You’ve thought about it while passing a semi on the interstate that appears to be overloaded with wood, metal, or other goods. You’ve wondered whether the chains or bands holding the load would suddenly loosen or break, meaning that the entire load would come crashing down on your SUV, sedan, or sports coupe. Perhaps you swallowed hard, and pushed the accelerator a little more firmly to pass the truck.
Poorly-secured truck loads should make you flinch. Even if the load doesn’t directly fall on you, a lost load on the road a short distance ahead can cause a major pile-up and serious injuries. Whether it’s a large commercial truck carrying an unbalanced load, a flatbed stacked with lumber or rebar, or a weekend warrior with his pickup piled high with furniture and appliances, unsecured loads can and do cause deadly accidents.
The Kinds of Loads Can Make a Difference
Items or goods that can be carried on a truck are nearly endless, meaning that some kinds of unsecured loads are more likely to cause accidents than others:
- Heavy equipment that could roll or slide off, or upset a truck’s center of gravity, tipping the truck
- Garbage, debris, or scrap metal
- Construction materials, such as lumber or rebar
- Gravel and stone
- Large, unsecured household goods, such as a refrigerator or china cabinet
- Loads of unlike items that are piled haphazardly, with insufficient tie-downs.
You have likely seen at least one of these kinds of loads, perhaps unsecured, in the last week.
The risks of unsecured truck loads are more common than you might think. In 2004, a woman driving in Seattle was left blind after an unsecured piece of furniture fell off an open trailer. A board then flew through the windshield, causing devastating injuries to her face and head.
Consider this: An object weighing only 20 pounds, if it falls from a vehicle traveling 55 miles per hour, will have an impact of half a ton when it strikes you.
Someone Didn’t Do Their Job
Road accidents due to unsecured loads can have a number of possible causes, all of them arising from human error or negligence:
- The load has no securing whatsoever—no tie-downs, no tarp
- The load has insufficient securing, such as an open truck full of cargo with no tarp or net to prevent items from flying off
- Speeding or sudden maneuvers that make the load slide off, fall off, or tip over the truck
- Not checking that the load is still adequately secured at regular intervals along the trip.
Loose or unsecured loads mean that drivers might need to swerve to avoid items flying off the truck, which can cause serious accidents. Even if they miss hitting the item, the driver may hit another car or lose control of their vehicle. Sometimes items can fall on top of the car, or smash through the windshield.
Unsecured loads are not only a problem with open-bed trucks. Loads inside a semi’s trailer can be loaded improperly or not secured, leading to imbalance. Anyone in the path of such a trailer is in danger should the truck’s center of gravity be thrown off even a little. The result could be a loss of control and the tipping-over of the entire truck, crushing anything in its path.
But aren’t there laws that regulate loads on trucks? Yes, there are, in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. Although the laws apply to both commercial and non-commercial trucks, there are certain exemptions for commercial vehicles in many states. Indiana has exemptions for transporting poultry and for spreading sand or de-icing roads. In contrast, neighboring Kentucky has no exemptions from load laws.
Fines, however, for unsecured loads are often minor. In Indiana, it’s a maximum of $500. Although fines in various states can run up to $5,000, only eight states have fines greater than $500—nearby Ohio is one. Fifteen states add on the possibility of jail time, from no more than 30 days to no more than a year. Indiana has no jail provision.
Only 10 states have safety education programs on how to safely secure loads.
Determining the Responsible Party
A number of parties along the commercial freight distribution chain can be at fault for unsecured-load accidents involving semis, flatbeds, and other trucks. It could be the originator of the load, meaning the shipper who put the cargo on the truck. It’s possible someone did not tie down the load, used the wrong kind of truck for the load, or overloaded the truck. Responsibility could lie with the driver, who is supposed to inspect his load before every trip and periodically on long hauls.
State and federal agencies have strict guidelines and regulations regarding truck loads, their security and balance, and the duty to inspect the load at several points while transporting it from point A to point B. Sometimes, a case can be made for negligence, and the bad actors can be any number of parties along the distribution chain. Little room for error exists when it comes to loading a commercial vehicle.