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Runway Truck Accident

Posted in Blog on May 24, 2013

Have you ever been navigating your car down one of the long grades that wind through the Colorado Rockies, and noticed an 18-wheeler in your rear-view mirror? While you worried about your own brakes on a downhill that lasts for miles, did you also wonder just how strong the brakes could be on a vehicle 20 times the weight of your car?

Causes of runaway truck crashes

Moving an 80,000-pound truck over the Colorado Rockies entails unavoidable risk, even under the best of circumstances. Mountain passes like the Eisenhower on I-70, with a 7 % grade extending for miles, cause terrific strain on the braking systems of a tractor-trailer. Vehicle brakes work by converting the energy of motion into the energy of heat through friction, and the amount of heat created is proportional to the weight and speed of the vehicle. If semi drivers don’t follow stringent speed limits, the temperature of their brakes will exceed 500 F, and they will experience a decrease or even total loss of braking power.

According to the latest statistics from the U.S. Department of Transportation, accidents involving large trucks have increased significantly. Runaway semi-trucks on long downhill grades are one significant contributor to this increase, and there are several causes for this type of accident:

  • Driving too aggressively: Big rig drivers can easily underestimate the strain which long descents can put on their brakes. A truck and trailer which may have the braking power to descend a long mountain pass may not have the additional ability to stop for an unexpected braking event. The rule of thumb is that a truck should descend a hill at a slower speed than it ascended at, but depending on the weight of the vehicle, it may need to travel at speeds even less than 25 mph in order to be safe on a long downhill grade.
  • Not using escape ramps: One safety feature that truck drivers are expected to make use of is the runaway truck ramp. You may have seen these escape ramps at the sides of highways: special gravel-covered exit lanes provided for trucks which have lost their braking power. When a driver has escape ramps available and doesn’t use them, as in this dramatic California incident, that may have serious legal repercussions.
  • Driver exhaustion, impairment, or inexperience: Economic pressure on commercial truckers is one major cause of the increase in truck accidents, as drivers push themselves harder to meet deadlines and beat the competition.

Legal responsibilities of truck-drivers

You may have wondered whether a truck-driver could be held responsible for losing their brakes on a mountain pass, or if bad outcomes are only a matter of sheer physics. It’s important to know that these legal questions can be answered in a clear, quantitative way. Guesswork is not involved. While it’s true that intrinsic risks are involved when heavy vehicles encounter gravity, the drivers of those big trucks are expected to possess some very specialized skills and knowledge. In addition to the requirements for a commercial driver’s license, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration publishes extensive rules and regulations which drivers are expected to follow.

Your options

If you’re traveling on a steep downgrade and notice a semi-truck headed toward you at an unsafe speed, you will logically do almost anything to get out of that truck’s way — even if it means causing damage with your own vehicle. Hopefully you’ll never have to make this kind of choice, or have any personal reason to wonder about the legal ramifications of runaway truck crashes. However, as you travel the mountainous highways of Colorado, it’s good to keep in mind the fact that there is a legal system which protects you. Personal injury lawyers in this field have extensive experience in separating out driver responsibility and random physical risks in runaway truck crashes, and they often work together with crash forensic specialists. This type of expert examines the condition of vehicles after an accident and provides expert testimony regarding the exact safety requirements of the stretch of roadway involved in the accident. A legal team working on your behalf will be able to analyze an accident and provide you with solid legal answers to questions of liability.

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