Truck Accidents: Know the key regs!

Interstate trucking is an industry that is very highly regulated by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA).  It is essential that lawyers handling truck cases – – – either on behalf of the plaintiff or defendant – – – be familiar with those regulations at 49 of the CFR, Parts 380 through 399.   Space does not permit us to cover each one of them, but here are the key regs most likely to be relevant in a truck case.

                        1.         Hours of Service (49 CFR §395 et. seq.) – The starting point for determining whether there is a “driver fatigue” issue, §395.3 sets strict limits on the number of hours that an operator can drive.  Sometimes referred to as the 14-11-8 rule, the regulation basically provides that a driver has a 14-hour “window” during which he can drive a total of 11 hours, no more than 8 hours consecutively.  After 8 consecutive hours the driver must take a break of at least 30 minutes.  Thus, if a driver comes on duty at 12:00 noon, he has a “window” up through 2:00 a.m. to drive a total of 11 hours, no more than 8 of which can be consecutive without taking a 30-minute break.  After the break, he can drive another 3 hours before the window closes at 2:00a.m.

                                    Once the 14-hour “window” closes, the trucker must be “off duty” for 10 consecutive hours.  (If the truck has a sleeper berth, then under §395.1 (g) the driver must spend at least eight (8) consecutive hours in the sleeper berth.) Please note that “off duty” does not require that the driver be sleeping; instead, it simply means that the driver must be doing something not in furtherance of the trucking operation, e.g. they could be sitting in a restaurant reading a book.

                         2.        Log Books (§395.8) – Drivers are required to maintain log books which accurately track all of their time throughout the day.  In the “old days,” logs were paper notebooks or journals kept in the cab of the truck, but as of 2018 interstate truckers must keep logs on an electronic device such as an on-board computer or smart phone mounted in the truck.  After any serious accident, confiscation of those logs is one of the first steps in their any police investigation.

                                    Similarly, for any lawyer investigating a case, a quick check of the log books is among the first things to be done.  If a violation of the 14-11-8 rule is found, the plaintiff definitely has a “leg up” on liability not only against the driver but perhaps also against the employer, for under §395.8(a) the motor carrier is specifically required to monitor its drivers to insure compliance with driving limitations.

                                    In hours of service “lingo,” §395.8(b) says the driver’s “duty status” listed in the log must fit into one of these four categories:

                        3.         Drug Testing – Obviously, liability is enhanced if a driver is found to have been under the influence of alcohol or drugs at the time of the accident.  Here is what the regulations say about testing for those substances.

                        4.         Required Knowledge and Skills (§383.110) Beyond the general requirement that “all drivers of CMVs (commercial motor vehicles) must have the knowledge and skills necessary to operate a CMV safely,” the regs list a litany of specific knowledge (§383.111) or skills (§383.113) that the driver must possess, e.g. inspection and repair requirements; the effects of fatigue, alcohol and drugs; the function of control mechanisms and instruments in the vehicle; how to perform maneuvers including starting, backing up, point turning, shifting, etc.; speed management; night driving factors; bad weather driving; emergency maneuvers; and a whole host of other matters pertinent to safe driving.

                        6.         Driver Qualification File   (§391.51) – Every interstate trucking company is required to maintain a Driver Qualification File which contains the driver’s application for employment; a copy of the driving record for the previous 3 years received from prior trucking companies and the states where the driver is licensed (391.23(a) 1 and 2); the certificate of the driver’s road test or the equivalent thereof; a note relating to review of the driver’s record; a medical certificate. 

                        7.         Load Security  (§392.9(b)(2)) – Cases involving accidents due to unsteady loads often generate debate about fault between the driver and the shipper.  It is the responsibility of the driver to “assure himself that the load is adequately secured” before starting a trip and to re-examine the load within the first fifty (50) miles.    Thus, while there may be common law duties imposed on the shipper who initially loaded the cargo, the driver has an independent duty to make sure the load is secure.

                        8.         Minimum Insurance (§387.9) – Interstate carriers are required to carry a minimum of $750,000 in liability coverage for personal injuries, and $5,000,000 (five million) if the carrier transports hazardous materials

            CONCLUSION  – In building liability or fashioning a defense in any truck accident case it is wise for counsel to start by consulting the regulations since it is virtually certain that the FMCSA has spoken to some relevant aspect of your case.