Crunch Time

One night in 1989, Landstar driver Fred Lapp was traveling on I-35 when he averted his gaze for a split second. Looking up, he cut sharply to the left to avoid a station wagon, but his trailer clipped the vehicle’s rear corner. The truck jackknifed and landed against a guardrail.

“I turned on my flashers and called 911 on the cell phone before I even left the truck,” he says. Even though Lapp checked on the car passengers, one of whom went to the hospital, he knew not to offer information to the other driver. “Other than asking if they are OK or if I can call someone, I don’t engage in any conversation,” he says. “That way, I’m less likely to be held liable.” In this case, Lapp’s company settled with the victims for an undisclosed amount.

If you’re in an accident, what you say and how you act afterward are important. Protect yourself and your company by documenting an accident thoroughly, taking pictures and helping others at the accident scene.

Most companies provide detailed material about accident procedures. Don Lacey, director of safety and compliance for Springfield, Mo.-based Prime Inc., says that his company offers a specialized course that covers every aspect of what to do at an accident scene. “We believe in being prepared,” he says. “The better job you do obtaining info at the scene, the more fairly we can protect your record.”

Ray Theis, safety director for Overnite Express in St. Paul, Minn., stresses keeping a cool head. “The main thing is not to act like an idiot,” he says. “Follow procedure.” Prime and Overnite provide drivers and owner-operators with accident kits that include paperwork to document an accident. Sgt. Gary Lewis, a spokesperson for the Ohio State Highway Patrol, recommends being prepared for anything when it comes to an accident. “You cannot expect to approach different crash scenes in the same way,” he says.

One common point, though, is to try to get an accurate account of the accident scene. JR Lyons, a trucker for 10 years who drives for USF Holland out of South Bend, Ind., says, “Having a camera to document your story is simple, cover-your-rear common sense.” For this reason, some companies encourage their drivers to carry cameras with them at all times. “We require our drivers to have throw-away cameras,” says Theis. “We develop the film free of charge.” Ron Montgomery, director of safety and compliance for Dallas-based FFE, recommends having a professional take pictures if there is any question that the driver is at fault. “Professionals know what pictures are crucial,” he says. “The driver won’t always know.”

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But Jennifer Cook, a trucking attorney with Hill Gilstrap in Arlington, Texas, warns that pictures can be double-edged swords because they can help you or hurt you, depending on the situation. If there is a lawsuit or insurance claim pending, you are duty-bound to preserve all evidence, including what is potentially harmful. “Any type of evidence like that is discoverable to the other side,” Cook says.

Andy Gibson, safety director for Anchor National Transport of Memphis, Tenn., and a trucker for 12 years, recalls blowing out a steering tire in Virginia. “I lost all electrical control of the truck,” he says. “It messed up my hood and my fuel tank and caused $8,600 worth of damage.” Having a video camera made all the difference for Gibson, who says that his insurance company quit harassing him after he provided video of the aftermath. “It’s hard to argue with a video,” he says. “My camera is on from the time I leave the truck.”

Not only can you use a camera to record witnesses, license plates and vehicles for identification purposes, but you can also use it to verify your safe operating practices. “You can take pictures of the cargo to prove how it was loaded and that it was loaded correctly,” says Cindy Bonham, an owner-operator with Lone Wolf Trucking in Port Huron, Mich. If you have it, don’t hesitate to use a video camera to illustrate what is going on at the scene and where vehicles are located.

A picture may be worth a thousand words, but when it comes to protecting yourself at an accident scene, usually the fewer words exchanged, the better. Brian Blomquist, a driver for CTI in Clinton, Wis., agrees. “Don’t admit to anything, no matter how little it seems,” he says. FFE’s Montgomery says this is a good policy, depending on the severity of the accident. “We have attorneys present at the scene in a severe accident,” he says. “If it’s a fender-bender, it’s fine to cooperate with authorities without one.”

John Greene, a trucking attorney with Hill Gilstrap, advises truckers to be more careful. “Never say anything at the scene,” he says.

Greene and Cook maintain that you should wait for a company representative or attorney to arrive on the scene, if possible. However, you can be arrested if you refuse to cooperate with authorities. If you are taken into custody, wait until your lawyer arrives before you make a full statement. Greene says that more trucking companies need a policy that defines the level of severity in which to retain an attorney – for instance, if someone is taken to a hospital or if a vehicle is towed. “Decisions like these shouldn’t be made arbitrarily,” he says.

According to Cook, there is no difference between the rights and responsibilities of drivers and owner-operators. In Texas, for example, a carrier’s liability covers the truck regardless of the driver’s status. “The insurance company looks at the lawsuit and sees whether it is covered under the policy,” she says. “Obviously, the company will do what it can to protect the driver.”

Greene says that an owner-operator does not need to hire his own attorney in the event of an accident because owner-operators and company drivers share the same umbrella of protection and liability. “Whatever verdict there is will apply to the driver and the company,” he says. “The trucking company has liability if the driver does.” Greene says that the insurance policy of the trucking company is obligated to include the driver whether he is a company driver or an owner-operator.

Having adequate insurance, though, is only one part of being prepared for an accident. Despite your best efforts at safety, you may find yourself in a wreck. Make sure you’re ready to respond quickly and confidently.

The risk of getting involved
If you witness an accident, do you drive by or stop to help? In these litigious times, this decision may not be easy. At least five states – Minnesota, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Vermont – have imposed a “duty to assist,” making it illegal not to stop and render assistance. In Minnesota, for example, you could be subject to 18 months in prison and a $10,000 fine if you do not render reasonable assistance. This can include anything from calling 911 to performing cardiopulmonary resuscitation. Good Samaritan laws in most states protect you as long as you make an honest effort to help. Dr. James Robinson, a general practitioner in Tuscaloosa, Ala., says, “Don’t try to do more than you have been trained to do. You could end up hurting the victim instead of helping him.”

Some drivers consider it their duty to assist when they can. Patrick Anderson, owner of Cheyenne, Wyo.-based Rocky Mountain Trailer Transport, believes in helping others. “I’d rather do that than watch someone die,” he says. He requires all of his drivers to take courses in CPR and first aid as part of their safety training. The training paid off when a co-worker fainted from hydrogen sulfate poisoning. Anderson and two other men administered CPR for nearly an hour while they waited for paramedics. “We saved his life because we were prepared,” he says.

Even if you have no medical training, there are things you can do after calling for help. Wendy Karnes, a registered nurse at Lynchburg (Va.) General Hospital, says, “If I had somebody unconscious in a vehicle, I would not move them unless they were in imminent danger. If it’s clear that the vehicle might blow, get away from it as fast as you can.” Karnes also suggests applying direct pressure to wounds with obvious bleeding. Apply a clean, dry towel or cloth to the wound, press down firmly and hold the pressure for as long as you can. “Applying direct pressure for 30 minutes or longer should slow the bleeding,” she says. Karnes recommends staying with the victim until help arrives. “If someone is conscious, you can talk to him and keep him alert,” she says. “When medical help arrives, you can help by telling them what happened.”

Another way to be prepared is to carry a first-aid kit in your truck. It doesn’t have to be an expensive one, but it should contain bandages, adhesive tape, antiseptic, scissors, gauze, a blanket, aspirin, a flashlight with extra batteries and latex gloves.

You might think that most people would stop automatically if they witness an accident, but this is not always the case. Other truckers have reasons for not stopping at accident scenes. Danny Lampher – an owner-operator from Gary, Ind., leased to Swift Transportation and a trucker for more than 20 years – doesn’t get involved unless he is there when it happens. “It’s too hard to get in and out of traffic,” he says. “You create a bigger jam unless you were there at the scene.” He says that if he sees an accident or hears about one on his CB, he calls the police on his cell phone.

“I don’t discourage drivers from stopping,” says Dwayne Lettinger, owner of DL Enterprises in Greensburg, Ind. “I leave it totally up to them.”

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