Accidents involving large trucks — defined as trucks that weigh more than 10,000 pounds — are more likely to cause death and serious injury than other highway crashes. While dump trucks and garbage trucks are included in the “large truck” category, tractor-trailers (also known as semis, big-rigs, and 18-wheelers) are involved in about two-thirds of all large truck accidents.

Although only 4% of the nation’s registered vehicles are large trucks, they were involved in 9% of all fatal crashes in 2013. Given the size and weight of large trucks, a wrongful death is more likely when a passenger vehicle collides with a semi than when it collides with another car.

The more you know about truck accidents, the greater will be your opportunity to avoid them. For that reason, we want to help the public understand the nature and extent of truck accidents.

While we hope that drivers, motorcycle riders, bicyclists, and pedestrians will never be injured in a truck accident, we realize that injuries and deaths caused by negligent truck drivers are a frequent occurrence. We help injury victims and the families of deceased victims recover compensation for losses that result from accidents caused by the drivers of semis and other large trucks.

Truck accidents plague Northern California

Large truck accidents in Northern California often result in fatalities. Recent examples include:

  • A 14-year-old girl was killed in a fiery crash in Milpitas as a garbage truck broadsided the car she occupied.
  • A FedEx truck crossed a median into oncoming traffic and crashed into a bus on I-5 near Orland, killing five students, three chaperones, and the bus driver.
  • A driver died from injuries sustained in a collision with a commercial truck on Hoffman Road in Byron.
  • A dump truck filled with gravel tipped over in Martinez, killing a pregnant woman who was backing out of her driveway at the request of construction workers.
  • A 15-year-old bicyclist was killed after being struck by a big-rig in Cupertino.
  • A trucker who failed to stop while driving downhill on Highway 17 near Los Gatos caused a 10-vehicle pileup, injuring seven people and killing one.

The Los Gatos accident inspired a bill that would require more training for inexperienced big-rig drivers. The bill would also require California to regulate all commercial driving schools. Existing regulatory laws exempt truck driver training schools that charge tuition of less than $2,500. That loophole in California law has encouraged “diploma mills” that, according to critics, fail to provide meaningful instruction to their students.

Truck accident statistics

Large trucks were involved in more than 342,000 crashes across the United States in 2013. Nearly 4,000 accident victims were killed while 95,000 victims were injured in collisions with large trucks.

About 65% of victims who suffered fatal injuries in California truck accidents during 2013 occupied other vehicles. Another 22% were pedestrians or bicyclists. Only 13% of the people who died in truck accidents were occupants of large trucks.

With 249 fatalities, California recorded the second-highest death toll from large truck crashes in 2013. Only Texas, where highways are dominated by trucks serving the oil and gas industry, had more fatal large truck collisions than California.

Seaports, airports, distribution centers, and other transportation hubs contribute to California’s heavy truck traffic. Since California is a gateway for international trade, it is a popular destination for tractor-trailers hauling freight from around the country.

Types of truck accidents

Head-on collisions represent almost a third of all fatal crashes involving large trucks. In most of those crashes, both vehicles are traveling straight and one of them crosses a centerline. About 10% of head-on collisions with trucks occur on curves.

Intersection accidents, in which a truck crashes into the side of another vehicle, are the second most common cause of fatal injuries. In about 15% of all fatal crashes involving trucks, the truck strikes the left side of a passenger vehicle. In another 11% of fatal accidents, the truck strikes the passenger vehicle’s right side.

The most common non-fatal truck accidents that produce injuries are rear-end collisions. According to one study, rear-end collisions account for about 24% of all crashes caused by truck drivers.

Other accidents involving commercial trucks include:

  • Sideswiping vehicles during a lane change (particularly when the other vehicle is driving in the truck driver’s blind spot). About 16% of accidents involving large trucks are sideswipes.
  • Freeway entrance ramp accidents. Since trucks cannot accelerate as quickly as passenger cars, they sometimes merge before they can match the speed of other vehicles on the freeway. Drivers who are unable to change lanes may rear-end the truck, or they may be sideswiped as the truck merges into the car’s traffic lane.
  • Rollover accidents. A semi driver who does not slow sufficiently on a curved exit ramp may lose control of the trailer, causing a rollover accident. Car drivers who are adjacent to the truck may be crushed in a rollover while drivers who are following the truck may be unable to avoid a collision. Shifting cargo that has been improperly secured within a trailer can also produce a rollover.
  • Multiple-vehicle (“pileup”) collisions. Large trucks are more likely than other vehicles to cause chain reaction collisions, simply because of the momentum they impart as they crash into the rear of a car that is stopped in traffic.
  • Jackknifing accidents. Tractor-trailers jackknife when drive wheels on the tractor lock while wheels on the trailer continue to roll, causing the driver to lose control of the trailer.
  • Non-impact accidents. Cargo spills and fires or explosions when hauling flammable cargo can create hazards for other drivers even in the absence of a collision with the truck.

The next article in this series explores the reasons these accidents occur. We also discuss the most common injuries (in addition to death) that result from large truck crashes.