Articles Posted in Trucking Legislation

As a Maryland personal injury attorney who represents victims of trucking-related crashes, I understand the various factors that contribute to serious tractor-trailer collisions with passenger cars, minivans and sport utility vehicles. As anyone who has been involved in a traffic wreck with an 18-wheeler knows, the force of such an accident can severely injure or even kill the occupants of the smaller motor vehicle.

Here in Baltimore and other cities and towns across our state, these kinds of car-truck crashes happen fairly often. Similarly, delivery truck and motorcycle wrecks are also common, especially in congested urban areas, as are bicycle-related injury accidents.

In many cases, trucking-related traffic accidents can result in cuts and bruises at one end of the spectrum, while broken arms, crushed tibias, and fractured vertebrae are a examples of more serious bodily injury. Of course, some of the worst would be traumatic brain injury and spinal cord damage. These last two can result in a lifetime filled with multiple surgeries, continuous therapies and even around-the-clock nursing care.

Fatalities are not uncommon, especially when one considers the weight difference between a fully loaded cross-country big rig and a 3,000-pound minivan. Occupants in these smaller vehicles are at much greater risk of being killed when struck by a large tractor-trailer than if their vehicle is hit by another passenger car or light truck.

A percentage of commercial truck crashes can be traced to fatigue, which has become somewhat of a hot-button topic in traffic safety circles. Nearly as dangerous as drunken driving, drowsy driving presents the same threat to the road-going public since the end result — a trucking-related accident — can be just as deadly as that caused by impairment as a result of alcohol or prescription drug use.

Drowsy driving can lead to numerous traffic violations — running a red light, ignoring a red signal, failure to yield and speeding – all of which can lead to an accident. In an effort to reduce the number of fatigue-related trucking accidents the federal government has regulations in place that limit the number of hours a truck driver can spend on the road before taking a break, as well as other requirements.

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The death last August of a Maryland university professor on an Ohio expressway has raised the question of commercial truck drivers’ ability to function well under the currently legal federally regulated hours of service. It was the untimely death of Stevenson University professor Susan Slattery and numerous other traffic accidents involving commercial truck and passenger vehicles — such as minivan, sedans, SUVs and motorcycles — that has people like Joan Claybrook, former head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), looking long and hard at the current rules.

As a Baltimore trucking accident lawyer and personal injury attorney, I have heard dozens of heartrending stories involving families who have lost loved ones in traffic wrecks due to another person’s negligence. According to a news report, the federal regulations governing the number of hours a truck driver may be one the road could also be to blame for thousands of deaths each year.

To some, semi tractor-trailers are simply rolling time bombs that claim nearly a dozen lives every day across the United States. And it’s most likely true, according to some, that of the dozens of 18-wheelers a driver meets on the road every hour may be operated by a trucker who has been driving for more than the 12 hours. In fact, there is no way for other motorists to know whether or not a commercial driver has been on the road for only five or as much as 15 hours.

Claybrook herself has reportedly been an advocate for reducing the hours truckers can drive for a while now. Known as “Hours of Service,” federal regulations state that truckers can drive no longer than 11 hours with 10 hours off for rest. But these rules could change as early as 2011, now that there have been some successful lawsuits carried out by safety groups.

As a result, the federal government is now carefully reviewing the question of how many hours a trucker could more safely drive in any given shift. Given the possibility of proposed changes to the current rules governing hours of service, a change in the law could be implemented no later than next summer.

Some would say that it couldn’t come soon enough, what with driver fatigue being blamed for as much as 40 percent of fatal trucking-related accidents; claiming about 5000 lives across the nation every year.

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Maryland truck accident attorneys reported in an earlier post that the recent budget bill passed by Congress ended a program that allowed foreign truckers to transport goods into the United States. The American trucking lobby cited safety concerns as the reason for their opposition to the program. When the Congress ended the program, the Teamsters Union celebrated a victory. The Mexican government, however, viewed the end of the program as protectionist fiscal policy that would harm its domestic economy.

In response to the actions of the United States, Mexico announced plans to place heavy tariffs on imported U.S. goods. Mexico is the third largest export market for U.S. goods behind Canada and China, and is the second largest consumer of American agricultural products. In 2008, the U.S. exported $11 billion in food products to Mexico and $63 billion dollars of machinery, automobile and other transportation equipment. The Mexican tariff affects American fruits, vegetables, wine, juices, sunglasses, toothpaste and coffee and would subject some of these products to a 45 percent charge.

In an attempt to avoid a larger trade dispute, U.S. Transportation Secretary, Ray LaHood, may reverse the Teamsters’ victory. LaHood is currently working on plans that would revive the cross border trucking program in response to the Mexican tariff on American goods. LaHood is currently meeting with lawmakers in an attempt to restore the cross border trucking program in a manner that would address legislators’ concerns over safety.

In a prior post, we reported how many truck companies attempt to rush people injured in Maryland big rig accidents to accept low settlements. Recently, a potential client came into my office and explained that she had been involved in a Maryland truck accident while traveling on Interstate 95 in Howard County, Maryland. This lady explained that she had sustained what she considered “serious, but not life threatening injuries.”

This individual went on to describe how the insurance company for the truck company had called her a week after the accident, one thing led to another, and she agreed to settle her case for an amount that she now realizes was far too law. She wanted to know if she had any legal rights to go back and undo her mistake. She does.

In Maryland, if a person settles her case within 30 days after a truck accident (evidenced by the signing of a legal release within 30 days of the incident), without being represented by a lawyer and without the advice of an attorney, the victim may void the release within 60 days after the date the release was signed. The voiding of the release must be done in writing, and it must be accompanied by the return of the money paid in settlement.

Maryland truck accident attorneys recognize the danger posed by fatigued drivers, especially when the drivers are operating tractor trailers. As we have discussed in prior post, the federal government has established hours of service (“HOS”) regulations that restrict the amount of time a trucker can spend behind the wheel of an eighteen wheeler. These regulations help ensure that truckers remain rested and alert as they transport goods across the country.

Currently, the regulations allow a trucker to drive 11 hours a day with 8 consecutive hours of rest every 24 hours. Additionally, the regulations require a driver to remain out of service for a consecutive 34 hours once they have driven 60 hours in a single week.

In Washington D.C., trucking companies and the Teamsters Union, are attempting to overthrow the current federal HOS regulations. The goal is to decrease the number of daily hours that truckers may drive. However, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (“FMSCA”) is resisting challenge to the existing law. The FMSCA cites expert studies that suggest that the current HOS are more in sync with a trucker’s circadian sleep rhythms and makes driving safer.

Sometime ago, the Maryland truck accident attorneys at Lebowitz & Mzhen, LLC published a post concerning a government program that allowed foreign truck drivers access to American roads. The original program, included under the North American Free Trade Agreement (“NAFTA”), granted foreign truckers narrow access to the United States’ roadways. The Bush administration widened the program and allowed foreign drivers broader access to the roads throughout this country’s border states.

American truckers and their lobbyists unsuccessfully pressured the Bush administration to reduce the breadth of foreign trucker’s use of this country’s highways, claiming that the presence of foreign drivers on interior roadways put Americans at an increased risk of injuries from truck accidents. Now, American truckers could get their wish.

On Tuesday, the Senate passed a $410 billion dollar budget bill that included a provision that would end cross border trucking. The passage of this legislation may have addressed the concerns of American truckers, but the move has angered other NAFTA signatories who claim that this bill violates America’s treaty obligations and sends a dangerous economic signal.

There are instances where an employee has witnessed conduct or policies of their employers that put other people in danger. Many times, these people do not report these violations for fear of losing their jobs. However, federal law protects the employees of commercial motor carriers who report their employers’ negligent conduct that puts the public at risk from injuries from truck accidents. In prior posts, Maryland truck accident lawyers have discussed how negligence on the part of truckers and motor carriers put drivers at risk. The attorneys at Lebowitz & Mzhen, LLC believe that this federal law makes it more likely that employees will report workplace conduct that ultimately puts motorists at risk for injuries that are avoidable.

Federal law protects truck drivers and other employees working for commercial motor carriers from retaliation for reporting certain violations of commercial motor carrier safety, health, or security laws. Under Federal law, a motor carrier may not fire, or in any other manner retaliate against an employee for filing a complaint related to a violation of a commercial motor vehicle safety or security regulation; cooperating with federal investigators; or for providing information to federal, state or local law enforcement regarding a motor carrier’s illegal activity. Additionally, an employer cannot retaliate against a driver who refuses to operate a commercial vehicle in a manner that would violate federal, state or local law.

For example, if a trucker reports his employer for ignoring a truck’s mechanical malfunctions in violation of federal law, or for not complying with federal hours of service regulations, and the trucker is fired as a result, the employer may be liable to the trucker for damages. Retaliatory action can take many forms:
• Firing or laying off;
• Blacklisting;
• Demoting;
• Denying over time or promotion;
• Disciplining;
• Denying benefits;
• Failing to hire or rehire;
• Intimidation;
• Reassignment affecting promotion prospects; and

• Reducing pay or hours.

Our Maryland truck accident attorneys appreciate the actions of those employees who call attention to dangerous practices of trucking companies.

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Currently, the Federal Government limits the areas in which trucking companies located abroad may travel within the United States. However, the U.S. Department of Transportation has recently begun a trial program allowing tractor trailers coming from outside the United States to travel without restrictions within the United States, including, of course, Maryland.

Why does this concern us? Because trucking companies located outside our borders are not subject to same safety regulations as trucking companies located in the United States. For example, American truck drivers are subject to limitations on the number of hours they may work per week, drug and alcohol testing, and commercial driver’s license requirements (CDL) before they are allowed to drive on the nation’s highways. In addition, American motor carriers are required to maintain certain levels of insurance to protect injured motorists.

The Federal Government has not published plans to require foreign trucking companies to comply with the federal regulations. We respectfully suggest that Congress take action to stop this trial program before the federal standards are watered down. If the federal rules and regulations are weakened, it seems clear that a greater number of injuries will follow to those who drive on this nation’s roadways.

In an EARLIER POST, we told our readers that we would briefly discuss some of the major laws that impact a victim’s suit against negligent truck drivers. Today, we highlight the minimum insurance coverage truck drivers must maintain to protect victims of truck accidents in Maryland. The Code of Federal Regulations requires motor carriers hauling different substances to maintain different levels of insurance to protect people injured in accidents.

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Did you know that large trucks weigh between 10,000 and 80,000 pounds? If a large truck, weighing 50,000 pounds and traveling at 55 miles per hour strikes a car, it exerts a force of 4710 pounds per square inch into the car and its passengers. Large trucks, whether empty or fully loaded, have the potential to inflict severe injuries and are extremely dangerous when operated in a negligent fashion.

For that reason, the Federal government and the state of Maryland, have many laws in place designed to protect drivers. In the following series of posts, we explain some of the laws that govern truck drivers here in Maryland, and beyond.

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