Trucking cases are different beasts. Tractor- trailers are colossal machines. Eighty thousand pounds of steel-encased force can be very dangerous things—especially when hurling at 75 miles per hour. Given the carnage these behemoths can wreak, the stakes are high. When disaster strikes, an injured person is at a tremendous disadvantage compared to the truck driver, motor carrier, and insurer involved. Few injured people are lucky enough to engage competent legal counsel immediately after a major truck wreck, given the physical injuries, social and financial havoc accompanying them. Trucking industry accident investigation teams are immediately summoned after a crash—frequently flown through the night on chartered aircraft—and dispatched to investigate and influence official investigations as much as possible. These realities as they are, truck cases can suffer from the disappearance of evidence, whether it is undiscovered, undocumented, inadvertently or intentionally destroyed. When vast sums of insurance and trucking industry money are involved, anything can surely take place. Trucking technology may provide proof of what really happened, supplying counsel with a chance to level the playing field.
Electronic Warning Systems
According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), 93 percent of all accidents involve driver error, with the majority of those accidents related to driver inattention. NHTSA research also shows that one extra second of warning could prevent up to 90 percent of rear-end collisions. Accident avoidance systems have advanced, and though not required by?law presently, failure to implement this available technology—or perhaps ignoring it—could be admissible in the right case. Several types of warning systems can contain historic data of what warnings sounded and what conditions were detected. Notably, these systems can be ignored, or perhaps circumvented. However, of systems for inquiry, use discovery to determine if any of this technology was on the involved truck—focusing on the involved driver and safety director.
Forward, Side and Rear Object Detection Systems
These systems monitor the roadway and potential hazards around the truck, providing a warning of perceived threats or emergency conditions. Systems sweep the roadway in front, on the side and to the rear of a vehicle. Safe intervals can be established by monitoring conditions ahead of a vehicle—conditioning the driver to maintain such safe distances in Pavlovian style. With the distractions available to drivers today, in addition to fatigue given the hours of service one can legally drive and the fact that many drivers log more miles than permitted by law, a warning of an approaching object can save lives. In addition, these systems work in adverse weather, giving the driver a greater ability to “see through” fog, snow or sleet.
Rear object detection systems monitor a specific area behind a commercial motor vehicle, detect objects and provide warnings to other drivers while in reverse. These systems assist the driver in avoiding collisions during backing or parking maneuvers. Loading and crush injuries can be avoided with these devices—they are functional for 10-20 feet.
Lane Departure Warning Systems
Lane Departure Warning Systems (LDWS) are in-vehicle electronic systems that monitor the position of?a vehicle within a roadway lane and warn a driver if the vehicle deviates or is about to deviate outside the lane. This technology is also not required by law; implementation is voluntary. Currently available LDWS are forward looking, vision-based systems that use algorithms to interpret video images to estimate vehicle state (lateral position, lateral velocity, heading, etc.) and roadway alignment (lane width, road curvature, etc.). LDWS warn the driver of a lane departure when the vehicle is traveling above a certain speed threshold and the vehicle’s turn signal is not in use. In addition, LDWS notify the driver when lane markings are inadequate for detection or if the system malfunctions. LDWS do not take any automatic action to avoid a lane departure or to control the vehicle; therefore, drivers remain responsible for the safe operation of their vehicles. When the vehicle is traveling in close proximity to the center of the lane, it is within the systems “no warning zone,” the system does not issue any position warnings. As the vehicle deviates from the no warning zone, the system calculates the time for the vehicle to exit the lane. The LDWS calculates an earliest and latest warning line.
Tracking and Communication Systems
These systems permit GPS tracking, reconstruction of routes, times and hours of service issues, and also may provide data (or lack thereof) provided to drivers on weather or other conditions. Matching a driver or driving team’s logbooks to Qualcomm satellite positioning data can test the accuracy of the records and perhaps prove that the logs were fraudulently maintained. Data preserved can include texting data between dispatch and the drivers (such as “why isn’t your truck moving on the map?”). These systems can also provide documentation of speeding, hard braking and other safety-related issues—pro- viding safety managers the ability to remotely monitor drivers in the field and fodder for cross examination should a driver have a history of violations of safety rules.
“Black Box” Event and Crash Data Recorders
Industry terminology varies, though the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) refers to the devices commonly called “black boxes” as Event Data Recorders (EDRs). Many manufacturers refer to the devices as Crash Data Recorders (CDRs). The recorders trigger when preset physical conditions nearing those sufficient for the airbag to deploy are met—“waking-up” and recording data. Extraction of the data after the event is time sensitive.
In general, if an airbag deploys, the unit will permanently write and capture data. Therefore, if that unit?is to be replaced when the vehicle is repaired, measures must be taken to collect and preserve the unit and its data. Losing the unit loses the data. Likewise, if the vehicle is involved?in an accident in which the airbag is not deployed, the recorder may still trigger during this “non-deployment event.” It writes data from a non-deployment event and retain that data for a limited time. In some units, that period consists of 250 engine ignition cycles. Low impact collisions, therefore, require early retrieval of the recorder to prohibit loss of the data upon ignition at the 251st start after the collision.
Data recorded varies by manufacturer, make and model. Some units are more advanced than others. The “crash pulse” is recorded in seemingly all recorders—this relates to the DeltaV (change in velocity) at the time of the crash. NHTSA has required new buses and motor coaches manufactured after January 1, 2003, to incorporate very advanced systems capturing most of the data below:
- lateral acceleration
- longitudinal acceleration
- vertical acceleration
- vehicle speed
- engine speed
- seat belt status
- braking input
- steering input
- gear selection
- turn signal status
- brake light status
- head/tail light status
- hazard light status
- brake system status
- ABS status
- stability control status
- environmental conditions
- cruise control status
- throttle position
- airbag deployment criteria
- airbag deployment time
- airbag deployment energy
- time between airbag non-deploy and deploy event
- ignition cycle count at investigation and event times
Reviewing and understanding the results of the systems above generally requires assistance of an expert familiar with the product. This might be an accident reconstructionist or an expert with trucking industry specific experience, or part of a team of such investigators. As always, when engaging an accident reconstructionist or other expert to assist you in your investigation of a case, seek references from fellow KJA members or other counsel having previously worked with the expert. Use the KJA’s list- servers to network and discover helpful information about the person under consideration. Request references and background information on any expert with whom you are interested in working. Confirm the pertinent schedule of fees and document terms concerning payment and billing before engagement. Clearly convey your case timetables with respect to discovery and trial, and leave ample time for the scheduling and preparation of this expert for his or her discovery and trial depositions. Remember, experts can make or break your case. Choose wisely!
(Originally published in the November/December 2009 issue of The Advocate)