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Causes of 18-Wheeler Trucking Accidents: Driver Fatigue

How a tired truck driver can become a dangerous truck driver

Driver fatigue is one of the most common causes of, or a significant contributing factor to, accidents in which an 18-wheeler is involved. Despite changes in federal driving regulations, and in individual trucking company policies that were implemented to reduce incidents of driver fatigue, less than alert driving is often cited as a factor in 18-wheeler accidents.

According to traffic safety experts, the greatest contributor to driver fatigue is the number of hours that a driver has been “on duty.” On duty hours are calculated as the number of hours spent while actually driving plus the number of hours spent on non-driving tasks such as loading and unloading cargo, fueling, and vehicle maintenance tasks.

The second-greatest contributor to driver fatigue is the fact that drivers are frequently working at odds with their body’s circadian rhythm, the body’s natural awake-sleep cycle. Drivers whose routes carry them through time zone changes or requires them to work at hours when they would normally be asleep are more susceptible to slower reaction times and clouded judgement when faced with the need to make split second decisions.

Federal regulations that govern how many hours the driver of a Commercial Motor Vehicle (CMV) can work in a 24-hour period without taking a mandatory rest period and the number of hours that can be worked in a 7-day period are set by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, a division of the US Department of Transportation (DOT).

For purposes of hours of service regulations, a CMV is defined by the Motor Carrier Safety Administration as being:

  • any vehicle having a gross vehicle weight of 10,001 pounds or more
  • any vehicle designed or used to transport more than 8 passengers (including the driver) for compensation
  • any vehicle designed or used to transport more than 15 passengers (including the driver) and is not used to transport passengers for compensation
  • any vehicle used to transport hazardous materials requiring the vehicle to be marked or placarded under the hazardous materials regulations

As of November, 2016 the limits placed on the number of hours “in service” or “on duty” for drivers of a non-passenger carrying CMV are:

  • 11 hours of driving or a total of 14 hours on duty must be followed by a minimum of 10 hours off duty
  • no more than 60 hours in 7 consecutive 24-hour days (for carriers not operating 7 days per week)
  • no more than 70 hours in 8 consecutive 24-hour days (all other carriers)

Drivers of passenger-carrying vehicles cannot drive for more than 10 hours or have been on duty for more than 15 hours without being off duty for 8 hours. Otherwise, the 7 and 8 day rules are the same as for non-passenger drivers.

In the past, drivers on big rigs were required to document their hours of on and off duty time in log books that were to be kept up to date by the driver and were subject to inspection at any time by law enforcement officers. In practice, many drivers kept 2 or 3 log books (“lie books”) that were used to hide the number of on duty hours.

The old paper log books are currently being phased out in favor of Electronic Logging Devices (ELDs), which will record data such as whether or not an engine was running, engine rpm, and even vehicle location via GPS coordinates. Whether enterprising drivers will eventually find a way to defeat these devices remains to be seen.


Despite the rules and regulations that have been set forth by the federal government and the commercial transportation companies themselves, driver fatigue remains so common among commercial interstate drivers that if it can be shown that a driver has not complied with the hours on duty followed by rest period regulations it can sometimes be taken as proof that driver fatigue either caused or was a contributing cause to an 18-wheeler accident.

When establishing liability of a commercial trucking or a commercial passenger carrier, it is essential for investigators to carefully scrutinize the driver’s log books or Electronic Logging Device records for evidence that the driver may have been fatigued and that fatigue was possibly a significant factor in an accident. If a pattern of repeated violations can be established, it will often be taken as strong evidence that the carrier knew about these violations but took no action to discipline the driver.

No amount of evidence in your favor can be used to your best advantage unless it is in the hands of a personal injury attorney who has experience in managing cases where trucking companies are involved. Trucking companies and their insurance carriers have a long record of trying to deceive accident victims about the true value of their personal injury claims and will do so again if given the chance.

Protect your legal rights to compensation for your injuries by retaining the services of a personal injury lawyer with experience in truck accidents.

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