Several hundred thousand tractor-trailer or commercial vehicle involved accidents are reported each year. In many cases, the accident results when a truck tips over due to unsafe securement of truck’s cargo.

Because of the speeds at which they travel and the sizes of the loads that trucks and trailers tug, several rules and regulations have been developed that dictate how loads should be secured before being transported on the open road. Failure to follow federal rules can make a load unsafe for transport at highway speeds and can become a major contributing factor in an accident. The ultimate goal of the federal regulations is to make sure that the loads are balanced during transport. An unbalanced load can cause the driver to lose control of the truck.

Who Is Responsible For Unsafe Truck Cargo?

California law allows a person injured in a truck accident, when it is suspected that the accident was primarily caused by an improperly secured load, to sue anyone and any entity that may have had a hand in the improper securement of the cargo. This includes:

  • The truck driver
  • The truck driver’s employer
  • The owner of the truck
  • The company that loaded the cargo onto the truck

One exception to the driver or carrier responsibility rule is if the cargo is locked in a container that the driver or carrier has no way to access.

Truck Companies Are Required To Comply With Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations

The regulations for loading and securing cargo on a truck are set forth in the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations (FMCSR).

In general, FMCSR states that a commercial vehicle has to be loaded so as to prevent cargo in transit from moving around in a vehicle in a manner that vehicle stability becomes affected. Subsection 392.9 of FMCSR states, that a driver may not drive, and a carrier may not allow to be driven, a commercial vehicle unless the vehicle’s cargo has been secured according to Subpart I subsections 393.100 to 393.136 of FMCSR.

To help prevent falling or shifting cargo, Part 393, Subpart I of the FMCSR, contains regulations on tie down requirements, including rules on the types of tie downs that should be used to secure certain types of loads. Further guidance on tie down requirements can be found in the Commercial Vehicle Safety Alliance Cargo Securement Tie Down Guidelines.

FMCSR requires a driver to inspect and re-inspect how the cargo is secured to the truck unless the cargo is sealed to the driver.

Truck Drivers Must Periodically Check Their Cargo While On the Road

Truck and tractor trailer drivers have a responsibility to make sure that their cargo is in compliance with governing regulations whenever their cargo is on the road.

FMCSR requires a driver to inspect and re-inspect how the cargo is secured to the truck unless the cargo is sealed to the driver. For example, FMCSR mandates that cargo and securement equipment must be checked in the first 50 miles of a trip to ensure they are still in place and that adjustments do not need to be made. If adjustments do need to be made in order to make the cargo secure, then they should be made before the trip is reinitiated. The FMCSR also mandates that drivers must examine their cargo every three hours on the road, every 150 miles, or every change in driver duty status – whichever comes first. Additional mandates are set forth for specific kinds of cargo, like logs and metal coils.

Truck Drivers Must Make Sure That the Weight Of The Cargo Is Evenly Distributed

Along with ensuring that a load is secure, the driver of a commercial vehicle must ensure that the load being transported conforms to weight limits established by law and that the cargo is evenly distributed.

California has its own weight limit requirements. In addition to weight limits set by each state, truck manufacturer’s weight limits for trucks and truck components must be followed. When there is a difference in the weight limit set by a jurisdiction and the limit set by the manufacturer of a truck or component, the lower limit should not be exceeded. Driving in excess of either limit is strong evidence of negligence because cargo that is too heavy affects the handling and stability of trucks.

Improperly Tied Cargo Will Shift During Transport And Cause A Truck To Rollover

It is also important to note that the lower a truck’s payload and speed, the less likely it is to tip over. The “tipping point” of a truck is known as its “rollover threshold,” and is calculated based on the speed that the truck travels, the load that the truck carries, and the geometry of the road. When a truck rounds a curve at too fast a speed and too sharp of an angle, one of two results may occur; if the truck is carrying a light, low center of gravity load, then the truck will likely slide away from the center of the curve. If, however, the truck is carrying a top heavy, high center of gravity load, then it will likely tip away from the center of the curve. That is why, accidents involving tipped, flipped, or sliding trucks will often happen near curved roadways if truck drivers approach it at a high rate of speed.

View from the Driver’s Seat

Truck and tractor trailer rollover survivors often report a moment before impact of looking in their side view mirror and seeing one side of their truck’s tires totally off the ground before even realizing that they were rolling over. This is generally followed by the sharp whipping of the cab away from the center of the curve as the rollover completes. This indicates that the “roll” started in the back of the trailer with the cargo, not in the cab with the driver.

An important fact to note: because a rollover that begins with the cargo, is usually a sign that the cargo was improperly secured. Even though drivers generally report the feeling of their cargo shifting and thus causing a rollover, the shift is actually the result of a tipped trailer, experienced when a trailer rounds a curve too fast and the trailer lifts, which in turn causes the contents to shift and push the trailer over from the inside.

A truck driver may help contribute to a truck rollover by entering a curve too fast, being unfamiliar with a curve, over correcting after leaving the road, abruptly turning the wheel to avoid something in the road, or driving while impaired by drugs, alcohol, or fatigue. Characteristics of trailers which have been found to contribute to truck rollovers include a high center of gravity, low tire pressure, unbalanced cargo distribution, an improperly secured load, & faulty brakes. The best way to transport a load is to keep its center of gravity low, to reduce the risk of rollovers, by placing the heaviest cargo on the bottom of the load.