The Physics of a Trucking Accident—and Why It’s Important

April 15, 2020 @ 9:41 am

physics of a trucking accident blog photo

As lawyers who specialize in trucking accidents, we know that highway safety depends on each driver’s ability to share the road with others responsibly. For regular drivers, navigating from one destination to another is often a simple task. For the drivers of commercial tractor trailers, however, highway safety can become frighteningly complex.

All of the bad habits, aggressive driving and quick maneuvers that car drivers take for granted can easily result in someone getting injured in a trucking accident—and it isn’t always the truck driver’s fault. In fact, American Trucking Association’s reports indicate that “81 percent of the time, car drivers were assigned at fault.” After all, when it comes to accidents involving big rig trucks, the physics involved can be unforgiving.

The Physics of a Trucking Accident

On our roads and highways, tractor trailers—also known as semis, semi trucks, big rigs or eighteen wheelers—are a fact of life. According to the ATA, at least 3.8 million commercial drivers delivered about 11.5 billion tons of freight in 2018 alone, and they have to do it using the same roads that the rest of us do.

However, the physical properties of their vehicles and their operating parameters are quite different from those of us driving an average passenger vehicle:

  • Big trucks weigh more than cars. A Ford Explorer, for example, weighs around 4,700 pounds while a compact car like a Hyundai Accent is more like 2,500 pounds. Meanwhile, just the engine in a rig truck can easily weigh 3,000 pounds, and together, a tractor, trailer and its full load can total as much as 80,000 pounds—sometimes more if permitted for it.Because of their mass—their weight and size—trucks are much harder to stop, and when they can’t stop and do hit something, that extra mass and momentum carry extra force. They hit hard—80,000 pounds’ worth of hard. That’s 40 tons hitting at highway speed.
  • Big trucks are longer than cars. While that Ford Explorer is about 16½ feet long and the Hyundai is just 14, a tractor and trailer together measure about 65 feet. In Louisiana, the trailer alone may be 59½ feet long.This extra length means they need more room for even the most basic maneuvers. A simple lane change isn’t that simple, and a swerve of the wheel to compensate for another driver’s cut-in can result in a trailer that pivots and jack-knifes. Even making a turn in a big truck takes more power to get the weight of the rig moving and more area to make the turn. As a car driver, cutting into an inside lane while a big truck is turning puts you in immediate danger.
  • Big trucks have a larger, higher profile. In Louisiana, tractor trailers can be 13 ½ to 14 feet high, well over double the height of Ford Explorer.That extra-high profile makes them more vulnerable to wind and tipping—especially when they’re traveling empty or lightly loaded. A gust or even the uplift of air on an overpass can catch a trailer. Having to make an abrupt steering adjustment because of something reckless that a car driver does can initiate a string of reactions that can ripple, twist and lift the entire 14-foot-high length of a truck.

With these in mind, it’s easy to see why trucking accidents are so dangerous. When a truck jack-knifes, it means that the trailer is moving faster—and often in a different direction—than the tractor. It can swing, skid, turn, twist, fold, flip or even go airborne—all the while taking the tractor and anything or anyone in its path with it. This force may even release the secured load, further adding to the danger.

Drivers Injured in a Trucking Accident

Trucking accidents caused by car drivers happen every day. They happen when car drivers think that they can simply slip in front of a big rig to make the exit they nearly missed or pass another vehicle. They happen when car drivers hang in the left lane in the truck driver’s blind spot because they’re actually afraid to pass. They happen when car drivers panic because they’re surrounded by semis front, side and back and abruptly cut lanes without signaling or ride the brakes to compensate. They happen because car drivers simply fail to recognize that a big rig is not a light passenger vehicle.

Keeping our Louisiana roads safe is everyone’s responsibility—not just truck drivers’. When you drive, give 18-wheelers the respect that they deserve and the space that they need to drive safely.

If you’d like to learn more about the laws governing trucking accidents, you can learn more about our experience in trucking accident law or contact us online, or call us at 1-800-356-6776 to schedule your free consultation. Injuries from a truck accident can be devastating. It’s up to all of us to make the roads safe for everyone.