Commercial Truck Fleets Developing Distracted Driving Policies

The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) issued new regulations that ban commercial motor vehicle drivers from using handheld cell phones. The regulations became effective on January 1, 2012.

The regulations have forced many trucking companies to revise their communication policies with their drivers. Cell phones provide a quick and convenient method for companies and their dispatchers to remain in contact with their driver and shipments.

If a crash occurs when a driver is talking or texting on a cell phone there is a strong inference that the phone conversation distracted them from safely operating their commercial motor vehicle.

The regulations define a commercial vehicle as any vehicle over 10,000 lbs that crosses state lines and any vehicle over 26,000 lbs. Additionally, any vehicle used for a work purpose, could be found to be a commercial vehicle and the driver and company subject the regulations.

Necessary Distracted Driving Policies

With the increased risk of liability, trucking companies and any business that uses motor vehicles for their business need to examine procedures and make sure they complies with FMCSA regulations.

Companies have created different approaches, some prohibiting any hand-held electronic devices from being used while driving a vehicle. To contact a dispatcher, they are required to stop their vehicle.

One company describe their new policy as a way of keeping their employees focused on their job, to help limit the distractions all workers can face.

The impact of these rules will be felt industry wide, from massive interstate trucking companies, employing thousands of drivers, to local business, using one or two drivers to deliver pizza or flowers.

Not only could accident affect the business by creating liability with a motor vehicle accident, but for a small business, the crash could mean the loss of 50 percent of its delivery capability, and a consequent loss of revenue.

Penalties

An additional reason a business operating commercial vehicles have a strong motivation to stay in compliance with the new rules is to avoid the significant penalties.

A commercial vehicle driver can be fined $2,750 for each violation and lose their commercial driver’s license (CDL) for multiple violations. Their employer can also be fined up to $11,000 for permitting drivers to use hand-held cell phones.

The regulations are designed to help reduce the incident of distracted driving truck crashes caused by hand-held cellphone use. Statistics show that distracted driving accidents are increasing as more and more drivers use electronic devices while in their vehicles.

Texting has emerged as a particularly dangerous activity, with one study showing an average text is like driving with your eyes closed for the length of one and a half football fields.

The Department of Transportation has even created a website specifically to highlight the danger of distracted driving, Distracted.gov, and the problem is seen as one that will probably get worse, as more capabilities are packed into hand-held devices like smart phones and tablets.

Greater Complexity of Truck Accident Cases

Crashes involving commercial motor vehicles and drivers are much more complex than an ordinary personal injury lawsuit. If you are hit by a distracted truck driver, talking or texting on a cellphone, your process to recover compensation for your injuries is more complex than if you had been hit by another driver of a passenger vehicle.

A Question of Parties and Responsibility

A large part of the complexity of a commercial vehicle accident stems from the number of potentially responsible parties and the level of responsibility they may have. The driver is typically a party, as he or she had direct control over the truck or commercial vehicle.

The owner of the truck may also be responsible, but responsibility could extend to the company that maintained the vehicle, and they may be different from the owner, as the maintenance could be done by the leasing company that owns the vehicle or it could outsource that work.

Further responsibility could reside with the shipper who loaded the truck, if it can be shown that some aspect of the load or how it was loaded contributed to the accident.

Brokers?

Liability in these situations is often determined by whether the driver is an employee or an independent contractor. Many of the trucks on the roads are not hired by the company shipping the item, but instead by a third party broker, and the liability of those brokers often unclear.

Respondeat Superior

In law a principal (the employer or person who hires another) is liable for the tort of his agent (the person hired) under the doctrine of “respondeat superior” when the tort is committed within the scope of the agent’s agency. In other words if you hire someone and they injure another person while carrying out the job, you can be held liable for those injuries.

Another difficulty with truck accident cases is the presence of independent contractors. Many truck drivers are independent contractors, meaning they are not the employee of the person or company whose products they are shipping.

In determining whether a person is an agent or an independent contractor, the court looks the right to control the manner of work performance, regardless of whether that right was actually exercised.

This can be a complex question, and attorneys involved with truck accident cases work to show the control that was exercised by a broker or shipper. Some shippers may hire an independent contractor to insulate themselves from liability, but then attempt to exert control over the truck driver.

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