain optimal function and response times when doing concentration-intensive activities like driving a commercial truck. Unfortunately, several aspects of the truck driving profession often make it difficult for drivers to obtain the necessary amount of quality sleep.
- Driving at night. The circadian rhythm is the sleep/wake cycle that everyone’s body goes through each day and night. Humans are programmed by instinct to sleep during nighttime hours, which is when many long-haul truck drivers choose to do a lot of their driving, as traffic tends to be lighters. Consequently, nighttime hours are when truck accidents most often occur.
- Sleeping in a sleeper berth. A federal study indicated that the most likely time for a truck accident to occur is within the driver’s first hour of driving, particularly if they were previously sleeping in the truck’s sleeper berth. The reason for this is believed to be sleep inertia, which is a period after waking when a person’s reaction times are slowed and thought processes are dulled.
- Sleep apnea. Almost one-third of truck drivers suffer from sleep apnea, which is a breathing-related sleep disorder that causes temporary pauses in the individual’s breathing during sleep. These pauses can occur up to 400 times a night, resulting in an individual waking up drowsy even if they have had a full night’s sleep. Sleep apnea presents with symptoms such as loud snoring, morning headaches or nausea, gasping or choking while sleeping, loss of sex drive, excessive sleepiness during the daytime hours, irritability or depression, concentration or memory problems, and frequent nighttime urination.
- An unhealthy diet. Truck drivers spend a lot of their lives on the road and often do not have the same ready access to healthy meal choices that other individuals do. Skipping meals or eating at irregular times can impair an individual’s ability to sleep soundly or stay alert while they are awake.
- Medications that cause drowsiness. Truck drivers are screened regularly for drug and alcohol use that can impair their ability to drive safely. However, many drivers are not aware that over-the-counter and prescription medications intended to address issues such as allergies, sinus congestion, or pain can also produce drowsiness.
Why Is It Dangerous to Drive When Drowsy?
The FMCSA reports that being awake for 18 hours causes the same impacts to an individual’s ability to drive as a .08 blood alcohol content, which is generally considered the impairment limit for alcohol at which an individual’s risk of causing a crash dramatically increases. Some of the impacts of drowsiness on driving include slowed reaction times, less attentiveness, inability to maintain one’s travel lane, and difficulty making decisions in emergency driving situations.
There are more than 450,000 accidents involving commercial trucks in the U.S. each year, with around 5,000 of them resulting in fatalities. Three-quarters of the time, the fatalities involve occupants in passenger cars rather than the driver of the commercial truck.
A commercial truck, when fully loaded, can weigh up to 80,000 pounds, which is 20 to 30 times the weight of the average passenger vehicle. This makes the stakes even higher for commercial drivers, who can—along with the trucking company they work for—be found liable when drowsy driving results in an accident.
How Is the Problem of Fatigued Truck Drivers Being Addressed?
The FMCSA has attempted to address the problem of truck driver fatigue through hours of service regulations that apply to most commercial truck drivers who transport loads more than 150 miles from home.
The regulations state:
- Drivers may drive for up to 11 hours after 10 consecutive hours off-duty.
- Drivers cannot drive after 14 consecutive hours on-duty without first taking 10 consecutive off-duty hours.
- Drivers must take at least a 30-minute break after they have been on duty for 8 consecutive hours.
- Drivers may not drive more than 60 hours in a seven-day period or 70 hours in an eight-day period.
- Drivers may split their 10-hour off-duty period into two shorter periods, as long as one of those periods includes at least 7 hours in the sleeper berth.
- Drivers are allowed to exceed the 11-hour and 14-hour driving windows by two hours if they are driving in adverse weather conditions.
Despite these efforts, driver fatigue still causes a significant number of accidents.
If You Were Injured Due to Truck Driver Fatigue
Fatigue is a common experience for truck drivers. If you have been injured in an accident that was caused by truck driver fatigue, you can seek compensation for the expenses and impacts to your quality of life related to your injury.
You can also seek compensation for the expenses and psychological impacts caused by the death of a loved one through a similar legal claim known as a wrongful death lawsuit.
Proving Your Case
Fatigued driving is a negligent driving practice. Proving the driver (or other at-fault party) was negligent is often the most important step in demonstrating who was responsible for an accident.
Negligence is shown by establishing the following elements in your case:
- The at-fault party owed you a duty of care. The duty of care is the way a reasonably prudent driver would have responded in similar circumstances. For example, a reasonably prudent commercial truck driver would ensure that they had adequate sleep and had observed the hours of service requirements before getting back on the road. They would also ensure that their sleep apnea or other medical conditions that could cause drowsiness were properly treated and that they avoided taking any medications or other substances that cause drowsiness while they were on duty.
- The at-fault party breached their duty of care. The breach refers to the actions that the driver took that were contrary to the duty of care For example, failing to treat sleep apnea, failing to take off-duty breaks when required by law, and failing to ensure that the driver was not taking medications or engaging in other behavior that caused them to be drowsy while on duty.
- This breach of the duty of care led the at-fault party to cause an accident that resulted in financial and psychological impacts to you.
Truck Accident Compensation
After a truck accident, an attorney can help you seek both economic and non-economic damages. In truck accident or wrongful death lawsuits, the term “damages” means a payment made in compensation for harm. Economic damages, then, are a payment made in compensation for the expenses you have incurred or will likely incur from your injury.
Common economic damages after a truck accident include:
- Medical expenses, including emergency treatment at the accident scene or in an emergency room, transport to the hospital via ambulance or aircraft, hospitalization, laboratory testing and imaging scans, physician and surgical treatment, prescription medication, physical therapy, and rehabilitation. You can also seek compensation for assistive devices and durable medical equipment. Medical expenses can include estimated future medical care, as well.
- Wage losses if you are too injured to work.
- Loss of future earning capacity if your injury results in an inability to work or to earn in the same capacity as you did before the accident.
- Property damage, such as the cost of repairing or replacing the vehicle you were driving when the accident occurred.
Non-economic damages refer to the impacts that your injury has had on your quality of life.
Common examples of non-economic damages in a truck accident case resulting from a fatigued driver include:
- Physical pain and suffering.
- Emotional distress.
- Loss of enjoyment of life, if your injury prevents you from participating in activities you previously enjoyed.
- Loss of consortium, which is a damage claimed on behalf of the injured person’s spouse for the loss of physical intimacy and companionship commonly experienced after a serious injury.
In a wrongful death case, the representative on behalf of the deceased can generally recover damages to the same extent the deceased would. In addition, the representative can recover certain damages associated with the death of their loved one, including the practical expenses like funeral and burial expenses.