Public service announcements regularly inform us of the statistics around accidents caused by distracted driving. Television and radio news routinely include a tragic story about victims of crashes. Even car commercials incorporate subtext about the dangers of distracted driving.
Despite the devastating consequences of distracted driving, these accidents continue to multiply, possibly because we have become so accustomed to hearing about them. But once in awhile, a horrific event reminds us to stay mindful of our own driving habits and to heighten our awareness of other drivers on the road.
This is especially true when the distracted driver is behind the wheel of a commercial truck. Tragically, this was recently proven by an accident caused by a distracted truck driver in western Nebraska who took the lives of three adults and three children.
By now, the message is so common that it has almost become a cliche: distracted driving is a serious road hazard.
Disastrous Consequences of Distracted Trucking
The Omaha World-Herald reported that six people lost their lives on July 31, 2016 because a truck driver was “inattentive and distracted by outside influences.”
Truck driver Tony Weekly, Jr., a 53-year-old man from Florida, rammed into a minivan on Interstate 80. According to state troopers, Weekly’s truck was traveling at a high rate of speed and did not slow down until that initial impact; this suggests that Weekly was so distracted that he did not even see the minivan until it was too late to apply the brakes.
After striking the minivan from behind, the truck continued to push the vehicle forward at high speed, ramming into a second minivan, then a Nissan sport utility vehicle and finally a Ford van. The fiery crash resulted in immediate death for a family of five who were in the initial minivan to get hit. Both parents and their three infant children were killed on impact. A sixth victim, the driver of the second minivan, was pronounced dead the day after the crash.
Fred Zwonechek of the Nebraska Office of Highway Safety called the accident “the worst in Nebraska since at least Nov. 6, 2006.”
There is no report yet on what distraction took Weekly’s attention off the road. But the results are all too clear: five counts of felony motor vehicle homicide for him, and the irreparable loss of six lives.
What are the Fines and Consequences?
In light of the deadly consequences of distracted trucking, the US Department of Transportation’s Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration has issued very strong guidelines for truck drivers to avoid distraction. Along with prohibiting the use of mobile phones (which includes reading, holding and even reaching, as well as entering data), the FMCSA prohibits texting on a dispatch device unless pulled over and stopped safely on the side of the road.
Penalties for distracted truck drivers include being fined up to $2,750, being put out-of-service for up to 120 days, and penalties for the driver’s employer.
These stringent guidelines are the result of studies showing that dialing or texting takes a truck driver’s eyes off of the road for 3.8 to 4.6 seconds at a time—long enough for the truck to travel more than the length of a football field at 55 mph. While accidents caused by distracted driving are always painful to everyone involved, the fallout from a distracted trucking accident is much more severe.
In Tony Weekly, Jr.’s case, the trucker is charged with five counts of felony motor vehicle homicide and a single misdemeanor count of reckless driving.
Trucking Companies Respond
Distracted driving is a very real danger on American roadways, but when commercial vehicle operators find themselves distracted, the consequences can be disastrous.
When operating an 80,000-lb. vehicle at highway speed, avoiding distractions may seem like an obvious part of the job. However, truck drivers are just as susceptible to distraction as any other motorist, whether it comes from getting a text on their smartphone, reaching for something they have dropped, eating, or simply succumbing to the hypnotic influence of the road.
In the wake of this tragedy, trucking company officials are renewing their commitment to preventing distraction among their drivers.
Crete Carrier Corporation, one of the nation’s largest trucking companies, just happens to be based in Nebraska. A Crete Carrier truck was behind Weekly’s truck when it crashed, and the driver was among the first responders to the crash scene. In response to the news of the truck accident, president and CEO Tonn Ostergard sent a video to his company’s drivers to stress the importance of safe driving habits. Even with the best-equipped collision avoidance systems, distracted truck drivers can be the cause of tragic harm.
“We reiterate (no texting) all the time, every day,” Ostergard said. “Just a brief moment of inattentiveness … and the situation can change so fast.”