Texas trucking crashes and commercial motor vehicle accidents are a product of a booming transportation and oil and gas industry. We discuss some of the lies and dishonesties about these crashes being used to push tort reform.
Speaker: Welcome to Hill Law Firm Cases, a podcast discussing real-world cases handled by Justin Hill and the Hill Law Firm. For confidentiality reasons, names and amounts of any settlements have been removed. However, the facts are real and these are the cases we handle on a day-to-day basis.
Two professors at the University of Central Arkansas in Conway completed research recently using hair and urine samples for drug testing, and they were also studying whether hair drug testing has any racial bias to it. One of the things they found was that if we move to hair drug testing instead of urine, more than 300,000 truckers would be removed from the roadway. They would be unable to pass their drug test because they will have used illicit drugs in whatever time allowed to show up on a hair drug test.
The authors were asked to do this by a trucking industry association because the trucking industry associations were considering hair drug testing. This really shocking finding came out of their research that basically said that urinalysis is insufficient to really pick up illicit drug use after some amount of time. If we really want to crack down on people who think it’s okay to drive 80,000-pound vehicles and also use drugs that we should use hair analysis.
Now, the obvious import for the industry is we can’t lose 300,000 drivers overnight. What would we do? Where would we find those 300,000 people to make up for those jobs? That would likely mean they’d have to raise wages and make their jobs more appealing. The researchers went on to talk about how all those people should be pulled off the road, and they don’t care what the industry has to do to fix that problem. That it’s really just so reckless for trucking companies to have this information. To know that if they did a hair test that they would find some of their truckers were using drugs or alcohol, and they still don’t do it.
This is a study that came out this year, just six months ago. This is really important right now because what’s happening in Texas is a coalition of trucking companies and trucking industry trade groups, and highly most likely also insurance companies are pushing for reforms of our legal industry so that they’re held less accountable when they cause crashes. Texans for Lawsuit Reform and the trucking association here in Texas have teamed up, and they say that lawsuits and people injured on the road are putting them out of business. Texas doesn’t even have close to the highest trucking insurance premiums, but the trucking industry is saying we can’t afford these premiums so we have to get legislative changes to our legal system.
It’s worth noting that they’re not discussing changing the way insurance is handled in Texas. They’re not discussing changes to their own industry that allows for a lot of trucking crashes in Texas that involve texting and driving, alcohol-related driving, and lots of really egregious gross negligence. It is criminal, but almost homicidal behavior. If you were behind an 80,000-pound vehicle and you’re texting and driving or drunk, you know that you’ve got a really high likelihood of hurting somebody or killing somebody. But the industry isn’t trying to address that. What they want to do is say, “Hey, legislators. Please shield us from lawsuits because we’re not self-regulating,” which is leading to a lot of bad lawsuits and a lot of injured and killed Texans too that people forget to talk about, so they want the legislator to fix it.
Just for some background information, Texas has had an explosion in the oil and gas industry which has led to an explosion in the support industry for that, supporting oil and gas, and a lot of that is trucking. We’ve had a lot more trucking lawsuits filed, but we’ve also had a lot more truckers on the road, which means more truck crashes, which means more injured people, and therefore more lawsuits. You have the industry talking about truck crashes and the lawsuits associated with those going up, but they’re not talking about that.
It’s just normal what you would expect when you have an explosion in the trucking industry, you’re going to have an explosion in trucking crashes. When insurance companies are deciding whether to settle those cases, well, they don’t ever really do the right thing, so that leads to lawsuits against the trucking companies. Trucking companies should be asking for some reforms with the insurance industry but instead, they just want to stick it to Texans who’ve been injured.
The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration puts out a lot of data. Really, they’re an incredible resource. If you want to know anything about highway safety, vehicle crashes, 18-wheeler crashes and the like, they put together a lot of information. Their most recent data on crash facts was from 2018, and I wanted to cover some of it. Their annual edition of Large Truck and Bus Crash Facts just covers all the statistics related to what compiled in 2018. They pull that information from the Fatality Analysis Reporting System by NHTSA. They pull information from the General Estimates System, also maintained by NHTSA, Crash Reporting Sampling System or CRSS, which is also NHTSA, and the Motor Carrier Management Information System or MCMIS crash file, which is maintained by the FMCSA.
They pull a lot of this information. They specifically track information relating to types of crashes, types of vehicles involved, what happened to people, and what happened to drivers in crashes. Some of the trends that they noted was that in 2018, 5,096 large trucks and buses were involved in fatal crashes, which is only a 1% increase from 2017, but it’s a 48% increase from 2009. If you live in Texas you know in 2008-2009, that’s when all the shale booms started. In the last 11 years, we’ve had a huge explosion in the oil and gas industry and all over America due to fracking and some of the other regulations that changed. In that same time, you saw an almost 50% increase in fatality crashes involving large trucks and buses.
There was a 34% decrease in the number of fatal crashes involving large trucks, 18 wheelers, and buses from ’05 to ’09, and then a 45% increase from ’09 to ’18. What we saw was a trending downward and then an explosion upward which just matches the oil and gas boom. From today 2009 to 2015, injury crashes increased 62%. What do we know about some of those crashes? Of approximately 499,000 reported crashes involving large trucks, 1% were fatal crashes, and 107,000 or 21% involved somebody getting injured. That makes sense. You have an 80,000-pound vehicle, it doesn’t have to go fast to hurt somebody.
Approximately 57% of all fatal crashes involving 18 wheelers occurred in a rural area, 26% occurred on an interstate setting, and 13% fell into both of those categories, on an interstate in a rural area. There were 13.5 fatal, large truck crashes per million people in 2018, which is a 27% increase from 2010. What we’re seeing is the number of fatality and injury-related crashes has steadily been going up somewhere between 3% and 5% a year, and that’s going to lead to an increase in claims on insurance policies. In 2018, there were 1.12 fatalities in federal crashes involving large trucks. The majority 82% were people that were not in the large truck. Big truck hits passenger vehicle, passenger vehicle takes the brunt, and those people get hurt.
Then some other things I thought were interesting. From 2015 to 2018, the number of large trucks weighing between 10,000 and 14,000 pounds in crashes increased 330%. We’re not talking the fully-loaded 18 wheeler, we’re talking about some of the smaller commercial motor vehicles, and you see that across the spectrum. You take away some of the 18-wheeler 80,000-pound vehicles and some of the smaller commercial vehicles, the rate of crashes increased significantly over the last five years. Then from the people. Of the 4,786 drivers of large trucks involved in fatal crashes, 7% were 25 years or younger, and 6% were 66 years or older. Speeding of any kind was the most frequent driver-related factor in the crash.
I also wanted to look into some of the causes of some of the crash, and luckily the FMCSA has produced a really detailed study called the LTCCS, the Large Truck Crash Causation Study. It hasn’t been updated in about 10 years but it’s still full of a lot of great information. Basically, what they said was they took factors that are most likely to increase the cause of a crash or increase the risk of a crash, and they included them as causation factors for this data collection focus only.
What they did was they analyzed 963 crashes over a 33-month span. What would happen is in 17 States they had people on the ground who would go out and investigate crashes as soon as a crash occurred. They would send their own researcher and a state truck inspector out to the site of a crash. They would do their own investigation, they’d go through logbooks and witness statements. They’d look at the scene, they would track weather conditions. They would collect over 1,000 different elements on the truck, the driver, the other vehicles involved, the roadway conditions and everything, to try to compile some information about large truck crashes in the United States. During that 33-month study, there were approximately 120,000 fatal and injury-causing crashes involving large trucks nationwide.
Then what they did was they tried to determine what the critical event was in a crash, and that was basically whatever put that crash into a course that made the collision unavoidable. For example, running out of a travel lane either into a wall or into a lane or off the road, that was one of the things they would consider a critical event. Or rear-ending another vehicle; that would be a critical event. Once it was started it was unavoidable, the truck couldn’t stop in time. Then vehicle loss of control by either going too fast or a vehicle breaking or cargo shifting was another critical event.
Then what they did was they looked at the critical event and they tried to come up with a critical reason. Sometimes that involved the vehicle, so the brakes went out. Sometimes environment, maybe there’s ice on the road, but the vast majority of them they decided had to do with the drivers themselves. Then they categorized those crashes by driver critical reasons, and they broke them down into four categories. Driver non-performance, meaning the driver either fell asleep or had a heart attack or passed out or was somehow physically impaired for some reason.
Driver recognition was another one. This was that they became inattentive for some reason. It could be texting and driving, some sort of distraction in the vehicle, or they just didn’t observe a situation fast enough or adequately enough to come to a stop. There was driver decision-making. In those cases they categorized as driver decision-making, they said the driver drove too fast for the conditions or followed too closely or didn’t recognize the weather or something like that. Then the last one was driver performance. In this, they said basically the driver either overcompensated or they panicked or they just exercised poor judgment in the situation.
Of the hundreds of associated factors related to these crashes, the top 10 factors they decided were causative of large trucks crashing and their drivers making bad decisions were brake problems, traffic flow interruptions, or either congestion or previous crash, stop and go traffic. Prescription drug use was very high, traveling too fast, unfamiliarity with a roadway, roadway problems. Required to stop before crash, so a traffic control device or crosswalk. Over-the-counter drug use, inadequate surveillance, and fatigue.
Let’s think for a second. Of the 10 factors quoted for large trucks and their drivers being causative of a crash that injured or killed somebody, 2 of the top 10 factors were drug use. That’s crazy to think about. Yes, it’s pretty off-putting. Then some of the other associated factors that they really walked through in their report was how prevalent some of these issues were. We talk about over-the-counter drug use. That was noted in 17% of the 963 crashes that they evaluated. Illegal drugs were in 2%. Alcohol was in 1%. External distraction was in 8%.
A lot of really avoidable issues are causing and leading to the crashes on our highways that kill thousands of people every year, that injure hundreds of thousands of people every year, taking away people’s livelihoods, taking away their loved ones, changing their lives. Instead of talking about how to make our roadways safer, we’re talking about how to protect the insurance industry, and I think that’s a real disservice to all of us. They really know a lot of good trucking companies as well. The good companies are harmed by the bad companies, and the bad companies are the reason that insurance rates are being driven up. If a bad company gets bankrupted by a lawsuit, that is the way that we have regulated that bad company.
If they’re putting drivers on the road who are on their phone or on drugs or don’t have a license, of which I’ve handled all three of those types of cases. I’ve handled cases where a driver was unlicensed and his company kept paying his tickets because he said he was going to get licensed eventually. Those types of companies should not exist. Their good drivers will have no problem finding a job. Their bad drivers and unlicensed drivers shouldn’t be on the road anyway. If they’re a company that doesn’t focus on safety, even though they allow 80,000-pound vehicles on the road going 70 miles an hour, they shouldn’t be in that industry. They should let the good companies pick up that market share, hire their good drivers, and follow good safety protocols.
We’re going to continue to talk about this as our law firm has represented many injured people injured by 18 wheelers through no fault of their own. We think it’s really important that the right to trial by jury be preserved. If there are some changes and tweaks to be made, I think everybody is always open to those discussions, but we should not be shielding 18-wheeler companies and bad companies and bad drivers from the harm that they caused to our fellow Texans. Stay tuned. We’ll talk about it more, and we’ll see you next time on the next episode of Hill Law Firm podcast.
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