Most left-hand turn accidents are preventable accidents wherein the professional driver and/or the carrier failed to act in a reasonably expected manner to prevent its occurrence. By definition, a preventable accident is not the result of a simple driver mistake. The left-hand turn accident can occur by the failure of the carrier to have or implement a strategy to prevent them and by a combination of improper hiring, retention, training and unrealistic scheduling practices. A properly investigated and evaluated left-hand turn case will focus on and discover the cause of and motivation for the professional driver to have made an improper left-turn. The motivation may hinge on the answer to the question of whether the trucking company has a “realistic scheduling policy which does not encourage drivers to take right of way, rather than give it?” A Nashville Truck Accident lawyer should investigate the following.
The focus of this article is on understanding and proving the actual underlying cause of left-hand turn accidents, which usually stem from multiple failures and omissions by the carrier and professional driver. This understanding involves whether the defendant trucking company has adequate policies addressing the appropriate countermeasures to prevent left-hand turn accidents and if they are appropriately communicated to the drivers. The driver understanding should also be verified through objective measures.
2. Data on Occurrences
Left-hand turn collisions are one of the most
common scenarios in tractor-trailer collisions and can occur when a truck: 1)
turns left across path of traffic from the opposite direction or a lateral
direction; 2) turns causing a merging collision; or 3) when a truck and other
vehicle are traveling straight, crossing paths. For all vehicular collisions,
the majority of turning collisions involve either a left turn
across paths of traffic from the opposite direction, or, while traveling straight, crossing paths.1
Federal data for all vehicular cases has shown 53.1 percent of crossing-path crashes involve left-hand turns, but only 5.7 percent involve right turns.2 The most commonly cited charging violation of the data analyzed indicates “failure to yield” violations of between 29.4%-37.8% of all left-hand turn collisions with traffic from the opposite direction.3
Given the extended length of trailers, the left-hand turn maneuver into the path of oncoming traffic presents a unique challenge. Where a car or light truck could easily make a turn within a given distance and time against oncoming traffic, the large truck requires much greater distance and time to make the turn safely and without incident. When done improperly, these collisions are often catastrophic, resulting in underride and decapitation or severe head injury to occupants of the oncoming vehicle when the vehicle roof strikes the underside of the trailer.
The other challenging scenario for tractor-trailers is that many turns must be performed in the right lane, also due to the length of the trailer. When trucks turn from the right lane, they can collide with traffic traveling in the same direction from the adjacent lane.
Visibility and conspicuity of the truck and trailer may play roles, if the trailer was not sufficiently marked with reflective gear that can result in decreased perception of the oncoming vehicle. Although in my experience, often there is insufficient time for the oncoming vehicle to stop regardless of the truck or trailer markings.
One intersection where our law firm has handled two left-hand turn lawsuits resulting in underride injuries is depicted in the figure below:
1 U.S. Department of Transportation, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, DOT HS 809 423 Final Report, DOT-VNTSC-NHTSA-01-03 July 2001, Analysis of Crossing Path Crashes National Highway
In both instances, the oncoming driver was unable to stop or avoid the turning truck and impacted the trailer at or near the area in front of the rear trailer wheels. In both instances, the professional driver and company attempted to blame the oncoming driver for failing to yield to the truck and failing to slow or stop.
3. Standards and Countermeasures
All trucking companies should have a company standard for safe driving to reduce fleet accident rates. According the FMCSA Accident Preventability Evaluations, the company should have: 1) some form of company program for investigating accidents;
- a defined safety standard for safe driving performance; 3) driver instruction as to the standards for safe driving; and 4) driver instruction on company procedure for evaluation of preventability of accidents.
Importantly, an accident can be considered preventable if a driver fails to demonstrate an acceptable level of skill and knowledge. Thus, it is the company’s responsibility to use reasonable care to ensure that its drivers are both and knowledgeable about the left-hand turn maneuver and appreciate the associated danger and increased levels of risk to people.
Although driver fatigue4 or truck maintenance5 issues are infrequent issues in these cases, the successful prosecution should include full and thorough investigations into the hiring, retention, scheduling and training policies and practices of the trucking company. The FMCSA Accident Countermeasures Manual specifically addresses items that should be considered by truck companies in the hiring, retention and training of drivers.6
The danger associated with left-hand turns (or more skeptically the delays and increased fuel consumption of waiting for oncoming traffic to clear) has prompted at least one national carrier, UPS, to implement a policy that minimizes, if not entirely eliminates, left-hand turn maneuvers by its drivers.7 Instead, UPS maps and schedules routes so as to deliver, whenever possible, packages so that its trucks only engage in right-hand turns.
Most states have statutes that govern the left-hand turns and they are also covered by state CDL manuals, commercially-available training materials, and the FMCSA Accident Countermeasures Manual.
To evaluate a defendant truck company standards and practices, we can examine specific materials, as a starting point of inquiry.
a. The Model CDL manual:
The Model CDL manual, adopted in variations by many states, provides as follows:
2.7.7 – Space Needed to Cross or Enter Traffic – Be aware of the size and weight of your vehicle when you cross or enter traffic. Here are
4 While it is conceivable that driver fatigue could result in impaired driver judgment and performance, this would be a more difficult claim to prove absent an express admission from the driver that he was fatigued and that caused him to be inattentive.
5 It is likewise difficult to imagine a situation in which mechanical failure contributes to an improper
6 See e.g., Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, Accident Preventability and Countermeasures, Section A2 – Driver Qualifications and Performance.
7 http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/innovations/wp/2014/04/09/the-case-for-almost-never- turning-left-while-driving/
some important things to keep in mind. Because of slow acceleration and the space large vehicles require, you may need a much larger gap to enter traffic than you would in a car. Acceleration varies with the load. Allow more room if your vehicle is heavily loaded. Before you start across a road, make sure you can get all the way across before traffic reaches you.
Thus, preparation and discovery questions of the driver should focus on his or her knowledge or lack thereof of the essential variable that impact the outcome including those variables of acceleration, space, gap, weight, and load. A truck traveling from a stop likely would take around seven seconds to accelerate and enter an intersection and longer to complete the crossing of the intersection.
Therefore, the driver must account for the distance oncoming traffic can travel within that relatively lengthy time frame. The CDL manual also continues:
2.7.6 – Left Turns. On a left turn, make sure you have reached the center of the intersection before you start the left turn. If you turn too soon, the left side of your vehicle may hit another vehicle because of offtracking.
If there are two turning lanes, always take the right turn lane. Don’t start in the inside lane because you may have to swing right to make the turn.
The left-hand turn maneuver by a truck may also involve a collision with traffic, traveling in the same direction of the truck. This increased risk helps underscore the importance of driver skill and knowledge of the above factors as well as the importance of the truck company policies and practices
In our home in the State of Tennessee, the legislature has passed a longstanding law on left turns. This statute is similar to the statutes found in other states:
55-8-129. Vehicle turning left at intersection.
The driver of a vehicle within an intersection
intending to turn to the left shall yield the right-of-way to any vehicle
approaching from the opposite direction which
is within the
intersection or so close thereto
as to constitute an immediate hazard, but the driver, having so yielded
and having given a signal when and as required by this chapter, may make the
left turn, and the drivers of all other vehicles approaching the intersection from the opposite direction shall yield
the right-of-way to the
vehicle making the left turn.
Although it is clear the statute establishes oncoming traffic from the opposite direction has the right of way, this statute and similar statutes have and can become sources of dispute. The professional driver nearly always claims that the turn could have been made safely and the oncoming traffic was at fault for failing to yield.
Event data recorder (EDR) data, when available, may become critical to establish the speeds, distances and response time of both vehicles and should be downloaded, preserved and analyzed at the earliest opportunity. The left-hand turn case will also require a properly qualified accident reconstructionist, who can accurately present the science to debunk the defense offered by the trucker that the oncoming vehicle had the opportunity to avoid the collision and failed to do so.
c. Trucking Company Internal Policies and Accident Preventability.
As was mentioned previously, at least some companies have implemented policies which, when followed, should drastically reduce the quantity of left-hand turns performed by professional drivers. The policies should address, at a minimum, that left-hand turns should only be performed when it is not feasible to avoid them.
Likewise, the failure of a trucking company to have or implement any policy or driver training that specifically addresses left-hand turns may constitute negligence in and of itself, given the inherent risks.
Knowledge and understanding on the part of the driver is critical to avoid wrecks caused by the increased time necessary to make the turn safely. This information needs to be periodically communicated to the drivers.
Be sure to ask for all relevant company safety policies and training documents in discovery, or, pre-litigation through other AAJ Interstate Trucking Litigation members who may have handled claims against the same carrier.
d. FMCSA Accident Countermeasures Manual
The FMCSA, with the FHWA has published the Accident
Countermeasures Manual. The goal of the publication is the reduction of vehicle accidents and the development of countermeasures which
can be used to accomplish this goal. Not only is the Manual
an excellent starting
point for evaluation of general company safety practices, discussed
previously, it also specifically addresses company standards for prevention of
left-hand turn accidents.
The FMCSA Accident Countermeasures Manual contemplates “right-of-way” accidents, which specifically includes left-hand turns. The questions truck company management needs to ask are:
- Do your drivers understand the meaning of right-of-way?
- Do you periodically have a qualified person ride with your drivers to evaluate their behavior in right-of-way situations?
- Do you have a realistic scheduling policy which does not encourage drivers to take right of way, rather than give it?
- Are the drivers aware of the “preventable accident?
The manual continues with driver tips:
- Do not force other drivers to brake or steer because of your obstructive maneuver into their path.
- Assume other drivers will not see you and avoid you when you maneuver into their path.
- Move into your intended path or direction only after you are assured you will not conflict with other traffic.
The Manual strongly suggests truck companies can and do commit affirmative acts which jeopardize public safety by creating incentives or direct orders which encourage drivers to drive unsafely. For this reason and, in addition to examining actual written policies of the company, consider the underlying motivations the driver had to perform and unsafe turn. Was the driver given an unrealistic delivery deadline? Did the company pay the driver by the mile, thus creating the incentive to drive as far and as quickly as possible? Discover the documents which prove this, including compensation records.
If the truck has already completed the left-turn maneuver and travels perpendicular to the oncoming vehicle (as depicted in the diagram above), the oncoming vehicle is unlikely to have sufficient time to stop before impact or to avoid it. The resulting impact places the vehicle underneath the trailer and will result in both an impact from the force of the trailer bed crushing the roof of the vehicle and secondarily, the force of the rear-trailer wheels impacting the side of the vehicle.
The severity of the injuries largely depends on the height of the vehicle relative to the trailer and where the driver’s head was located at the time of impact. In
situations where the driver’s head sits at least as high as the trailer bed,
decapitation and severe head injury can result. Those who do not experience decapitation may suffer subdural hematomas and other forms internal injuries and bleeding. At the point of impact with the rear truck wheels, crushing orthopedic injuries to the mid and lower extremities can be suffered.
The critical investigation for any lawyer representing the victim of an underride injury resulting from an improper left-hand turn, is evaluation of the victim for long-term neurological and cognitive deficiencies from traumatic brain injury.
Victims who may appear normal, still need to be evaluated by a qualified professional to ensure this injury is not overlooked.
Orthopedic injuries to the lower extremities should also be carefully considered for long-lasting impairment, both physical and vocational.
Consider the expenses and costs of impaired earning capacity and the expenses associated with future treatment and therapies.
Determining what should be done to prevent accidents involving left-hand turns involves inquiry into company policies, practices and the company approach in hiring, retention and training of professional drivers. The underlying cause may also be exacerbated by unrealistic expectations placed on drivers and the resulting motivations to complete an improper maneuver, instead of choosing a safer alternative.
In sum, the safe alternatives that any safe trucking company can and should accomplish include avoidance of left hand turns, whenever possible, proper education and training of drivers when not, and elimination of dangerous incentives.