Do you know your box truck from your big rig? Your delivery truck from your dump truck? Yes? No? Maybe so? Well, keep reading and you will!
I know you might be thinking: what’s the point of reading a blog post about truck types? And I hear you. It probably sounds a little, shall we say, elementary. But there’s a method to my madness. In my law practice, I represent victims of truck accidents all the time. A collision with a truck can tear a person’s life apart. Believe me. I’ve seen it happen. I’ve also come to realize that some of my clients ended up with lives turned upside down by a crash with a truck because they didn’t realize how incredibly dangerous some trucks are, at least under some road conditions. They shared the road with a monster and had no idea until it was too late.
In other words, when it comes to avoiding accidents with heavy trucks, the old saying holds true: the more you know, the further you’ll go. Reading up on the types of trucks you will likely encounter on the road prepares you to spot danger when it rears its head, and gives you the knowledge you might need to report accurate details of a truck accident to the police, insurance companies, and your attorney.
Tractor Trailers/Big Rigs/Semi-Trucks
According to the American Trucking Associations, a tractor trailer is a “tractor and semitrailer combination.” The “tractor” part is the engine and cab where the driver sits, or more technically, a “truck designed primarily to pull a semitrailer by means of a fifth wheel mounted over the rear axle.” The “semitrailer” part is the boxy part the tractor pulls, or “truck trailer supported at the rear by its own wheels and at the front by a fifth wheel mounted to a tractor or a dolly.” So basically, it’s just what its name says.
Most people know a tractor trailer when they see one. It’s the most common truck configuration on the highway. It can also be the most dangerous. Texas and Louisiana both set height, length, and weight limits for trucks on their roads, bridges, and highways. But even when trucks comply with those limitations (and believe me, that’s a BIG “IF”), they create all kinds of hazards for drivers of other, smaller vehicles.
First, there are the enormous blind spots. On your standard tractor-plus-one-trailer semi, the driver is “blind” to the area 20 feet directly in front of his cab, 30 feet directly behind his trailer, one lane-width over his left shoulder extending all the way to the back of the truck, and two lane-widths to his right extending the entire length of the truck. IF YOU CAN’T SEE A TRUCK DRIVER IN HIS REAR-VIEW MIRROR, THEN HE CAN’T SEE YOU EITHER! Which means that truck could change lanes right on top of your car without knowing you are there until it’s too late.
Next, there’s the extreme danger of rollovers that every tractor-trailer faces, especially on sharp curves, at highway speeds, on roads without large shoulders, and/or in high crosswinds (in other words, everywhere, all the time). Tractor trailers are tall and top-heavy. They carry loads that, if not secured properly, can shift dangerously. And if just one wheel of a tractor runs off of the road surface onto a low shoulder, it can easily send the WHOLE RIG tumbling.
And I haven’t even mentioned two of the worst factors that lead to these monsters getting into accidents: truckers who drive too fast, and with too little sleep. That’s a combination that leads to trucks not being able to stop soon enough to avoid collisions.
So, when you see a tractor-trailer on the road, BEWARE!
Tankers are basically tractor-trailers with specialized tank trailers that carry liquids. Some tankers carry cargo that could cause traffic backups and maybe a mess if it spilled, like water or milk. But other tankers carry liquid that’s flammable or toxic (or both) that could wreak utter devastation not just on the road but in communities surrounding it. That’s why state and federal governments require tanker truck drivers to have special permits and to follow safety precautions that are much more strict than those that apply to semi-truck drivers.
AND STILL, accidents happen with these trucks, causing injuries and chaos. At their worst, tanker truck accidents result in deadly explosions. But even a tanker carrying “safe” cargo like milk can cause all sorts of havoc when it crashes.
Treat every tanker truck you see with caution. They have the SAME blind spots as a typical tractor-trailer, with the added danger of potentially deadly cargo.What’s in the tank? Here’s a good bet: it’s probably something not-solid. Other than that, the sky’s the limit. Tankers haul liquefied gases, fuels, industrial chemicals, food-grade liquids, even raw sewage.
Tankers add to risk on the road by carrying cargo that could do MASSIVE DAMAGE if it escapes the tank onto the road and into the environment. Flammable cargo EXPLODES. Toxic cargo SICKENS. Sticky, stinky, slippery, nasty cargo MAKES A HUGE MESS AND CAUSES ACCIDENTS. Give these beasts the wide berth they deserve.
Box Trucks/Straight Trucks/Delivery Trucks
It’s easy to mistake a box truck for a tractor trailer. Many (but not all) of them have a cab and with a long cargo box. But the difference is that while tractor-trailers are basically two vehicles connected to each other, box trucks are a single unit. You can’t remove the cargo “box;” it’s part of the whole vehicle. Rental moving trucks are usually box trucks. So are most delivery trucks, including those that carry specialty cargo like beverages, food products, or building materials.
DON’T BE FOOLED into thinking that these trucks are different when it comes to the dangers they pose. Yes, they’re usually a bit smaller than tractor trailers, so their blind spots are JUST A LITTLE smaller. But they’re still plenty dangerous, mostly because these trucks operate far more often on city and rural (non-highway) roads, where lanes are skinnier, shoulders are narrower, corners are tighter, and traffic is heavier. That means drivers of box trucks face more unpredictable road risks, and put more people in danger, than bigger trucks.
Oh, and something else to consider. Lots of box trucks operate only within a state’s boundary. That means their owners and drivers may have fewer regulations to comply with than truckers and trucking companies who do business across state lines. In other words, box trucks are often in worse condition, and have less-skilled drivers, then semi-trucks. So BE CAREFUL when you share the road with these deceptively dangerous vehicles.
Just about any three-year-old can spot a dump truck. But in case you really don’t know what one looks like, these are the trucks with the big open container on the back that tips up and dumps its load (Come on, admit it, you knew that, right? Right!?). Dump trucks serve heavy industries, particularly construction, by carrying raw materials from one place to another.
You are probably getting a little bored of hearing it, but the same rules of safety apply when it comes to sharing the road with a dump truck. Big, heavy, blind spots…you know the drill. The added danger dump trucks create has to do with the fact that they SPILL CARGO. A lot. Like, a lot, a lot. You know what I mean. I know you do because anyone who drives on the highway has had the MADDENING EXPERIENCE of trailing a dump truck spilling gravel that bounces off of the windshield leaving a crack. That’s EXTREMELY annoying, but imagine what happens when a WHOLE load of gravel, or sand, or wood chips, falls out all at once. DISASTER.
Garbage trucks are like delivery trucks, only in reverse. They fill up neighborhood streets, making frequent, sometimes-unpredictable stops. But instead of dropping items off, they pick items up. Smelly, dirty items left in garbage cans.
Oh, but here’s the thing. Sometimes garbage trucks do drop items. They leave a trail of garbage and debris that can lead other drivers to swerve or brake sharply, risking an accident. Plus, garbage trucks have big blind spots and tired, overworked drivers. Do you know what that means? You guessed it: dangerous collisions and SERIOUS injuries.
You should never get too comfortable driving near a garbage truck. They might be a standard feature of just about any neighborhood in America. But that doesn’t mean it’s always safe to share the road with them.
Cement trucks, also called concrete mixers, are among the most dangerous trucks on the road. For real. Why? Because of their WEIGHT.
When these trucks have a full load of wet concrete, they can weigh more than 60,000 pounds, the same as a fully-loaded tractor-trailer. Yet, cement trucks are much smaller in size, making them more top-heavy than other similarly-sized vehicles, like garbage trucks and dump trucks. Top-heavy vehicles require care in handling to make sure they do not tip over. Scary, right?
Cement trucks don’t have to travel fast to roll over, either. Their high weight requires extra time to stop, change lanes, make a turn, or perform any other driving maneuver. When inexperienced or careless drivers cannot handle their cement truck, an accident might cause the cement to spill all over a road or freeway, potentially causing a severe accident.
Another factor that makes cement trucks dangerous is the speed at which drivers sometimes travel. All truck drivers have demanding schedules, but cement truck drivers must deliver their concrete before it dries out. This causes drivers to speed to get where they need to go. With a heavy focus on time management, some cement truck drivers might not properly maintain or inspect their trucks, creating the opportunity for more accidents to happen. Cement trucks are also notorious loud and can cause damage to hearing. Those who spend a great deal of time around concrete mixers need to protect their ears so they don’t suffer hearing loss.
A flatbed truck is a truck with a trailer that is a flatbed. NO, DUH, RIGHT?. They carry odd-shaped and oversized cargo that doesn’t fit in the standard-sized box trailer. Flatbed trucks come in different sizes, including the same length as semi-trucks, but most trailers are about 48 feet long.
You might also see rigid and articulated flatbed trucks on the road. Rigid trucks are those where the trailer and cab connect directly with no pivot point or hitch. Articulated trucks have a hitching mechanism about which the trailer pivots when turning. The overwhelming majority of flatbed trucks are the maximum width allowed by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA), but some are larger. You might see these flatbeds carrying “wide loads,” after companies have obtained a special permit allowing them on public roads.
Giant loads don’t belong on the road, but they can get special permits to be there anyway. We get why. Businesses can’t run if you can’t move something enormous down the road from time-to-time. Still, wide loads pose many hazards to drivers of other vehicles. They behave unpredictably in bad weather conditions. They take up more than one lane, which makes passing them difficult and risky. And when they get into accidents, they can cause a massive mess at best, and catastrophic injuries and fatalities at worst. So, like the other trucks described above, give these vehicles the space they need.
Fire Trucks and Other Emergency Vehicles
Everyone knows what a fire truck looks and sounds like. Most people also understand that the law gives those trucks special privileges. In both Texas and Louisiana, drivers must give the right of way to approaching emergency vehicles, including fire trucks. Likewise, when drivers encounter a stopped emergency vehicle on the side of the road, they must slow down and, if possible, move over to give that vehicle space. These laws are designed to keep emergency first responders safe while doing their jobs.
But these laws don’t free operators of fire trucks from their responsibility of driving safely. Fire trucks often travel at high speeds (or at least, at speeds that are high for the roads where they drive). They’re extremely heavy. And their drivers understand they enjoy those special privileges mentioned above, which translates into a danger of recklessness. It’s one thing for a fire truck operator to expect people to pull over or stay out of an intersection when the truck rolls through with its lights flashing and siren wailing. It’s another thing for the driver not to exercise some amount of caution to make sure he’s been seen and heard by others on the road.
In other words, although you, as a driver, have special obligations to yield the right of way to fire trucks and other emergency vehicles, that doesn’t give them license to crush your vehicle just because you don’t react quickly enough. Be aware and alert on the road, and by all means give emergency vehicles all the space they demand. But do not assume that a fire truck driver can get away with driving recklessly and out of control.
In a sense, all trucks are delivery trucks, if you really want to argue the point. But here I’m talking about those smaller commercial trucks like the type grocery stores use, or those driven by FedEx and UPS workers.
Here’s the dangerous thing about delivery trucks. It’s not their size that’s the problem. Yes, they’re bigger than your standard passenger vehicle and they have blind spots, so there’s that. But what makes these trucks REALLY DEADLY is the high volume of them you find on smaller, residential roads, combined with the relative INEXPERIENCE of many of their drivers. As online retail gets bigger-and-bigger, delivery trucks increasingly crowded neighborhood streets, putting kids, joggers, bikers, and pets at risk.
The licensing requirements for drivers of these trucks aren’t nearly as strict as for big rig truckers, but delivery drivers still work long hours under tight schedules. They cut corners (literally and figuratively) to save time and money. And as a result, INNOCENT MOTORISTS, BICYCLISTS, AND PEDESTRIANS GET HURT.
Tow trucks haul broken-down motor vehicles, obviously. You probably have an idea in your head of what a tow truck looks like, but four different types of tow trucks exist.
Each of them has its own special uses and dangers.
- Rollback tow trucks, also called flatbed tow trucks don’t technically “tow” an automobile. Instead, drivers move the bed with hydraulic controls. When a driver lowers the bed, drivers can drive up a ramp and pull their vehicles on the truck or use chains to pull the vehicle on the bed.
- Hook and chain tow trucks used to the favorite type of truck for towing companies, but they have fallen out of favor. When you see these trucks cruising down the road, they will be dragging a vehicle by its rear tires. Hook and tow trucks can cause damage to cars, so most companies only use them to haul rust buckets and beaters around. This can lead to an accident when the car isn’t strong enough to withstand the pressure of towing and comes loose, causing a dangerous accident.
- Wheel lift tow trucks are the new version of hook and tow trucks, and the new favorite among towing companies. The trucks work similarly, but wheel lift tow trucks lift the rear tires off the ground reducing potential damage to cars they tow. When the metal yoke used to tow the truck isn’t securely attached to the vehicle, nearby motorists risk involvement in a tow truck accident and suffering severe injuries.
- The final type of tow truck is an integrated tow truck, used to tow large vehicles like semi-truck cabs, other trucks, buses, and other large items. Integrated tow trucks have extra axles to support the weight of heavy vehicles and a boom arm in the center of the truck, making them more stable than other types of tow trucks. Integrated tow trucks are the safest of all types of tow trucks. Yet, if the truck loses the heavy vehicles it’s towing, consequences might be deadly.
Can You Describe the Truck Sharing the Road With You?
Okay, so it’s pop quiz time. Are you ready to describe the type of truck you see on the road? No one expects you to study every detail of every truck you encounter. But do you know enough now to spot and assess the dangers a truck might pose? Let’s recap:
- On the highway, you’re most likely to run across a tractor-trailer, which is tall, long, and has an articulated connection between the tractor and trailer components.
- On city streets and rural roads, what looks like a tractor-trailer may instead be a box truck.
- Is the trailer a rounded cylinder? If so, you’re looking at a tanker truck.
- Is it heavy, dirty, loud, and leaking cargo like sand or gravel? It’s an industrial truck.
- Is it taking up more than one lane? That’s a wide load.
- Is it brightly colored, with flashing lights and a siren? Well, you know that one.
What’s so important about being able to identify trucks? Like I said above, knowing the type of truck you see prepares you to avoid the dangers it poses. Also, in an accident scenario, it can prove very important to describe a truck accurately. As a personal injury lawyer who represents victims of truck accidents, it’s important to give details to insurance companies and opposing attorneys that my client noticed about the truck that caused the wreck. Sometimes, it’s the small details that make the biggest difference in a case.
Truck Accidents Should Never Happen, but They Do. What Then?
So there you have it. Your review of the types of trucks you’re likely to encounter on the road. If you have more questions about a truck accident and your rights if you were injured in one, contact a skilled truck accident lawyer today.
Since starting his firm in 1999, Stewart J. Guss has had the honor of representing clients from all over the world, helping them recover from even the most catastrophic injuries.
Today, thanks to a strong belief in those values of compassion, respect, and approachability, the firm has grown to employ over 120 legal professionals in numerous offices across 4 states, with nationwide reach.