Nationwide, large commercial trucks were involved in 4,327 fatal crashes and 344,000 injury-causing crashes in the most recent year for which statistics are available, according to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA).
Large commercial trucks are prone to one of the deadliest types of accidents, a jackknife. Jackknife accidents occur when part of a tractor-trailer swings around so that it is perpendicular to another part of the truck. (The truck then resembles an open jackknife from the air, which is why the type of accident came to be known by that name.)
Jackknifes are deadly because they essentially double the parts of the truck that can either hit another vehicle or be collided with. Vehicles such as cars, motorcycles, or other trucks can strike the perpendicular trailer of the big rig or the cab or be struck by them. Big rigs can weigh up to 80,000 pounds, compared to the average car weight of 4,000 pounds. A truck collision can kill occupants of a car or other smaller vehicles.
Second, jackknifes cover a broader area than a truck normally would. If they occur on a highway or an entrance or exit ramps, they can impede traffic, which has the potential to cause traffic jams—and thus other accidents, as other vehicles try to navigate.
Third, the truck’s cargo can fly out in a jackknife accident due to the extreme motion and pressure of the accident. The doors can become dislodged or holes can be punched in the sides of the truck. Cargo can strike other vehicles or passersby, or cause obstacles that are dangerous to negotiate in traffic. Some commercial motor vehicles (CMVs) carry flammable liquid as cargo. If a jackknife truck carries flammable cargo, the cargo can catch fire.
Fourth, trucks can catch fire as the result of a jackknife, regardless of the cargo carried, because of damage to the fuel lines or gas tanks.
What Causes a Jackknife?
Jackknife accidents can be caused by several factors, including:
- Speeding (going over the speed limit), especially on turns or an entrance/exit ramp
- Going too fast for existing conditions
- Braking or attempting to come to a stop too fast
- Not braking at the right time
- Too much weight in the truck
- Improper loading of cargo (imbalance)
- Improper securing of cargo
- Tipping caused by uneven pavement or being brushed by another truck
- Mechanical failure, such as worn coupling devices
- High winds
In addition, factors behind the scenes may be at play in causing a jackknife. Truck companies, for example, should hire fully experienced drivers who have a commercial driver’s license (CDL). If they do not, the driver may not fully understand how to operate a CMV’s brakes. They are complex, quite different from car brakes, and take up to 40 percent more space to stop a truck than car brakes take to stop a car.
Trucking companies must also periodically inspect, maintain, and repair their vehicles, as required by the FMCSA. If they don’t, essential parts of the truck may contribute to a jackknife. Worn brakes and tires can both incite a jackknife, as can coupling devices and steering mechanisms.
Trucking companies also need to set reasonable schedules for their drivers. Drivers sometimes feel they need to speed or drive too fast for their conditions to make schedules adequately—and these actions can, in turn, cause a jackknife.
Who is Responsible for a Jackknife?
As you can see from the preceding section, many different factors can cause jackknife truck accidents. As a result, many different parties are potentially responsible for a jackknife. They include:
- The driver – Driver errors such as speeding and improper braking can contribute to jackknife accidents. Drivers are also responsible for checking the condition of trucks and the cargo periodically. As problems with a truck or the cargo can cause this type of accident, drivers often bear responsibility if they fail to perform these duties.
- The trucking company or owner – The condition of the trucks is the company or owner’s responsibility, as they are mandated to periodically inspect, maintain, and repair them. They can also bear responsibility for failing to hire a qualified driver or check their credentials, including a CDL.
- Companies responsible for maintenance, inspection, and repair – If the trucking company has hired another company to perform maintenance, inspection, and repair duties, these companies could bear responsibility for failures in all these areas that contributed to a jackknife.
- Companies responsible for loading and securing cargo – Trucking companies often use separate companies to load and secure cargo. Unbalanced loads, too-heavy loads, and unsecured loads can all contribute to jackknife accidents.
- Truck and/or component manufacturers – Jackknife accidents can stem from mechanical failures, either in the truck or in components. Manufacturers can be responsible for defects causing failures in their products.
What Should I Do If I’m Injured in a Jackknife?
Generally, vehicle accidents in Massachusetts are handled under our state’s no-fault car insurance law. With a no-fault system, drivers approach their own insurance companies for payment of personal injury protection (PIP) insurance for injuries.
However, if you sustain injuries in an accident caused by another party, Massachusetts allows you to step outside no-fault if certain conditions are met. These conditions are:
- Injuries sustained in the accident caused a minimum of $2,000 in reasonable medical expenses
- Injuries sustained in the accident included at least one of the following:
- Permanent and serious disfigurement
- Broken bone(s)
- Substantial loss of hearing or sight
If you step outside of the no-fault system due to injuries like these, you may either bring a third-party insurance claim against the at-fault party or file a personal injury suit against the at-fault party.
What Compensation Can I Receive for My Injuries?
If you can step outside of no-fault, you can potentially bring a claim or suit for the following:
- Medical bills related to the injury, both present and future
- Wages lost from work due to the accident and injuries, both present and future
- Pain and suffering