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Understanding the Dangers of Trucks in the Wake of the Berks County Tragedy

November 20, 2014

Over the past few years, this blog has discussed the dangers of trucking from various angles, covering the government’s efforts to keep drivers off their cell phones and reporting about the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s findings that tractor-trailers killed nearly 3,800 people in 2011. Tragically, our focus for this story shifts from the national level to the local.

On November 19, a driver–who admits to falling asleep at the wheel while driving a recycling truck on Allentown Pike in Maidencreek Township, Pennsylvania–drifted into lanes carrying oncoming traffic. He then struck several cars, killing two passengers and injuring nine more, several of whom were waiting to pull out of a Dunkin Donuts parking lot. Berks County District Attorney John Adams explained that this “horrific accident” was the fault of only one driver:“This tractor-trailer basically plowed through and caused this.”

He went on to say, “When [the driver] woke up he laid on the brakes but needless to say the tractor-trailer careened across his lane of traffic, impacting two vehicles waiting to leave this scene at Dunkin Donuts.” Adams also pointed out that the evidence suggests the driver was speeding at the time of the collision. Steven Henshaw of the Reading Eagle reports that this is a “notorious stretch of highway where four-lane, high-speed traffic is funneled into two lanes, leading to backups at traffic lights and causing frequent rear-end collisions, some of them deadly.” After the initial rear-end impact, several cars piled up under and in front of the truck and became pinned against a Dunkin Donuts sign. It took about three hours for rescue crews to free drivers and passengers of the other vehicles.

Trucking is dangerous business, and researchers estimate that while tractor-trailers represent less than five percent of all passenger vehicles on the road at any given time, they are involved in 12.4 percent of all fatal crashes. For every mile traveled, trucks are 17 percent more likely to kill other motorists than cars and vans. Part of this may be traced to the economics of the industry: drivers are paid according to the distance they drive, not the time it takes them to finish a route. In other words, they often ignore routine safety measures, put off repairs to their vehicles, and sleep less than they should. In just one year, Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration inspectors found over 7 million violations during roadside checks. Almost one million of these were serious enough to warrant either trucks or drivers being placed out of service.

As we have seen time and time again on this blog, when an industry becomes dangerous due to a lack of regulation, the civil justice system stands as the last line of defense when it comes to making victims whole when they are harmed through no fault of their own.

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