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The number of commercial trucks on Washington State roadways has increased dramatically over the past two decades. According to two reports prepared for the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) by Washington State University, truck trips in Washington State rose from 8 million in 1993 to an estimated 21.6 million in 2006. At this rate of growth, truck trips will reach 25 million by 2013, an increase of over 200 percent.

In contrast, since 1993, Washington’s population has only grown by around 30 percent (from 5.3 million to a projected 6.9 million in 2013). The inescapable result is that Washington motorists are sharing roadways with a dramatically increasing number of commercial trucks (often referred to as semi-trucks, tractor trailers, big rigs, or 18-wheelers).

Several factors explain this growth. Washington State’s thriving agricultural, forest products, aerospace, technology, and manufacturing industries are all heavily dependent upon commercial trucking, and together with Pacific Rim nations, trade has significantly increased shipments from ports at Seattle and Tacoma. In addition, Washington State shares a border with Canada. Over 4,000 trucks enter Washington from Canada each day, while over 4,800 trucks move north across that border.

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With more and more commercial trucks operating on Washington’s major roadways, motorists are inevitably impacted and the consequences are often devastating. Not surprisingly, it is the occupants of the passenger vehicle who are most likely to be injured in a collision with a large truck. The most recent report from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), “Fatality Facts 2011- Large Trucks,” found that in crashes involving a passenger vehicle and a large truck, the occupants of the passenger vehicle accounted for 98 percent of all deaths.

Washington State Truck Crashes

In 2011, The Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) released a report based upon police reported collisions on all public roadways in Washington over a five-year period – 2007-2011. The report provided a particularly revealing look at the impact of truck accidents in Washington over the three year period from 2009-2011.

The data shows that Washington State trucking accidents are 65 percent more likely to result in a fatal injury as non-truck involved collisions. The reasons for this are clear. As noted by the IIHS, commercial trucks may weigh up to 20 or 30 times as much as a passenger vehicle and may take 20 to 40 percent more distance to stop. That difference, the IIHS notes, “is greater when trailers are empty, on wet or slippery roads [a well-known hazard in Washington State], or with poorly maintained brakes.”

Western Washington and Truck Safety

The WSDOT’s 2011 analysis of Washington State trucking accidents examined the county and city in which accidents took place. As one might expect, most of the tractor trailer accidents occurred in counties and cities along Washington’s busiest highway, the Interstate-5 corridor, which stretches from the Canadian border to Oregon.

Topping the county list was King County, the site of Washington’s largest metropolitan region and the cities of Seattle and Bellevue. There were 961 heavy truck-involved collisions in King County in 2011 – 361 in Seattle and another 65 in Bellevue. The south King County cities of Renton, Kent, and Auburn, all of which lie on a particularly dangerous stretch of U.S. Highway 167, saw another 184 truck accidents. The second most dangerous county for truck accidents was Pierce County, which contains Washington’s third largest city, Tacoma. There were 352 truck collisions in Pierce County.
In total, there were 3,161 heavy truck-involved collisions in Washington State in 2011 and two-thirds of those accidents (2,090) took place in counties traversed by the I-5 corridor. Nearly half (46%) of the serious injury accidents that year occurred in counties along the I-5 corridor.

Two other counties that experienced high numbers of semi truck accidents, Kittitas County (148 collisions) and Spokane County (170 collisions), are both located along Washington’s principal east/west route, Interstate 90.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s (NHTSA) own analysis of all traffic fatalities in Washington State confirms the dangerousness of Western Washington’s I-5 corridor.  King County (87 fatalities) and the counties that border it on the south (Pierce, 47 fatalities) and north (Snohomish, 32 fatalities) were the most dangerous driving counties in Washington State.

What Causes a Washington State Commercial Truck Accident?

In 2007, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) released the results of a three year study entitled, “The Large Truck Crash Causation Study,” designed to “determine the critical events and associated factors that contribute to serious large truck crashes.” The investigators studied 963 crashes involving 1,123 large trucks and 959 motor vehicles. Each crash resulted in a fatality or injury. The goal was to determine what the FMCSA called the “critical reasons” for crashes. In other words, they wanted to know what occurred that subsequently made the truck accident inevitable.

In 87 percent of the crashes driver error was the critical reason. This included such factors as falling asleep, being inattentive, driving too fast, following too close, or exercising poor directional control over the truck.

The FMCSA also wanted to know what associated factors significantly increased the risk of a truck accident. A relatively rare factor may nevertheless confer an extreme risk. Brake problems, for example, were associated with 29 percent of accidents and increased the risk of an accident by 170 percent, while traveling too fast for conditions was associated with only 23 percent of accidents but increased the risk of an accident by 670 percent. Following too close, while it occurred in only 5 percent of accidents, increased the risk of an accident by over 2000 percent!  Other significant risk factors included illegal maneuvers, driver illness, and cargo shifts in the truck.

One simple conclusion can be drawn from the FMCSA data. Truck accidents are seldom truly “accidental.” They usually involve several interrelated causes and associated factors. If you have been injured or a loved one has been killed in a crash involving a big rig in Washington State, it is important to contact a truck accident attorney who understands the complexities of commercial truck collisions and is experienced in the legal process of litigating against Washington State trucking companies or out-of-state trucking companies operating in your state. You and your loved ones deserve compensation for your loss and the right to hold trucking companies and their drivers accountable for the tragedies they cause.

Truck accident litigation can be complicated and involve multiple jurisdictions and choice of law issues. It is therefore imperative that you choose legal counsel wisely. The national truck accident lawyers at Baum, Hedlund, Aristei & Goldman are here to help you navigate the legal process, obtain justice, and maximize compensation for you and your family.