New Jersey Truck Accidents Caused by Driver Fatigue

When we think of risky driving behaviors, speeding, driving under the influence, or texting while driving typically come to mind. But there is one extremely dangerous behavior that is often overlooked: driving while fatigued. Drowsy driving caused 91,000 car crashes in 2017. While drowsy driving is reckless in any vehicle, imagine a driver falling asleep while operating an 80,000 pound, 18-wheel commercial truck. 

This article will explore the issue of trucker fatigue and help you determine your next steps if you or a loved one have been the victim of a truck accident caused by driver fatigue.

Can I Prove the Truck Driver Was Fatigued?

Fatigued truck driving is easily preventable, yet it still happens every day. The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) found that 13% of all commercial motor vehicle crashes involved a fatigued driver. If you suspect the trucker who hit you was fatigued, there are several ways to support this claim and get the compensation you deserve.

Logbook Violations

Truck drivers are required by the FMCSA to track their driving time in a logbook or electronic logging device (ELD). Some ELDs connect directly to the engine, so the timer starts when the truck starts driving. Some logging systems now even have a smart device in the cabin of the truck. Many drivers still log their hours by hand, making it easier for drivers and employers to break the rules, though drivers who violate the hours-of-service rules may be put “out-of-service” until the driver has accumulated enough off-duty time to be back in compliance. 

Repeated violations can result in fines costing a driver and the employer thousands of dollars, but that money does not go to a person who was injured by a fatigued truck driver. Compensation for the victim’s medical expenses will come from insurance. An experienced attorney will know how to look for logbook violations if a client is injured in a truck accident, but there are also other ways to prove a trucker was fatigued. 

Other Evidence of Driver Fatigue

All a victim can do is observe and record as much information as possible and then leave the rest to their attorney. A skilled lawyer who specializes in truck driver fatigue cases can analyze a variety of sources to find evidence that this contributed to an accident.  Other sources to investigate include:

Did the victim or eyewitnesses see the truck driver swerving, drifting onto the rumble strip, or driving at an inconsistent speed just prior to the accident? If so, that might indicate the driver had an issue staying attentive behind the wheel.

If the driver has blood-shot eyes, yawns often, or rubs their eyes frequently, that can tip-off the officer that the driver might be too tired to drive. While such behaviors are not conclusive evidence, they might prompt the officer to examine the driver’s records. If the driver is hesitant to show his/her logbook, that is also a sign they might be hiding Hours of Service (HOS) violations.

Simply examining the driver’s logbook might reveal that the driver was working for too long. An experienced attorney can cross reference the logbook with receipts from tolls, gas stations, and rest stops. An attorney can find valuable clues in the purchases themselves, such as buying a lot of energy drinks, caffeinated beverages, or medications.

The driver might have been diagnosed with insomnia or sleep apnea, which would definitely contribute to fatigue. If the driver’s doctor knew that their patient was a truck driver, they might be found liable for not recommending that they find a different profession or avoid driving at night. Similarly, an employer could be found liable if they knew the driver had a sleeping condition. The driver himself could also be liable for driving when they knew they lacked the capacity to do so safely.

Who Might Liable for the Accident?

Many parties can be found liable – not just the people present at the accident. Of course, the driver can be liable if he was asleep, visibly fatigued, intoxicated, speeding, or otherwise reckless behind the wheel. 

The trucking company might also be liable. Employers are notorious for setting unrealistic shipping deadlines that don’t take unforeseen delays or weather conditions into account. Companies that offer same-day-shipping are likely to pressure their drivers to work too much, or even to encourage falsifying records. If an employer saw visible signs of fatigue in one of their employees, they could be held liable for allowing the employee to get into the truck.

Other liable parties could include the truck manufacturer, the electronic logging device manufacturer, or the Department of Transportation for not addressing unsafe road conditions. 

Who Will Pay for My Accident Expenses?

New Jersey is a no-fault state, meaning that every driver must have their own Personal Injury Protection (PIP) policy to cover them, no matter who was at fault for the accident. If PIP is insufficient or denies the claim, the victim can turn to the truck driver’s insurance. If the driver is an employee of the trucking company, he or she will likely be covered by the company’s insurance. If the driver is an independent contractor, he or she will likely be covered by their own policy. If other parties are liable, such as the truck manufacturer, the electronic logging device manufacturer, or the Department of Transportation, their insurance might provide coverage as well. 

Once a victim has exhausted all other options to receive compensation, it may be possible to file a lawsuit. It’s important to note that the New Jersey statute of limitations (time limit to file) on personal injury claims is two years so it makes sense to contact a personal injury attorney as soon as possible following an accident. This attorney will work with the other parties’ insurance adjusters to recover just compensation. Sometimes the process stops here. Other times, the attorney and the insurance company will negotiate a settlement amount. This is the most common scenario, as insurance companies rarely want to pursue the long and expensive process of a trial. 

If the case does move to trial, the court will use New Jersey’s comparative fault (also known as ‘comparative negligence’) model to determine who pays what. The simplest explanation of this concept is that the sum each driver pays corresponds to the degree to which they were at fault. Link to this article where  comparative fault is discussed in much greater detail.

Overworked Drivers

The primary cause of trucker fatigue is simply working too much. There are federal regulations which place an 11-hour limit on consecutive driving hours. Once that limit has been reached, the driver must go off duty for 10 hours. These rules are helpful but they don’t entirely prevent fatigue. 

Even if the driver abides by the law perfectly, 11 hours is still a long time on the road – particularly in the dark. Employers also have no idea if the driver actually rested while off duty. Some drivers also double as mechanics and do other work during the time they should be resting. 

Driving rules are often poorly enforced. Employers sometimes set unrealistic delivery deadlines, pressuring drivers to work past the mandated limit. 

In one New Jersey case, a truck driver fell asleep at the wheel and crashed into the card of a 37-year-old woman, leaving her permanently disabled. The driver routinely worked 130 hour work weeks as both a driver and a mechanic. He had also been drinking before the accident, which complicates the issue of his fatigue. The victim sued the driver, driver’s employer, and the taverns where he had been drinking. The victim was awarded more than $3,000,000 to be paid by the driver and the two taverns.

Medical Conditions

The American Academy of Sleep Medicine reports that 26% of adults between the ages of 30 and 70 suffer from sleep apnea.  In one case, a driver was involved in an accident while driving for work, rear-ending a car and causing damage. Approximately four weeks later, he again fell asleep behind the wheel while driving at work, causing damage to a company vehicle. He was later diagnosed with sleep apnea. 

While some truckers might hesitate to report such an issue, he notified his employer and subsequently resigned. Unfortunately, the state refused to provide unemployment benefits while he searched for new work. This was based on the technicality that his job did not cause or aggravate his disability, thereby making him ineligible for benefits. One can imagine that cases like these might discourage truck drivers from being forthcoming about their capacity to drive safely. 

Other Common Causes of Driver Fatigue

Long-haul truck driving is an incredibly demanding job. Fatigue is understandable and happens for a variety of reasons. Some other common causes of truck driver fatigue include: 

Truck driving is an isolating experience. Substance abuse is, sadly, quite common among truckers. One study found that American truckers have the highest percentage of positive alcohol tests, at 12.5%. Overuse of alcohol can cause fatigue.

Many drivers turn to stimulating drugs to combat drowsiness, loneliness, or just plain boredom. A staggering 36% of truck drivers reported taking amphetamines on the job. Sometimes, stimulants can backfire and lead to an energy crash.

Truckers have no passengers to take over when they need a break. Another danger of isolation is that the driver has no companion to point out that the driver is looking tired and suggest stopping for a while. Once the driver becomes fatigued, their judgement can become impaired and they lose the ability to recognize that they should stop driving.

van hitting someone

Case Study: $3.9 Million

What makes this case unique: Competing arguments on whether the victim had experienced “impending doom”; a big-shot attorney who was “too large” for the case.

Frequently Asked Questions

Is it illegal to fall asleep while driving? 

In New Jersey, the simple answer is yes. That’s thanks to ‘Maggie’s Law,’  which classifies driving while knowingly fatigued as reckless driving. A person can be convicted of vehicular homicide if their reckless driving leads to the death of another. So, since drowsy driving is legally considered to be reckless, a driver can be convicted of vehicular homicide if they kill someone while driving under the influence of fatigue. 

What types of truck accidents are caused by driver fatigue? 

Fatigued driving often results in head-on collision accidents. When people fall asleep at the wheel, they will often drift into the opposite lane of traffic and hit another vehicle head-on.

Other truck accident types include ‘jackknifing,’ which happens when a driver breaks too quickly and the trailer swings out from behind the tractor at a 90-degree angle. This can happen when a driver’s judgment and reflexes are impaired by fatigue. 

Another consequence of slamming on the breaks is ‘underride accidents.’ These occur when a truck stops short and a smaller vehicle collides with the truck and slides underneath the trailer itself. 

What is the ‘split sleeper berth’ provision?

Many commercial vehicles are built with an area for the driver to rest, commonly referred to as a ‘sleeper cab’ or ‘sleeper berth.’ If a truck has a sleeper available, the driver has the option to split up their rest period according to the ‘Sleeper Berth Provision’ provided by the FMCSA. 

Under this rule, drivers may split their 10-hour off-duty period as long as one off-duty period involves at least 7 consecutive hours spent in the sleeper berth and the other is at least 2 hours long, spent either in or out of the sleeper. The two rest periods must add up to 10 hours in order to comply with FMCSA regulations.

Many truckers believe they can officially log a sleeper berth rest period even if their truck does not have a sleeping area. If a driver chooses to do so, a law enforcement officer (LEO) would be authorized to issue them a logbook violation ticket. The best policy for drivers traveling without a sleeper berth is to record their rest time as ‘off-duty.’ 

Who Do I Contact if I’ve Been Injured by a Fatigued Truck Driver?

If you or someone you love has been injured or killed in a truck accident, contact the attorneys at Rosenblum Law. Our experienced and skilled attorneys have won many cases with positive results. To speak directly to one of our attorneys call 888-235-9021 or email us today.

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