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Common Trucks on the Road

By Stewart J. Guss on October 11th, 2019 Houston Truck Collision Attorney

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.

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.

Industrial Trucks (Cement, Dump, Garbage, etc.)

Like box trucks, industrial trucks usually constitute a single unit consisting of an engine, cab, and cargo-carrying body. Unlike box trucks, these trucks tend to be a lot heavier and to carry less secure cargo. These trucks also take a beating in their day-to-day operation, and in states where regulations are relatively lax, that means they’re not always in tip-top shape.

We’ve all shared the road with one of these beasts. Many of us have winced as gravel dropped from a dump truck bounces along the road and cracks our windshields. We’ve seen inexperienced drivers of these rigs (many of whom do not operate them as their sole profession) drive them over curbs or strip limbs off of low hanging trees. And just like other big trucks, industrial vehicles have large blind spots and long stopping distances. Sometimes it’s hard to know what’s worse: getting stuck behind a dump truck spilling cargo on the road, or driving in front of one at highway speeds and hoping it can stop in time if you need to slam on the brakes.

Your best bet? Give industrial vehicles a wide berth. They’re built to do heavy, dirty jobs, not to cruise along a road in comfort. Leaving plenty of space between your vehicle and these guys will keep you and your passengers safe from an ugly accident.

Wide Loads

There’s something kind of fascinating about seeing a wide load on the highway, right? An entire modular home, or a giant piece of industrial machinery, seems so out-of-place on a flatbed truck riding down the highway. Come to think of it, it doesn’t just seem out of place… IT IS OUT OF PLACE!

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.

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.

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