Semi Trailers, Auto Pileup — Tragedy Highlighting a Terrible Problem

Semi trailers
A multiple-vehicle accident involving approximately 15 semi trailers and 15 passenger cars occurred in Indiana on Thursday. There were 3 deaths and 20 injured. The accident occurred on the I-94, the main thoroughfare between Chicago and Detroit. The on-scene coroner, John Sullivan, said that “there my be many more fatalities” and that “the clock is working against us.” Sullivan also noted that rescuers had not gotten to all the vehicles at that point. Hypothermia is a concern for possible survivors trapped in vehicles. The temperature Thursday evening was only 10 degrees, and it took firefighters hours to remove one injured person from their vehicle. In photos of the scene, it appeared that a dozen or more semi trailer trucks were smashed together with passenger cars in between. Though we do not yet know what caused this multi-vehicle accident, it is an unfortunate fact that accidents involving semi trailers are often caused by inclement weather.

In this particular situation, National Weather Service says that reports noted a band of heavy lake effect snow occurring in the area of the accident at the time it occurred. Lake effect snow is defined as a type of snowsquall, and visibility reports in the area were noted at a quarter mile, near zero, and near-whiteout conditions. Snow was falling at a rate of one to two inches per hour. The area of the interstate, I-94, on which the tragedy occurred has been described as ice-slicked. Given these facts, one might question what can the drivers of the most dangerous vehicles, like those fifteen or so 80,000 pound (or more) semi trailers in the photos, do in a situation like this? Is it possible, in some cases, for truckers to pull to the side of the road? If it is possible, why doesn’t it happen more often?

The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, an administration within the larger administration of the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT), binds truckers. The FMCSA was established for the express purpose of reducing fatalities, injuries, and crashes that involve large trucks and buses. According to § 392.14 of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations (FMCSRs), when hazardous conditions exist, “[e]xtreme caution in the operation of a commercial motor vehicle shall be exercised.” The rule elaborates on the idea of exercising extreme caution, stating that “[i]f the conditions become sufficiently dangerous, the operation of the commercial vehicle shall be discontinued and shall not be resumed until the commercial motor vehicle can be safely operated.” The only exception to this FMCSR is when a state has imposed a higher standard, and many states have done just that.

If the assumption is that feudal regulations supersede a company or union’s rules, then why does it seem that FMCSR § 392.14 is not followed very often? Multi-vehicle accidents involving big rigs are grimly predictable occurrences in bad weather. The Teamsters website makes it very clear that The Surface Transportation Assistance Act (STAA) states that an employer is prohibited from disciplining or firing a commercial driver for refusing to drive in violation of Federal safety regulations. Perhaps non-union truckers, which make up 70-80% of the truckers out there, do not feel at liberty to invoke this right. Independent contractors are considered non-employees and therefore ineligible to form a union.

Trucking is the number one mode of freight transportation in the U.S. and has always been a growing industry. As the number of semi trailer trucks and automobiles on the roads continues to increase along with the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events, so will the number of multi-vehicle accidents involving semi trailers.

By Donna Westlund