The Rules Off the Road: Trucking Regulations and Liability

In the free-wheeling days before government regulations were tightened, anyone harmed in a commercial bus- or trucking-related accident had a hard time winning in court. A crafty trucking company would lease the vehicle, rather than own it, and would hire "independent contractors," rather than drivers, to drive it, so if something went wrong, the company could blame others for unsafe equipment, reckless behavior, or other failings. Drivers, meanwhile, could pop pills and rack up 20-hour stints on the road.

Thanks to action by agencies like the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA), those days have ended. Current federal law holds a permit-holding trucking company responsible for any accident involving a truck displaying its name or placard (government-issued name and permit number). What a lease agreement says, or whether the driver is an employee or an independent contractor, no longer matters. Liability is placed squarely on one or more of the parties involved:

  • The truck or trailer's owner
  • The driver
  • The company or person who leased the vehicle from the owner;
  • The manufacturer of the vehicle, tires, or other parts that may have contributed to the accident's severity or cause;
  • Those who shipped or loaded the truck's cargo (in cases of improper loading)

Federal Hours of Service Requirements

Perhaps most importantly, commercial truck drivers must now meet federal hours of service (HOS) requirements. These restrict the number of consecutive hours a driver may work between rest periods. For example, a truck driver "May drive a maximum of 11 hours after 10 consecutive hours off duty." According to the Interstate Truck Driver's Guide to Hours of Service, provided by the FMCSA, on-duty time includes "all time spent doing paid work for anyone who is not a motor carrier, such as a part-time job at a local restaurant[;] includes all time you are working for a motor carrier, whether paid or not, and all time you are doing paid work for anyone else." HOS strictures are buttressed by other federal and state laws that call for safe-driving practices such as drug testing and periodic reviews of trip logs.

The need for regulations is acute. Though large trucks are involved in only 3 percent of vehicular accidents, their size and weight can cause a disproportionately large amount of damage - and accidents are on the rise. The FMCSA reports that over the past 20 years, truck accidents have gone up 20%. In 2002, large-truck crashes killed 4,897 individuals and injured 130,000 more.

But legislative advances, too, have made liability much harder to evade. If you or someone you love has been injured in an accident with an 18-wheeler or other commercial truck, contact a knowledgeable personal injury attorney. A lawyer experienced in handling truck accident cases can evaluate your claim and explain your legal options. For more information, contact an attorney today.