The fatal trucking accident that left comedian Tracy Morgan seriously injured has put commercial trucking practices under intense scrutiny. According to reports, the truck driver who rear-ended Morgan’s party had not slept for 24 hours before the crash. Some even say he was asleep at the wheel when the accident occurred.
The incident has left drivers with some uneasy questions about the safety of tractor-trailers and the men and women driving them.
Is It Against the Law to Fall Asleep at the Wheel?
Many truckers are paid by the load, so if they work more, they earn more. This can tempt drivers to overestimate themselves and “push through” with less and less sleep, so they can make time for more loads.
In 2013, federal trucking regulations were rewritten to include more restrictions on how long drivers could stay on the clock or go without a break. The new policies limited drivers to 70-hour workweeks, and mandated 30-minute breaks for every 8 hours “on duty.” In addition, truckers must have at least 34 consecutive hours off duty prior to starting their next 70-hour period.
Violations can result in stiff fines for the driver and the trucking company. If a driver exceeds driving limits by more than three hours, the trucking company can be fined up to $11,000 per offense.
Equally important is the fact that New Jersey is currently the only state that has a law punishing drowsy drivers. According to “Maggie’s Law”, if a person who has not slept in 24 hours causes a fatal accident, he or she can be charged with vehicular manslaughter.
In any state, falling asleep while driving is considered negligent and drivers can still be arrested, fined and sued.
How Do Trucking Companies Make Sure Drivers Take Their Breaks?
All drivers are required to fill out a Department of Transportation (DOT) logbook detailing their activities in a 24-hour period. The driver should document breaks and off time regularly, providing a clear record if authorities need to investigate.
Falsifying a logbook is fairly easy, unfortunately. Often, authorities only find the errors after a tragedy has already occurred.
Some trucking companies are using more modern methods, relying on GPS receivers to help them keep track of their drivers. These are much more accurate and verifiable than logbooks, but companies have to decide to install them. They are not required.
To complicate matters, truckers are often resistant to the new technology. In Boston, 200 snowplow operators rebelled against regulations that required all independent contractors to carry phones with GPS, staging several protests.
Despite objections, many trucking companies welcome GPS receivers as a means to track productivity, investigate complaints and verify useful payment information.
Can a Trucking Company Be Liable for a Trucking Accident?
Under a legal theory known as “vicarious liability,” employers can be held accountable for their employees’ “on the job” accidents.
In Morgan’s case, the driver was clearly operating as a Wal-Mart employee driving a company truck. Even if the man falsified his reports, Wal-Mart still has a responsibility to supervise its drivers. The company’s failure to verify the man’s report still constitutes negligence, and it will most likely bear partial liability for the accident.
Often, trucking companies will try to avoid liability by hiring independent contractors who work for themselves, or claim that a driver was “off the clock” when an accident occurred. Despite all their legal maneuvering, they still bear responsibility for the drivers they employ.
[Did You Know: Maggie’s Law in New Jersey was named after a young woman who died when a driver who had not slept in 30 hours hit her head-on.]
Spevack Law Firm – Middlesex County Personal Injury Lawyers