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How one truck driver caused a 40-car pileup on U.S. 131 in West Michigan

January 3, 2014 by Steven M. Gursten

There was a recent 40-vehicle pileup on U.S. 31 in Fruitland Township (which is in West Michigan, about 40 miles west of Grand Rapids). Several published reports chalked up this terrible string of wrecks to an “accident” due to the inclement, snowy weather.

That’s nonsense, of course.  Weather is almost never an excuse for a truck driver causing a car accident – or in this case, 40 car accidents.

This  pileup was likely kicked off by a commercial truck hauling cattle (that’s an image).  The truck spun out of control and the driver was ticketed for speeding, despite the terrible winter weather.

The truck driver told officers he was traveling about 40 mph to 45 mph, according to an article by The Associated Press, “Truck driver cited for driving too fast in snowy conditions after 40-vehicle West Mich. crash.”

Was he really going 40mph?  I’ve litigated several hundred very serious truck wreck cases, and I’ve never seen a truck driver who just caused a serious wreck say he was driving over the speed limit. What I do see time and time again are answers such as this one, where he says he was driving 5 mph below the posted speed limit.

And this is the critical point – that still means he was driving too fast!  No truck driver (or defense lawyer) should be able to use bad winter weather as an excuse for any winter truck accidents in Michigan. In terrible winter weather, truck drivers have a legal duty to follow the  federal and state regulations for how drivers must drive in bad weather. Truck drivers must drop down to two-thirds of the posted speed limit (not 5 mph below). And if it is truly dangerous winter weather, they must pull off the road entirely.

In this crash, the driver said he started to lose control of the cattle trailer and struck the rear of another truck. Authorities say it’s unclear if the speed of the cattle trailer led to the string of collisions.

Any fully-loaded trucks driving too fast for weather conditions, especially on slick and icy roads, are more like ticking time bombs that threaten everyone around them.

Here, the truck driver was actually ticketed for speeding and his role in the crash.

From a legal perspective, the truck driver broke the Michigan Basic Speed Law (MCL 257.627), which says that when weather conditions change, drivers must “drive at a careful and prudent speed not greater than nor less than is reasonable and proper, having due regard to the traffic, surface, and width of the highway and of any other condition then existing.”

For instance, if the road goes from dry to snowy and icy, all drivers are expected to drive according to that inclement weather. In this case, you would drive with more caution, and slower than the posted speed limit.

So even if you’re driving the speed limit in inclement weather, it is possible to get a ticket for going too fast or too slow in such weather, like this trucker did.

The truck driver also violated  Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulation 49 CFR Section 392.14, that puts a duty of “extreme caution” on truck drivers of commercial motor vehicles whenever any conditions negatively affect visibility or traction.  This includes rain, snow, fog, ice, smoke and other conditions.

A Muskegon County deputy suffered minor injuries when his patrol car was struck by another vehicle. But thankfully, no one else was injured and no one was killed. This 40 car pileup serves as a valuable lesson for us all on what is safe for truck drivers in Michigan in winter.

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