Asleep at the wheel

Driver error plays a significant role in tractor-trailer rollover crashes, as does the lack of on board electronic stability control (ESC) systems. When you combine the two, you have a recipe for disaster.   

Consider the following case study reported as a claim:

The insured was driving a semi pulling a tanker full of coconut oil at approximately 40 m.p.h. when he fell asleep at the wheel. In just a few short seconds, the truck, which wasn’t fitted with ESC, had drifted dangerously onto the shoulder. When he woke up and attempted to get back on the road, he over-corrected—causing the unit to rollover on its side.

The force of impact caused the tank to rupture and release all 7,000 gallons of coconut oil, which flowed into a drainage ditch and underground affecting a 5-block area. The semi and tanker were a total loss and the coconut oil had to be dug out of the drainage ditches and drainage pipes. The clean-up cost was in excess of $500,000.

Key factors of the accident

  • Driver Error
    • Driving while fatigued
    • Making a quick maneuver (over-correcting) pulling on the truck’s center of gravity
  • No ESC
    • The system could have mitigated severe over-steer by automatically applying brake force at selected wheel-ends to help maintain directional control of a vehicle
    • Though not required, older trucks can be retrofitted with ESC

Risk management recommendations

  • Educate drivers about operating vehicles while fatigued. The driver may have been legal for hours of service, however that does not relieve him of duty to be well rested when reporting for work.
  • Educate dispatchers and supervisors to recognize symptoms of driver fatigue and to monitor drivers to take appropriate breaks throughout the day to combat fatigue.
  • Educate drivers on the correct way of returning to the roadway when they drift off. Trailers will dig in more if the tractor is turned back to the road. The driver should remain straight and bring the unit to a complete stop before maneuvering the vehicle onto the road.
  • Equip vehicles with ESC.
  • Equip vehicles with lane departure warning system.
  • Learn about tractor-trailer rollover safety tips on

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