Mechanical Failure as a Cause of Truck Accidents
How many truck accidents are caused by mechanical failure? It’s difficult to get an exact count, but according to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA)’s Large Truck Crash Causation Study, 10 percent of all truck accidents are caused by the vehicle itself (that is, not by the driver’s actions or the environment, such as weather or traffic conditions).
The study also lists brake failure—a type of mechanical failure—as the #1 factor associated with crashes, although not the critical factor. In other words, the critical factor might have been driver error or torrential rain, but brake failure was also involved in the accident.
Trucking Companies and Mechanical Failure
Those are sobering statistics, because mechanical failure should in large part be preventable. Trucking companies have a duty of care to maintain their vehicles in safe working order.
In fact, FMCSA’s regulations for motor carriers explicitly state, in Section 396.3, that “[e]very motor carrier and intermodal equipment provider must systematically inspect, repair, and maintain, or cause to be systematically inspected, repaired, and maintained, all motor vehicles and intermodal equipment subject to its control…. Parts and accessories shall be in safe and proper operating condition at all times… including but not limited to, frame and frame assemblies, suspension systems, axles and attaching parts, wheels and rims, and steering systems.”
In further discussion, FMCSA regulations state that the inspection, repair, and maintenance must be part of a “regular or scheduled program to keep vehicles in a safe operating condition.” Such a regular program should eliminate a great percentage of mechanical failure, because problems with the truck’s systems should be found and repaired before they cause an accident.
But all too often, the economics of the trucking business competes with the requirements to keep a trucking fleet inspected and well-maintained. Trucking firms get their revenue from keeping trucks on the road carrying cargo. A truck that isn’t traveling due to inspection requirements, or sitting while being repaired or having routine maintenance performed, may look like an economic loss to some trucking companies.
Some trucking companies also outsource inspection, repair, and maintenance to other firms, who operate as subcontractors. The subcontractors, too, may feel an economic incentive to turn the trucks around quickly, which might mean skimping on the tasks assigned.
This could result in a tragic accident, causing fatalities, injuries, and property damage. Injuries caused by truck accidents can be catastrophic, resulting in the need for life-long, around-the-clock care. Trucks are significantly larger and heavier than other vehicles on the roadways. Their collisions with other vehicles can do extensive damage as a result. Truck crashes can also cause debris to be strewn about the roadways, which can also cause accidents.
What Types of Mechanical Failure Can Cause Truck Accidents?
Many different types of mechanical failure can either cause or contribute to a truck accident. They include the following.
Brake failure is one of the most common mechanical failures in trucks. Brakes in large commercial trucks are complicated to operate. Holders of a commercial driver’s license (CDL) receive specific training in how to operate the brakes. Part of the training is designed to teach them to avoid brake failure, particularly when going up steep inclines or up and down continually.
Truck brakes can take up to 40 percent more distance to stop the truck than brakes need to stop passenger cars. Truck brakes need maintenance more frequently than other truck parts.
The following issues can cause brake failure:
- Faulty brake lines
- Worn discs
- Thin or thinning brake pads
- Leaking brake fluid
- Not enough brake fluid
- Malfunction in the antilock brake system
- Improper inspection
- Infrequent or no inspection
Tire Blowout or Failure
Tire blowouts—a sudden hole in the tire caused by a slow leak or a puncture—can cause drivers to lose control and send vehicles veering off the road. This is true of any vehicle, but it may be especially true of trucks, because of their size and weight.
A rupturing truck tire can create additional possibilities for accidents, because the treads are also very large and heavy. They can peel away and become debris on the road that other vehicles may need to navigate to avoid. In some circumstances, avoidance may be impossible, and the debris could hit a vehicle or even a passerby.
The size and weight mean that truck tires must constantly withstand enormous pressure. That’s why truck owners, operators, and drivers must take great care to continuously monitor their tires.
Tires are also subject to design or other defects that can trigger recalls. Trucking companies need to monitor the type of tires they use by manufacturer and size, so they know immediately if the tires have been recalled. A recall doesn’t automatically replace a defective or dangerous tire, but it supplies notice to the user that there’s a safety problem that needs addressing.
But blowouts, failures, and defects aren’t the only potential problems with tires. A tire with thinning or bald tread, for example, can make steering and operation more difficult, especially in inclement weather or rough roads.
Tire pressure can also be a concern. Tires need to be inflated to the right pressure. If they are overinflated or underinflated, they can cause problems with braking or cause a blowout. This is especially true if the truck is too heavily loaded for its size, temperatures are very hot, or both.
Proper inspection and maintenance include regularly rotating tires, measuring tire treads at established intervals, replacing tires when tread becomes too thin, frequently gauging tire pressure, and keeping track of tire recalls.
Broken, Missing, or Malfunctioning Lights
Lights, including headlights, taillights, turn signals, and lights on the side, are essential safety features for a truck, just as they are on every vehicle. They are key to a driver’s being able to see the road, other vehicles, and traffic patterns, especially in the dark. They also make it possible for other drivers to see the truck. Turn signals are an essential form of communication on the road, indicating the driver’s planned movements in a way that other drivers can see.
Lights that are broken, burned out, or have ceased to function are a serious threat to safety on the roads. Despite this, malfunctioning lights are one of the most commonly occurring mechanical failures.
Checking lights should be part of all routinely scheduled inspections, and anything broken, missing, or not functioning properly needs to be replaced immediately.
Windshield wipers may seem innocuous as a cause of accidents because they are small, easily understood, and common. But windshield wipers are one of the most important safety features on trucks. The reason is simple: without them, drivers can’t see clearly in inclement weather.
Not only that, but drivers sometimes may feel pressure from the trucking company to keep driving even if it is raining heavily. They may not have the luxury of pulling off the road if the windshield wipers aren’t working well or are missing when it rains. Rain, especially heavy rain, can greatly exacerbate the risks of certain types of accidents, including a rollover or a jackknife. Collisions of all types may become more likely if it’s raining and the driver can’t see well.
Windshield wipers can become too worn to remove rain or other liquids effectively. When that happens, they need to be replaced. (They should also be inspected frequently so it doesn’t happen.)
Windshield wipers can also be torn off. If that happens, they need to be replaced immediately, no matter what the weather forecast is.
Transmissions are essential to a vehicle’s operation. Faulty transmissions are, unfortunately, a common mechanical failure in trucks. Unfortunately, overloaded trucks, with too much cargo for their size, are a leading cause or transmission failure, as is improper loading (weight unequally distributed or in the wrong place).
Transmissions need to be inspected regularly, as part of standard, continuous truck maintenance. Transmission fluid needs to be replaced regularly and the levels checked.
Steering or Suspension Failure
Issues in the steering wheel, steering column, steering mechanism, or suspension of the car can make the truck difficult or impossible to drive properly, and can affect operations through the car. Unfortunately, too heavy or improperly loaded cargo can cause these problems as well. Poor driving patterns can also cause problems with the steering.
These problems tend not to surface until they are far advanced, so checking the steering mechanisms and suspension system needs to be an essential part of maintenance.
Rear-guards are metal bars below the tailgate. An increasing number of trucks have them installed to prevent a type of accident known as an underride, where a smaller vehicle goes directly under the truck. Underrides can occur if the smaller vehicle is traveling too close to a truck to stop when it does, or the driver doesn’t notice that the truck is slowing to stop until it is too late.
Rear-guards are designed to be installed so that they will hit a smaller vehicle’s grille if a vehicle does in fact come close enough to hit the guard. But many aren’t installed correctly, and are in a position where the impacted part of the smaller vehicle will be the windshield. This can cause devastating injuries, just as an underride can.
Rear-guards can also fall off or malfunction if they aren’t installed properly.
Failures in the Hitch (Coupling Malfunction)
Commercial truck trailers are connected via hitches. Coupling malfunction can happen with a hitch or with the trailer, and can cause the trailer to either disattach or become unhinged (still attached, but not firmly). This can cause catastrophic accidents, especially at high speeds.
Coupling malfunctions can also cause accidents specific to trucks, such as a jack-knife (where one side of the truck becomes perpendicular to the other, resembling an open jack-knife). They can also cause rollovers and collisions.
Who Is Responsible for Truck Accidents Caused by Mechanical Failure?
If a truck accident is caused by mechanical failure, several different parties could bear responsibility.
Trucking Companies and Subcontractors
As noted earlier, trucking companies are required by the FMCSA to regularly inspect, repair, and maintain their vehicles. They need to keep records of all these activities as well, which show what was done and the dates that activities were performed. If trucking companies have subcontracted with another firm, these companies also need to keep records.
If you have been injured by a mechanical failure caused by lack of inspection, repair, and maintenance, the records can be investigated if you bring a legal suit against the party responsible.
By law, holders of a CDL must inspect their trucks for mechanical issues before beginning a haul and after completing it. Both state and federal regulations require trucks to stop at weigh stations as well. Truckers should obey any safety warnings and stop operating a truck with known mechanical issues. In addition, of course, truck drivers should always drive safely and follow all traffic laws.
Truck manufacturers can be liable for producing and marketing dangerous or defective products. They can also be liable if they withhold information on defects or safety issues, or fail to warn appropriately.
Manufacturers of Parts and Components
If a part, component, or accessory either causes or contributes to the mechanical failure, its manufacturer may also face legal liability for producing it, marketing it, or withholding information about defects or safety issues, or failure to warn appropriately.
All these parties owe a duty of care to the public: to make sure their vehicles are safe, that the vehicles they have care of are made safe, to drive safely, and to produce safe products. If they violate the duty of care, they can be considered negligent. If the negligent actions result in an accident, they can be deemed responsible for the accident and liable for damages resulting from it.
How an Experienced Truck Accident Attorney Can Help
If you or a loved one were injured or harmed in a truck accident you think was caused by mechanical failure, can an experienced truck accident lawyer. An independent investigation can determine the contributing factors in the accident, then your truck accident attorney can fight to see that justice is done.