Causes of Pennsylvania Truck Accidents

With rare exceptions (such as an icy road that makes an accident unavoidable), traffic accidents result from carelessness. Accidents involving large trucks can be caused by careless driving, by careless loading of cargo, or by careless maintenance of the truck.

The legal system refers to carelessness as negligence. When trucks and cars crash, the driver of either vehicle, or both drivers, might be responsible. A study by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) nevertheless found that truck drivers make more driving mistakes than drivers of passenger cars.

Cargo loaders and truck owners might also be responsible when their careless actions contribute to an injury. Here are the most common ways in which negligence causes Pennsylvania truck accidents.

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    Driving at an Excessive Speed

    Large trucks have a much greater stopping distance than passenger vehicles. A fully loaded tractor-trailer might weigh as much as 80,000 pounds. A vehicle of that size will travel hundreds of feet farther than a passenger car traveling at the same speed after brakes are activated.

    Longer stopping distances mean that trucks have less opportunity to avoid unexpected hazards that passenger cars. When traffic backs up on a highway, drivers of passenger cars are more likely to avoid a rear-end collision than semi drivers because car drivers can stop more quickly.

    Traveling at 65 mph, a big rig with a full load will need nearly the length of two football fields to come to a stop. That distance is greater when roads are wet with snow or rain, and may be much greater when roads are icy. The faster the truck is moving, the more distance it requires to stop.

    Truck drivers are negligent when they fail to keep stopping distances in mind. Pennsylvania law defines an “excessive” speed as any speed that is too fast for road or traffic conditions. A careful truck driver may need to drive below the speed limit in heavy traffic or bad weather. On highways that pass through urban areas, a prudent truck driver may need to drive below the speed limit when pedestrians might enter the roadway unexpectedly. Accidents happen when truck drivers fail to follow those common-sense rules.

    Distracted Driving

    Distracted driving is a growing problem on Pennsylvania roads. The popularity of smartphones and other electronic devices tempts all drivers, not just truck drivers, to take their eyes off the road.

    It is unlawful in Pennsylvania to text while driving, but current law allows drivers to keep one hand on the wheel and another on a smartphone. Unfortunately, a driver who is scrolling through a contact list, dialing a number, or accessing a trucking app isn’t watching traffic. In addition, while unlawful texting is recorded on a commercial driver’s record as a non-sanction violation, the $50 fine and absence of points provide little incentive for truck drivers to comply with the law.

    At 50 mph, a truck will travel more than the length of a football field in 5 seconds. Semi drivers who focus on anything other than the road, even for short times, are unable to respond to changing traffic conditions.

    Distracted driving is the leading cause of rear-end collisions. While rear-end crashes can cause serious injuries when they are caused by a passenger car, injuries can be devastating when the crash is caused by a large truck. The force generated by a heavy truck can easily cause a chain reaction when the collision is with the last car in a line of vehicles that are stopped in traffic.

    Other communication devices, including CB and VHF radios, as well as GPS and other electronic devices, can also be distracting. For that matter, unwrapping a cheeseburger can be a negligent act if the driver’s eyes are on the cheeseburger instead of the road. Any act of distracted driving is a negligent act that can have deadly consequences.

    Fatigued Driving

    Insurance industry statistics suggest that driver fatigue contributes to 25% of truck accidents. Nearly all commercial drivers are required to follow federal rules that limit the number of consecutive hours they can drive without going “out-of-service” to sleep. Unfortunately, being “out-of-service” does not assure that a driver is actually sleeping.

    Fatigue sometimes results from sleep disorders. While commercial drivers are required to pass medical examinations and can be disqualified from driving if they have an uncontrolled sleep disorder, truckers are often reluctant to tell doctors about their sleeplessness because they don’t want to lose their medical certification.

    Fatigue does not necessarily cause a driver to fall asleep at the wheel, although that happens. Drowsiness impairs the ability to concentrate and to focus on the road. Fatigued drivers may also experience “microsleep,” periods of sleep that last only a few seconds. In just a few seconds, however, a truck can drift into a lane of oncoming traffic or crash into cars that are stopped in traffic.

    Federal law prohibits drivers from operating when they are fatigued, even if they still have hours during which they can drive before they must go out of service. Some employers, however, pressure drivers to drive every hour they can. When that happens, the employer’s disregard of safety is a factor that contributes to truck accidents.

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    Recognition Errors

    The FMCSA classifies any cause of a crash that results from a driver’s failure to recognize a problem as a “recognition error.” According to the FMCSA, 28% of truck crashes can be attributed to recognition errors.

    The failure to maintain a close watch on the road is the usual explanation for recognition errors. Distracted driving is one reason for that failure. Fatigue is another. In some cases, however, a driver is watching the road but thinking about something else. “Looking without seeing” explains why a driver might run a red light or fail to notice a pedestrian in the roadway.

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    The size of a tractor-trailer or other heavy truck makes tailgating a more dangerous behavior for truck drivers than other drivers. The combination of increased stopping distance and the force generated by rear-end collisions can lead to deadly consequences when drivers fail to leave sufficient room to stop in the event of an emergency.

    Commercial big rig drivers are usually advised to leave a gap between their tractor and any vehicle they are following of one trailer length for every 10 mph of speed. That can be difficult to do in congested, stop-and-go traffic, but it is a manageable rule in smooth traffic on the Turnpike or other freeways.

    Some trucks travel in a tight convoy pattern, perhaps in the belief that they are saving fuel. Unfortunately, trucks that tailgate each other create unsafe situations for cars that pass them. When one truck rear-ends another, jackknifing and rollovers create hazardous conditions for everyone else.

    Impaired Driving

    Federal and state laws prohibit commercial drivers from driving with a blood alcohol concentration of 0.04% or more. Since it takes very little alcohol consumption for a driver to reach 0.04%, and since the consequences of a violation upon commercial driving privileges are severe, most truck drivers avoid drinking and driving.

    At the same time, drivers are often tempted to use drugs that help them stay awake and alert. Not all of those drugs are legal and some impair the ability to drive safely. Illegal drug use is three times more likely to contribute to a truck accident than alcohol use.

    Even prescription drugs can cause drowsiness or have other side effects that affect driving ability. Impaired driving continues to be a significant problem that contributes to truck accidents.

    Unsafe Lane Changes

    Semis and other large trucks have blind spots that their outside mirror may not cover. Most trucks are equipped with a smaller “blind spot mirror” but negligent truckers sometimes change lanes without making certain that no other vehicle occupies the lane. Small cars and motorcycles are particularly vulnerable to being struck by a truck that changes lanes.

    Unsafe Merges

    Tractor-trailers and other large trucks log most of their hours on freeways and other controlled-access highways. Trucks enter and merge with traffic on on-ramps. While a driver on an on-ramp must always yield to oncoming traffic, many truck drivers use the on-ramp to accelerate to highway speeds while counting on oncoming cars to get out of the way. If they cannot find a gap in traffic to allow merging, they may be unable to slow the truck in time to avoid a collision.

    Truck Accidents Pennsylvania | Night Driving
    Truck Accidents Pennsylvania | Night Driving

    Poor Judgment

    All drivers make countless judgments. Do I have time to enter an intersection or exit a parking lot without causing a collision? How fast should I drive in a heavy rain? Should I assume that the other driver will yield?

    Poor decisions contribute to most accidents, even if they are not the primary cause. However, the FMCSA rates poor judgment as the primary cause of 38% of all truck accidents. Illegal maneuvers, such as making an unlawful U-turn on an interstate, are obvious examples of poor judgment, but many of the other crash causes discussed here, such as tailgating and speeding, can also be attributed to a driver’s poor judgment.

    Commercial drivers are professionals, but their judgment is not necessarily better than any other driver’s. When truck drivers make a bad decision, however, the consequences are often deadly.

    Poor Performance

    Like poor judgment, poor performance is a contributing cause of many accidents, even if it is not the primary cause. The FMCSA rates poor performance as the primary cause of about 10% of all truck accidents.

    Poor performance refers to a failure to respond to circumstances correctly. Failing to steer a tractor-trailer in a way that will control a potential jackknife is an example of poor performance. Failing to take safe evasive action when confronted with a road hazard is another example.

    Aggressive Driving

    Truck drivers sometimes have the attitude that they are the biggest vehicle on the road and smaller vehicles should get out of the way. Aggressive drivers change lanes frequently, tailgate slower vehicles to encourage them to move over, and try to beat red lights. Again, while any driver can cause an accident by being aggressive, an aggressive semi driver is more likely to place lives at risk than other drivers.

    Overloaded Trucks

    Since stopping distance is a function of speed and weight, adding to a truck’s load increases the time it will take to stop the truck. An overloaded truck is unsafe because it results in unacceptable stopping distances. Budget cuts have closed many weigh stations, encouraging semi drivers to haul overweight loads.

    Cargo Storage

    Cargo must be carefully secured and properly distributed. When cargo is not balanced correctly in a trailer, the odds of a rollover or jackknife increase. When loads are not secured, cargo may fall from a truck and into the path of an oncoming vehicle. Drivers are ultimately responsible for distributing and securing cargo even if they do not load the cargo themselves.

    Equipment Failure

    Some accidents occur because a truck was not properly maintained. Truck owners are responsible for maintenance, although drivers have a duty to inspect trucks and to stop driving until repairs are made when they notice a problem that might affect safety.

    Brake and tire failures are the most common equipment issues that cause accidents. Faulty steering mechanisms and inoperative lighting are other examples of equipment failures that contribute to crashes.

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    Getting Help for Truck Accidents

    The insurance adjuster for the trucking company has an incentive to place the blame for truck accidents on the driver of the smaller vehicle. Before speaking to an insurance adjuster, it is important to get legal advice. To learn about your rights as the victim of a collision with a tractor-trailer or other large truck, call us at xxx-xxx-xxxx or ask us a question by using our contact form.