Opinion: Accidents Happen: Prepare Your Drivers

By Phillip Hruska
Claim Director, Trucking
CNA Insurance Co.

A storm front was moving through Pennsylvania last January when, at about 12:45 p.m., a whiteout occurred on I-90 near Lake Erie. Driving conditions deteriorated markedly. One driver lost control of the vehicle and crashed, followed by another and another. Ultimately, 50 vehicles were involved over a 10-mile stretch of highway that was closed by authorities for 15 hours, news sources reported.

The final toll was one fatality and numerous bodily injuries plus a vast amount of physical damage, authorities said. Though the accident took place over a matter of minutes, sorting out the details and legal responsibilities will take years.

Everyone involved in the I-90 chain reaction faced the same situation: How do you act after an accident occurs? What would your driver do if involved in this scenario? Has he or she been trained to react properly immediately after a loss? What are your responsibilities as an owner or employer?

Although the I-90 chain reaction was more extreme than most accidents, at some point one of your drivers likely will be involved in a crash. Here are some tips to aid in life safety, loss mitigation and litigation defense:

•  Keep safety first. Though safety at the accident scene is very much a judgment call, two questions must be addressed.

First, should the vehicle be moved? With minor accidents, drivers may decide to move their vehicles to avoid causing another accident. However, that move could defeat accident reconstruction efforts later on. Whether or not the vehicle is moved, appropriate warnings should be deployed, e.g., hazard lights, flares, cones and warning triangles.

Second, where should occupants remain after the loss? Some sources indicate they should remain inside the vehicle with seat belts fastened. Others advocate moving to a safe area, depending on the circumstances. In either case, good judgment is necessary to keep safety first.

•  Keep cool after a loss. Professional drivers should act professionally — before, during and certainly after an accident. Drivers should cooperate and respond to questions from authorities openly and completely. However, they should be careful not to volunteer too much information or to act emotionally. Either reaction can leave damaging impressions on key parties or witnesses.

•  Keep a crash kit. Drivers should carry a working cellphone to contact their dispatcher, risk manager, insurance company, law-enforcement agencies, towing operators, etc. The crash kit should include a call list, updated regularly. Also in the kit should be a pen and paper, a full set of information forms and a digital camera.

•  Exchange information. After an accident, the drivers involved should exchange the following information: name, address, phone number, insurance company, policy number, driver license number and license plate number for the driver of each vehicle. Drivers also should write down a description of each vehicle, with its exact location in the collision and how it happened. It also is important to identify witnesses, especially parties not directly involved in the accident, because they often are more credible sources of information than parties to the loss.

When commercial motor vehicles are involved, additional information is necessary, including USDOT numbers and the legal name of the entity controlling the motor carrier. Also to be noted are MC (motor carrier) numbers or ICC MC numbers, which identify who is financially responsible for the commercial motor vehicle. (Although the Interstate Commerce Commission was dismantled in 1996, its rules were transferred to what is now the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration.)

Finally, ICC placards should be noted, because they identify hazardous materials or goods.

•  Photograph the accident scene with care. Drivers should use the digital camera in their kit to document the damage and, if possible, the relative positions of vehicles before they are moved. However, sensational pictures should be avoided, because they can be used out of context.

•  Comply with drug and alcohol testing. Employers are responsible for (1) testing drivers involved in fatalities and for (2) testing drivers who receive citations for a moving traffic violation resulting in an accident in which a person requires emergency medical treatment away from the scene. Tests must be conducted as soon as practicable after the accident.
Alcohol tests should be done within two hours of the accident but no later than eight hours. Controlled substances tests must be done within 32 hours of the accident.

The post-accident testing rules are not intended to delay the necessary medical attention to an injured person, and they do not prohibit a driver from leaving the scene of an accident for a period of time needed to obtain medical assistance.

Following these tips should help make it easier for drivers and owners to make it through the trying times immediately following accidents. Preparation and training are a good investment that will help ensure that lives are protected, legal obligations are met and legal liability is mitigated.

CNA Insurance Cos. provides trucking insurance and has headquarters in Chicago and offices throughout the United States, Canada and Europe.

This story appears in the April 2 print edition of Transport Topics. Click here to subscribe today.