Our society depends on the commercial trucking industry to move clothing, food, and other merchandise around the country safely and quickly. Large trucks share the roads with passenger cars every day without incident, and most of us do not think about these huge vehicles very often as we go about our daily drives.
But when a truck tire blows out unexpectedly, the consequences to both the truck driver and every vehicle around them can be devastating. A passenger car driver faces the risk of having to swerve to avoid other vehicles, being run off the road, or slamming into the truck itself. All these can cause life-changing injuries and even death. While every situation is different, one question that often arises after the crash is: who is at fault for a truck tire blow-out?
Car crash scenes in movies are often sensationalized, but real-life truck accidents can be just as dramatic. In a March 2022 Arizona crash, a tire blowout sent a truck swerving into a sedan as the driver fought his rig for control in heavy highway traffic. The sedan rolled over and smashed into a minivan, wedging it into the median wall and leaving the sedan resting on its roof. While none of the drivers suffered any major injuries, the cost of vehicle damage was high.
This illustrates how important it is for commercial drivers to follow regular maintenance and inspection schedules for their equipment, for their safety, and the safety of everyone else on the road. Four major causes of truck tire blowouts are:
More cargo is being hauled in trucks than ever, and this means more risk to other vehicles is on the highway every day.
While drivers and authorities conduct regular inspections on commercial trucks, a tire may reach a dangerous threshold of damage during a long-haul trip. In these cases, the driver may be unaware that their tires are becoming unstable. A new technology built into the road itself hopes to reduce these instances.
On Interstate 90, as it crosses from Minnesota into South Dakota, sensors embedded into the pavement alert weigh station inspectors when a truck’s tires are flat, underinflated, or mismatched. All these factors make the truck a danger to other vehicles on the road. Authorities are able to flag these trucks, bringing them off the interstate before they cause accidents. Drivers who are flagged and brought in for inspection are not allowed to continue their route until the tires are repaired or replaced.
The tire sensing technology in use in South Dakota has been adopted by about half the states in the country, according to Donna Bergan at International Road Dynamics, Inc., the company that manufactures the systems. Results are promising: Virginia has removed about 25,000 unsafe truck tires from vehicles since June 2020, when the state implemented the sensors at a Winchester weigh station. The state paid $82,000 for the system and plans to install two more. “It’s a small price to pay for safety,” said Jessica Cowardin, a spokesperson for the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles.
And in Nebraska, state troopers who operate the state’s weigh stations now identify around 100 flat tires a month using road sensor systems on Interstate 80. Before the sensors were installed, they flagged fewer than five a month. Catching these tire problems relied on visual inspections by troopers on parked vehicles in the weigh station. These inspections were subjective and not always accurate. With the road sensors, tire screening is done at highway speed so tires are tested under the same conditions in which they could fail. Screening happens about 1 mile before the weigh station exit and keeps trucks from making unnecessary stops. If all tires are safe, the driver continues their route, and freight is more likely to arrive on time.
Beyond the road, some carrier companies are installing technology to continuously monitor and adjust tire pressure while the vehicle is moving. Robert Braswell, executive director of the American Trucking Association’s Technology and Maintenance Council, encourages trucking companies to embrace new technologies such as road sensors and on-board tire monitoring systems, saying, “It can prevent a lot of problems.”
On-board tire monitoring systems already in use today could be the key to safely operating driverless trucks in the future. When a sudden tire failure sends an 80,000-pound truck swerving out of control, the results are often deadly. Nearly 5000 truck crashes recorded in the federal Fatal Analysis Recording System data for 2020 ended in the death of at least one victim, and 28 of those accidents were caused by a flat tire or blowout. Experienced drivers can work to control the truck and trailer when this happens, but driverless trucks need redundant layers of safety mechanisms to reduce accidents.
Human truck drivers are prone to error, fatigue, and distraction. They also are skilled in handling tire blow-outs. By testing and installing new technologies, commercial truck companies are trying to balance human-versus-machine problems to ensure autonomous (self-driving) trucks are as safe as human-driven trucks. Harry Adler, principal director at the Institute for Trucking Safety (a Washington-based truck accident victim advocacy group), endorses systems such as automatic emergency braking controls, speed limiting devices, and lane departure warning systems. “These are the building blocks to autonomous trucking,” Adler said. “Speed limiters are a great way to reduce the instances of blowouts. We don’t think trucks should be going 75 or 80 miles an hour.”
Because truck drivers and their companies must comply with many regulations and laws concerning maintenance and inspection, the liability from an accident usually lies with the trucking company. Even if a driver is negligent in their maintenance, the company is legally at-fault for all damages associated with the resulting crashes.
In other cases, a tire manufacturer may be brought into a case if it can be proven they did not address design flaws or production errors that led to an accident. Tires that cannot handle being overloaded, traveling at excessive speeds, or driving long routes can make the manufacturer culpable.
In rare instances, it may be possible to bring government entities into a liability claim. This is difficult because it requires proof that excessively poor road maintenance led to the tire blow-out. This liability could be in addition to, or instead of, any other factors that contribute to a crash.
Determining who is responsible for a truck tire blow-out can be complicated and requires an extremely experienced truck accident attorney. A skilled legal team can investigate all the factors involved to calculate an appropriate approach for a settlement or jury trial.