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Cargo Spill Accidents

When tractor-trailer rigs are involved in an accident, spilling the cargo is a common result. Considerable effort is invested, however, in trying to prevent spilling the cargo as this can result in both a monetary loss and a dangerous situation on the road. Securing a cargo load properly can reduce the risk of a full cargo spill in the event of an accident, thus reducing the risk to surrounding vehicles.

For starters, properly securing cargo on a tractor-trailer rig is simply good business. Whether the cargo is on a flatbed trailer or contained within an enclosed cargo trailer, proper stowage and securing of the cargo is critical. If cargo shifts and is damaged or lost, the carrier likely loses its fee for that load. From a safety standpoint, improperly secured cargo can cause the load to spill, posing a severe hazard to other vehicles in the area, potentially leading to accidents causing damage, injuries or deaths.

To address these concerns, the federal government maintains regulations that set standards for properly securing cargo on flatbeds, vans, or refrigerated trailers. The standards are intended to make sure that cargo is secured in such a fashion that it will stay where it is supposed to be even during turns, rapid decelerations or stops, and other incidents.

Government inspectors often find that most citations for violations of cargo securement regulations are due to inadequate equipment, not driver error or improper methods of securements. Defective or incorrectly secured tie-downs, damaged straps, and an incorrect number of tie-downs for a load are among the most common causes of citations during roadside inspections. If the driver properly calculates the requirements to secure their cargo but then uses damaged or defective tie-downs to secure the cargo, that proper calculation goes to waste, and the cargo is subject to shifting or spilling.

To address cargo securement issues, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration promulgates regulations and periodically updates those regulations to adopt industry best practices for cargo securement. In essence, the regulations are intended to ensure that cargo is secured in such a way as to allow it to stand up to the stresses and strains of loading, securing, and transporting that cargo without spilling, regardless of the type of cargo involved.

Cargo Spills Can Cause Accidents or Result From Accidents

In three-quarters of truck accidents involving property damage, collision with another vehicle is the precipitating event. In 2014, large trucks – tractor-trailer rigs – were involved in more than 3,700 fatal crashes, 88,000 crashes involving injuries, and 346,000 were involved in crashes that only involved property damage. Five percent of all fatal truck crashes began with the vehicle overturning, not from a collision with another vehicle, and two percent of all nonfatal tractor-trailer crashes likewise originated with the vehicle overturning rather than from a collision.

A Department of Transportation study focused on causes of tractor-trailer truck crashes. This study found that the leading causes of truck crashes were:

  • Loss of control of the truck because of sudden equipment failure such as a tire blowout, complete engine failure, or something completely unforeseen such as a hood becoming unlatched and flying up to block visibility
  • Another vehicle drifting into the truck 's lane, or the truck drifting into another vehicle’s lane
  • Poor road conditions, either because of lack of maintenance or inclement weather
  • Driving too fast for road conditions
  • Shifting cargo
  • Driving off the edge of the road
  • Taking a turn too quickly
  • Unexpected stopped vehicle in the lane of travel
  • Unexpected objects or debris on the roadway
  • Driver fatigue

While shifting cargo is not a major initial cause of truck accidents, truck accidents frequently result in the truck's cargo being dumped onto the roadway simply because of the violent and sudden maneuvers trucks can go through during an accident.

Two recent incidents in Maryland illustrate this chicken-or-the-egg problem. In both cases, the accident was not caused by the cargo shifting and spilling, but in both cases, the cargo spilled and resulted in injuries, damage, and major traffic delays. Both incidents resulted in Interstate 270 just outside of Washington, D.C., being closed for several hours for accident cleanup.

In one, a police officer was investigating a minor accident on I-270. An approaching tractor-trailer attempted to brake to avoid traffic that had unexpectedly slowed because of the accident that had been moved to the shoulder. This truck moved to the shoulder to avoid rear-ending traffic and wound up striking a state emergency vehicle and the officer’s car, overturning in the process, dumping its cargo, and injuring five people. In another incident a few weeks earlier, a vehicle made an unsafe lane change that resulted in an 18-vehicle pileup that included three tractor-trailer rigs. One, a flatbed carrying a load of slate slabs, dumped its load, blocking the roadway and causing a number of injury-causing accidents in the ensuing pileup.

Trucks are at a Higher Risk for Rollover Accidents

These incidents illustrate that, while any vehicle can roll over, higher, narrower vehicles are at greater risk. The higher a vehicle’s center of gravity, the greater its risk of rolling over in an accident. Tractor-trailers are essentially the tallest vehicles on the road and, while wider than cars, drive in the same width lanes as do cars. According to Consumer Reports, though, most single-vehicle rollovers are caused by “trips,” not faulty steering by the driver. These “trips” can include events such as running into a curb, a pothole, or a soft road shoulder. Consumer Reports claims the federal government estimates that 95 percent of rollovers are the result of such “trips.”

This applies to many of the rollovers by tractor-trailer trucks, which can end up being fatal for nearby passenger car drivers. One federal study found that the primary causes of truck rollovers included

  • Failing to adjust the trucks speed when approaching curves in the road. This accounts for almost half of all truck rollover accidents, mostly while negotiating on-and off-ramps
  • Condition of the brakes
  • Road surface
  • Inattention, drowsy driving, and distraction
  • Over-steering to the point of rolling over
Speak with an Atlanta Truck Accident Attorney

If you have been involved in an accident stemming from a tractor-trailer’s cargo spill, you should examine the possibility of recovering damages, either through insurance claims or a personal injury action. Contact the attorneys at Slappey & Sadd for a free consultation to discuss your case by calling us at (404) 255-6677. Our attorneys serve the entire state of Georgia, including Smyrna, Decatur, and Marietta. You also can reach us through our online contact form.

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