Fleets Turn To Onboard Technology as Nuclear Verdicts Increase

Futuristic semi-truck with onboard technology

Large legal verdicts against motor carriers are on the rise, growing in number as well as in amount, and large motor carriers are updating their training programs and safety procedures as a proactive mechanism for dealing with the threat of a large verdict.

"A leading example of this is the dramatic increase in use of critical event video cameras, which can quickly clarify which party is negligent, thus reducing long litigation processes," the American Transportation Research Institute (ATRI) wrote in its new report, Understanding the Impact of Nuclear Verdicts on the Trucking Industry.

The ATRI report investigated large verdicts from 2006-2019. The analysis showed that in the past five years, there were nearly 300 court cases resulting in jury verdicts over $1 million against trucking fleets. Nuclear verdicts — those in which the jury award exceeds $10 million — have also increased.

ATRI also issued a follow-up report, The Impact of Small Verdicts and Settlements on the Trucking Industry, which found that there has been a proliferation of lawsuits resulting in settlements or verdicts under $1 million.

"The proliferation of verdicts and settlements under $1 million over the last 20 years stems from multiple factors including loose state tort laws, negative public attitudes toward trucking, tighter legal restrictions in other industry sectors, litigation fraud and growing coordination among plaintiff attorneys," ATRI wrote. "Increasingly, attorneys participate in 'ambulance chasing' and structure plaintiff firms as 'settlement mills.'"

Additionally, insurance rates are on the rise. Currently, all fleets now pay more, but premiums definitively scale based on safety records, ATRI reported. According to the analysis, even low-risk motor carriers are experiencing eight to ten percent increases in insurance costs. New ventures and average-to-marginal carriers are experiencing a 35% to 40% annual increase.

Fleets can implement several onboard technologies to enhance drivers' ability to control a motor vehicle, increase safety and reduce liability.

Collision Mitigation Technology

Collision mitigation systems use a camera in the front of the vehicle and radar, which work together and provide more active brake assistance and warnings, such as lane departure and blind-spot detection. They also work to detect potential crash situations, such as when the distance between the truck and a vehicle gets too close. The systems alert drivers and take action automatically if drivers don't.

The concept of collision mitigation can often be defined differently by individuals. At Penske, collision mitigation is defined as the following features on the vehicle:

  • Automatic Emergency Braking: Detects potential collisions, provides forward collision warning and automatically applies brakes to avoid or lessen an impact
  • Lane Departure Warning: Alerts drivers when the vehicle they are operating approaches or crosses lane markers(lines in the road)
  • Adaptive Cruise Control: Keeps the vehicle in cruise control while automatically adjusting with acceleration and/or braking to maintain safe distance between vehicles

All Penske heavy- and medium-duty tractors and trucks signed on or after 4/22/22 have collision mitigation technology as part of the standard base spec.

Onboard Video Technology

Onboard cameras are a proactive tool for improving driver coaching and identifying risky driver behavior. The systems can record video either continuously or as the result of a triggering event. In-cab video recordings can be used to clear a professional driver of fault in the event of a crash, and inward-facing cameras can identify driver behaviors that need correcting. Things such as dozing off, texting, and not paying attention to the road can be seen in real-time so the coach can even talk to the driver as they are occurring.

Fleets that invest in camera technology typically see an overall improvement in safety. A study of over 10,000 crashes by the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute found that event-based video systems, combined with driver-behavior coaching, reduced fatal crashes by 20% and reduced injury crashes by 35%.

Telematics/Onboard Data

Telematics can allow fleets to review a driver's performance, and systems often provide alerts for hard braking, taking off quickly and speeding. That data can be used to improve coaching, mentoring and corrective counseling.

Lane Departure Warning Systems

A lane departure warning system is a mechanism designed to warn the driver when the vehicle begins to move out of its lane unless a turn signal is on in that direction.

Electronic Stability Control

Stability control technology minimizes rollovers and crashes involving loss of control. If the systems detect a vehicle is reaching its critical stability threshold, the technology kicks in and automatically reduces engine torque, applies the engine brake and activates the necessary wheel-end brakes, which reduces the likelihood of a rollover, jackknife or loss of control.

Automatic Braking

Automatic braking is a safety technology that spontaneously activates the vehicle's brake system when sensors monitor the presence of vehicles ahead and around the vehicle or detect any situation where there's an impending collision. Air disc brakes can also minimize the risk of roadside violations from brakes being out of adjustment, which is a soft value add.

Safety and New Drivers

Focusing on safety is also critical as the trucking industry works to attract new and diverse drivers. Most recently, the federal government approved a three-year pilot program for drivers ages 18-21. The program is expected to get underway soon. In an April 18 Federal Register announcement, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration estimated that 1,600 motor carriers and 13,230 drivers will ultimately participate in the program.