Crash Course

| December 12, 2008

Nobody wants to think about having an accident, but preparation and knowing your legal rights can help you keep cool when you’re tested in a crisis.

One of the tensest situations is the aftermath of a crash. Even a minor accident can leave you in a state of mental shock and confusion. This can lead to panic and to critical errors. Planning how you will handle such a situation will help you make the right decisions and protect your livelihood as much as possible.

The first response after an accident is to secure the scene to prevent further accidents. This includes the use of triangles and four-way hazard lights, say fleet safety experts.

“Pull off the road to prevent another accident, and put triangles out to warn traffic,” says Mike Lense, safety director of National Carriers. “Put your four-ways on. Check on everyone at the scene and, if there are injuries, call 911.”

Then, Lense says, “If you are trained, explain that you know what you are doing, and then go ahead and treat the injured.”

John Biblis, vice president of safety at McClendon Trucking, gives drivers five steps for accident scene conduct: “Get the police involved, document, document, document, and get the company involved.” He adds, “If the other party does not want the police involved, that’s a red flag.”

Why is involving the police and company so important? Fleet experts agree that law enforcement will protect you if other parties try to cover up their driving errors. Also, the company will often send its own accident investigator or an independent claims adjuster to the scene, which can help protect you if you were not at fault or contributed only minimally to the crash.

“The driver should cooperate with the investigating officer,” says attorney Michael Langford of Scopelitis, Garvin, Light and Hanford, an Indianapolis law firm that specializes in transportation. “You might even want to be prepared to step into his car for a lengthy review of what happened. It’s the right thing to do.”

Langford cautions, however, not to say too much. “Make sure you are not overly committal. If you are a leased operator, you should talk to an attorney at your trucking company as soon as possible.”

The legal and insurance teams at Dart Transit also advise drivers to avoid any admission or assignment of responsibility, as that’s the job of the post-crash investigation. Dart also advises drivers not to quarrel with other parties and not to discuss the incident with anyone other than police, government authorities or investigators authorized by the fleet.

In fact, “No law says you have to make a statement to police,” Lense says. Opinions differ on how far you can take this; some believe a driver can get into big trouble by refusing to say anything at all. “If you are lacking in cooperation, you could be arrested,” Langford says.

“You should be as truthful and accurate as you can,” says accident reconstructionist Leo Strupczewski. “If you realize you’ve done something wrong, don’t embellish in an attempt to cover anything up. There’s a lot of truth in what you’ve seen on the crime-solving programs on television. There are a lot of ways to prove or disprove somebody’s statements.”

When guilt is clear-cut, a degree of acknowledgement is best, Biblis says. Clearly, however, you’re on solid ground if you decline to state anything you’re not certain of.

“Rarely does the driver know all he needs to know about what actually happened,” Langford says. “His speed might turn out to be lower than his estimate at the scene. The light in his direction may have been green, not red as he thought. We need to remind the driver that what he thinks he saw is only one aspect of what happened. Right after an accident, you’re not thinking clearly. Memory and judgment can be clouded. You might even have amnesia. This is why it’s so important to talk to a responsible official at your company or a lawyer, but not in complete detail to the investigating officer. Admissions at the scene will always come into evidence.”

One 21st-century piece of evidence that can bring out the truth is the downloaded information from your truck’s electronic control module, Langford points out. This shows a lot of detail, including the speed before the accident, when and how hard brakes were applied, and what gear you were in.

That information, however, may not always be completely reliable, and may be proven inaccurate, Strupczewski says. “If somebody else caused the crash, we’ll figure that out.”

Of course, you can do plenty of documentation on your own. Biblis recommends getting all the information you can on the scene because getting it from the police report may take at least a week.

Get license numbers of all vehicles involved and names and addresses of all drivers, as well as potential witnesses.

Lense recommends drawing a simple diagram of what happened while your memory is fresh. And most experts agree that taking photos is vital.

“Take the whole roll,” Lense says. “Get long-distance views and close-ups. Get pictures of any damage. Get shots in all four directions, get the whole road, and get skid marks.” Take photographs of all damage to vehicles; the point of view from the approach of each vehicle, including road signs; and the license plates of witnesses’ vehicles.

Tim Good of Good’s Insurance Agency in Leola, Pa., also recommends photographing the points of impact, any obstructing trees or signs, and the intersection itself if the crash occurred at any kind of crossroads.

Don’t take photos of the injured, however. These can be used against you.

The fear of self-incrimination leads a few fleets to recommend taking no photos at all. In general, if a photo would incriminate you, don’t shoot it. If you believe your mistake was a primary cause of the accident, you’d be smart not to shoot any photos – unless to prove, for example, that the other vehicle sustained only slight damage.

Biblis has found it’s a good idea to photograph someone who was in a damaged vehicle being physically active. A party in a passenger car involved in a crash with a McClendon vehicle was jumping up and down on a crowbar to straighten his fender at the scene. He later claimed he was seriously injured in the crash. The photos taken by McClendon’s driver proved he was lying.

Bear in mind, however, that if you walk around taking photos as crash victims lie there in critical condition, you could be portrayed as behaving coldly in the event of a jury trial.

Do your best to act appropriately, even without medical training, experts say. “Be concerned,” Langford says. “Ask about how people are doing and whether or not there is anything you can do.” You can put a blanket around a victim who is shivering, if you have one. If you just sit in the cab, that fact is likely to come out in court, and lawyers from the opposing side are likely to portray you as the bad guy.

Good stresses the importance of remaining “calm, collected, polite and courteous at the scene,” saying it will “pay big dividends in the end.”

Inform your insurance company immediately after the accident, and completely fill out the forms in any accident kit provided, Good says.

Also, don’t hurry to pay a citation; this can be seen as an admission of guilt, Langford says. Police officers can make mistakes, and a few may even be biased against truckers. If a reasonable chance exists that the citation was not fully justified, take the time to fight it.

What if you believe the citation was fair? Many jurisdictions still offer options, Langford says. You often can plead “no contest,” perhaps by agreeing to enter a special program. Just remember that a guilty plea will be brought to a jury’s attention.


Are you covered?
Any lease agreement between a carrier and an owner-operator should include an insurance section that explains the coverage provided and the coverage required, says insurance agent Tim Good.

Most such agreements follow federal requirements: The carrier provides the owner-operator’s primary liability and cargo insurance. “This means that the contractor will have to provide ‘non-trucking’ liability for his operations while not under dispatch,” Good says. “This is what used to be referred to as ‘bobtail and deadhead’ liability.”

A leased owner-operator also should find out whether the carrier is providing worker’s compensation insurance. “If not, he should consider purchasing occupational accident coverage to cover him for medical bills, work loss, death benefits and so forth when he becomes injured from a work-related accident,” Good says.

Many health insurance policies exclude injuries sustained in a truck accident. This is because, for most individuals, worker’s compensation would cover such costs. Of course, most independent contractors do not have worker’s comp. Dart Transit urges its owner-operators to determine whether their health insurance has such a provision, lest they find out the hard way.

Owner-operators operating under their own authority are “a whole other ball game,” Good says. They’re responsible not only for their own health and occupational-accident insurance, but their own primary liability and cargo insurance as well. “If you have common carrier authority, your insurance carrier must issue filings to you as evidence that these forms of coverage are in place,” Good says. “If you have only contract authority, you need only the liability filing.”

Good recommends that owner-operators carry general liability and seriously consider an umbrella or excess auto liability as well. “General liability coverage is very affordable, though many owner operators don’t carry it – even though they should,” he says.

General liability would cover you if you injured somebody while unloading your trailer with a forklift or pallet jack; lent someone a truck part that failed and caused an accident; or even hurt somebody with a chain you were using to secure your load.

Whether leased or independent, all owner-operators also need physical damage coverage – comprehensive and collision – because liability insurance alone will not fix your truck. Dart cautions its drivers that personal property inside a tractor cab, such as computers and televisions, often is excluded from the tractor’s physical damage policy.

Most truckers don’t realize comprehensive covers only market value, Good says. If you’re leasing a new vehicle with a low down payment, or if your finance balance is greater than the actual cash value of your equipment, you need what’s called “gap” or “lease gap” coverage to be fully protected, he says.


Before Help Arrives
Roy Powell recalls stopping his truck when he saw a car turned over in a ditch.

“There was an older lady inside that wasn’t wearing her seat belt,” he says. “She was unconscious, not breathing and didn’t have a pulse. I pulled her out and started CPR. A volunteer firefighter showed up, and we relieved each other until an ambulance got there.

Powell says cardio-pulmonary resuscitation has a less than 20 percent success rate for reviving people without a pulse, so the woman was lucky that she pulled through.

Even if you’re not trained in CPR, you may happen upon an accident or another emergency scene where professional help is slow in arriving. You should be prepared to give at least a minimal first aid response.

“I’ve been telling drivers that they should not mind helping, but they should call 911 to get the professionals there at the scene if they aren’t trained to help,” says Patrick Gratzianna, owner of Midwest Fleet Safety, which conducts driver safety training, including emergency first response. Gratzianna formerly drove for a fleet his father owned and is now a career firefighter and paramedic.

After calling for help, the first thing to do upon arrival is to survey the scene. You should not risk further accidents by parking in a bad spot or allowing yourself to be placed in a risky position. “You can’t help anybody if you’re hurt yourself,” says Powell, a 19-year truck-driving veteran who is now the health/safety/environmental manager for Superior Well Service in Tuscaloosa, Ala.

Sometimes the first response with seriously injured victims, Powell says, is to assist them with a vital function. “If they’re not breathing, breathe for them,” Powell says. “If their heart isn’t pumping, pump it for them.”

While administering CPR requires training, responding to other emergencies often involves little more than having the right supplies. You can buy a first-aid kit at drugstores and other retailers at relatively low cost. At www.e-firstaidsupplies.com, for example, kits range from $9.50 to $25.50. Or you can go to a drugstore or medical supply store and gather your own kit.

It should include personal protection equipment, such as latex gloves and a mask, as well as bandages, antibiotic ointment, gauze pads or wraps, alcohol prep pads, butterfly bandages and medical adhesive tape. Some kits also include a thermometer and pain relievers, both aspirin and non-aspirin.

Here are tips for responding to common on-the-road medical emergencies.

BROKEN BONES. The most important rule is not to move the victim, according to Harvard Medical School materials. Though the soft tissue around the wounded bone might swell, change color, bleed or cause intense pain, keep the body still until professional help arrives.

If the body must be moved from a threatening situation, such as a fire, splint the fracture or tie a sling to the injured limb. A rolled-up magazine or newspaper, even a piece of heavy cloth, might be useful. If the skin around the fracture grows cold, pale or blue, then the blood supply to the limb has been blocked, and the limb must be straightened so that the lack of oxygenated blood does not kill the soft tissue around the site. Gently pull lengthwise on the limb until the damaged bones move into their proper places. This may cause a great deal of pain.

BLEEDING. You don’t want to contract a blood-borne disease, so don the gloves and face mask in your first-aid kit.

In most cases, the Red Cross recommends putting direct pressure on the wound. However, if the laceration was caused by glass, apply pressure around the cut to keep bits of glass still embedded in the skin from slicing open blood vessels.

If the bleeding doesn’t stop, wrap the wound tightly with an Ace bandage and talk to the victim to keep him oriented. Keep him warm.

SHOCK. If a victim claims to be extremely thirsty or hungry, cold, lightheaded or shivering, he has gone into shock. Have him lie down, keeping his head low and his feet raised about 12 inches. Don’t provide any food or drink because it could cause choking.

BURNS. Determine what caused the burn – fire, electricity or chemicals – before deciding on proper treatment. A medical professional should evaluate electrical and chemical burns.

First-degree burns are superficial and are not likely to be dangerous unless they cover a large part of the body. Keep the area moist and loosely covered. Second-degree burns redden and break the skin, cause blisters and require professional medical attention. For first- or second-degree burns, run clean, cool water over the damaged area; do not apply ointments.

Third-degree burns, which char and whiten the skin, are potentially life-threatening. Try to keep the victim calm and alert to prevent shock.

CHOKING. A choking person can’t speak or breathe, notes the Heimlich Institute, so an alert responder needs to be ready to act as soon as the problem is apparent.

Choking therapy requires only a little knowledge of the Heimlich maneuver. Wrap your arms around the victim’s chest, place the thumb-side of a fist between the ribcage and the navel, and use the other hand to thrust the fist into the choker’s upper abdomen. This is repeated until the object obstructing the airway is freed.

When the choking victim is too large to wrap your arms around or has fallen on the floor, there are still ways to respond, says Debbie LeBrone of the West Alabama Red Cross chapter.

“If the person is still conscious, you can straddle him or her, put your hands above the belly button and give five abdominal thrusts,” LeBrone says. An abdominal thrust is made with the palm of the hand, but instead of pushing directly down, the responder juts the hand into the victim’s body like “they were trying to push the victim forward,” she says.

“If they are unconscious, do modified CPR,” LeBrone says. In modified CPR, the responder checks the victim’s mouth and sweeps out any matter after completing each cycle of 15 chest compressions and two rescue breaths.

Whatever the emergency situation, remember first to survey the scene and call 911. Stay calm, practice the basics, and you can increase someone’s chances for survival.

RESOURCES

General first-aid information:
www.redcross.org

First-aid kits:
www.e-firstaidsupplies.com
www.firstaid-supply.com
www.allsafetysupplies.com

How to devise a sling or splint a fractured limb:
www.health.harvard.edu

How to treat a choking victim:
www.heimlichinstitute.org

How to administer CPR:
www.americanheart.org


IN THE GLOVEBOX
Organize in a three-ring binder all the documents you would need to deal with authorities at an accident scene, recommends Sgt. Donald Bridge Jr. of the Connecticut Department of Motor Vehicles.

Toss out all expired documents to save you and the officers the trouble of hunting for what’s needed, says Bridge, who is also head of the driver and traffic enforcement committee of the Commercial Motor Vehicle Safety Alliance.

Bridge recommends having these documents readily available:

  • The vehicle registration apportioned under the International Registration Plan.

  • The single state registration, which replaced the old “bingo card.”
  • A copy of the periodic annual inspection, unless there is a current sticker on the vehicle.
  • All documents relating to insurance, including all insurance cards and filings.
  • Your IFTA fuel tax cab card, which was sent to you with your fuel tax decals.
  • The letter from the U.S. Department of Transportation showing the vehicle’s DOT or ICC number.
  • If you are an independent, your DOT operating authority.
  • If you are leased to a carrier, a copy of the lease agreement.
  • The carrier name and address to which the accident report should be mailed.
  • Your CDL, the proper grade of license and medical card.
  • Your log book, updated to your last change-of-duty status.
  • A camera. This gives you the option to record skid marks and other aspects of a crash that you think would help in your defense.
  • Paper and a pen. You’ll need to take down other parties’ phone numbers and other information at an accident scene.

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