Fatal crashes in northwestern Virginia and central North Carolina, separated by hundreds of miles and nearly a week, shared a similar cause. In both, a tractor-trailer driver failed to stop at an intersection where other vehicles had right of way. The tragedies remain under investigation, but it is clear from news reports that neither of the at-fault truck drivers applied their brakes early enough to prevent the deadly wreck.
Just afternoon on April 18, 2017, a semi rolled through a stop sign at the intersection of Carpers Pike/VA 259 and Northwestern Pike/U.S. 50 near the Frederick County town of Gore, VA. The big rig crossed to the far side of Northwestern Pike and struck a motorcycle broadside. The motorcycle rider later died from internal injuries at a hospital in Winchester.
Five days earlier, a little before 3 pm on April 13, an 18-wheeler ran a red light at the intersection of NC 87 and Buffalo Lake Road in the Harnett County town of Lillington. This caused a collision with a pickup truck making a left turn from a lane with a green arrow. The man behind the wheel of the pickup died at the scene.
It is unclear whether the truck driver who hit and killed the motorcycle rider in Virginia will face charges. In North Carolina, charges for ignoring a stop signal and for causing a death while operating a motor vehicle have been filed against the tractor-trailer operator.
One reason Virginia law enforcement officials are holding off on charging the semi driver is that they want to check the brakes on the big rig for defects or malfunction. Mechanical problems would not necessarily absolve the truck driver of responsibility, especially if he knew problems existed but failed to take the truck off the road to make repairs.
Even when a large commercial truck’s brakes work perfectly, stopping an 18-wheeler takes a great deal of time, distance and attention. A fact sheet issued by the Utah Department of Transportation explains the issue this way:
A typical tractor-trailer or other large truck can weigh as much as 80,000 pounds by law. Most passenger vehicles are about 3,000 – 4,000 pounds. A passenger vehicle weighing 4,000 pounds, traveling under ideal conditions at a speed of 65 miles per hour would take 316 feet to stop (nearly the length of a football field). In comparison, a fully loaded tractor-trailer weighing 80,000 pounds traveling under ideal conditions at a speed of 65 miles per hour will take 525 feet to stop (almost the length of two football fields).
Information in the fact sheet also reveals that even at 40 mph, a fully loaded semi needs 169 feet to stop, as compared with 124 feet to typical car. Any delay in applying brakes while traveling at highway speeds sets the stage for a deadly collision. And a shocking number of wrecks involving tractor-trailers do result in loss of life. According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety’s Highway Loss Data Institute, “A total of 3,852 people died in large truck crashes in 2015. Sixteen percent of these deaths were truck occupants, 69 percent were occupants of cars and other passenger vehicles, and 15 percent were pedestrians, bicyclists or motorcyclists.”
When commercial truck drivers behave negligently in operating with faulty brakes or by failing to brake in time, innocent people are put at risk for injuries and death.