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Understanding Common Types of Semi and Tractor-Trailer Crashes

Best Truck Accident Injury Attorneys

No two traffic accidents are the same. At the same time, common causes for collisions exist. In particular, patterns emerge when one looks for reasons why large commercial truck drivers hit, injure and kill pedestrians or people in smaller vehicles.

Operating a tractor-trailer, tanker truck, semi, flatbed, construction vehicle or other type of big rig comes with great responsibility for keeping everyone else on the road safe. Even a small error or a moment of inattention behind the wheel of a large commercial truck sets the stage for a potentially deadly crash.

A loaded 18-wheeler, for instance, measures more than 50 feet long, weighs as much as 80,000 pounds and requires more than a football field’s worth of distance to come to a stop when traveling at highway speeds. Add in large blind spots, unpredictable weather, long shifts and distractions created by GPS devices, logbooks and communications with dispatchers, and you get a job that demands the utmost care and professionalism.


During our four decades of advising and representing victims of crashes caused by semi and tractor-trailer drivers in Virginia and North Carolina, my personal injury and wrongful death law firm colleagues and I have seen wrecks fall into four basic categories. What follows is far from an exhaustive list of the kinds of collisions involving large commercial trucks, but knowing why accidents can happen makes avoiding them easier. Determining causes is also absolutely essential for filing and collecting on insurance claims.


A big rig jackknifes when the tractor slows or stops faster than the trailer. The overall cause is usually loss of traction by several or all of the trailer tires. Faulty brakes can also be part of the problem.

Jackknives occur most often on wet or icy roads. An unloaded trailer also makes it more likely that tires will lose contact with or skid along the pavement. In some instances, high winds can also push a trailer out of alignment behind the tractor.

A truck driver’s natural reaction at the start of a jackknife is to slam on the brakes. This actually contributes to the loss of traction while, at the same time, making steering more difficult.


Tanker trucks and delivery vans are particularly prone to rolling over. Overweight, unbalanced and shifting loads destabilize the vehicles, especially when the drivers navigate curves and take interstate ramps.

Strong winds also create rollover risks for what are termed “high-profile vehicles.” such as box trucks. A commercial truck driver who ignores wind advisories can be held liable for injuries or deaths in a rollover crash.

Unsafe Lane Changes and Merges

Big rig drivers contend with large front, side and rear blind spots. Even the best mirrors and proximity detectors leave a person at the wheel of a tractor-trailer unable to see or detect people and vehicles in certain locations.

This irresolvable physics problem leaves commercial truck drivers with high, legally enforceable duties to change lanes, turn and merge into traffic safely. Here, other drivers and pedestrians can help themselves and truck drivers by knowing where the blind spots are and staying out of those areas when possible.

Brake Failures

Properly slowing and stopping a large commercial truck takes skill. It also requires sufficient time, distance and technology.

Each wheel on an 18-wheeler has its own brake assembly, and those assemblies are typically controlled by an air brake system. Each brake component must be regularly inspected and repaired or replaced as needed to ensure safe operation of the big rig. One list of potential points of failure in the air brake system looks like this:

  • Air reservoir,
  • Spring brake control valves,
  • Trailer service line, and
  • Pressure protection valves.

Each component must be connected correctly, and every driver must receive thorough training in when and how to apply the air brakes. The sad truth is that too many trucking companies neglect brake maintenance and shortchange drivers on training. The results are failures and crashes waiting to happen.



Richard N. Shapiro
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Personal Injury & Wrongful Death Lawyer Serving Va Beach, Norfolk, Chesapeake & all of Virginia