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Why elderly truck drivers are causing more truck accidents than ever

Written by Steve Gursten Posted November 22nd, 2016

As the trucking industry faces a truck driver shortage, many elderly truck drivers are filling in; here are the serious consequences


This blog post is about elderly truck drivers, but I want to start quickly with a different layer: I was recently interviewed as a truck accident attorney and safety expert on the CBS Evening News with Scott Pelley. Scott, CBS and its producers did a comprehensive investigative report on truckers with serious medical conditions — who are driving on our roads and putting all of us in danger. The trucking companies who deliberately hire to save money turn a blind eye to serious medical conditions that disqualify these truckers. And the result is often a very preventable truck wreck.

The CBS producers did a fantastic job of shedding light on this safety crisis. One producer actually told me that every time they dug further on this issue, they found more and more troubling safety concerns.

Recently, I was asked about another story by CBS, this time on elderly truck drivers causing truck accidents because of their age:

As the trucking industry faces a major truck driver shortage, many elderly drivers are filling the cabs. The American Trucking Associations (ATA) estimates the industry is short about 30,000 truck drivers, but as an attorney, I’ve heard it to be closer to 300,000.

According to the CBS report, those older than 65 make up about 10% of the commercial motor vehicle drivers in the U.S. and trucking companies are aggressively recruiting retirees to help fill the large gap.

At the Roundtable, our attorneys have litigated several cases involving older drivers who became confused when driving behind the wheel. It’s an important issue that has two sides and should be handled with sensitivity. While there is no age “cut-off” so to speak, as people can develop dementia in their 50s, we can say with scientific certainty that physical coordination, eye sight, perception and reaction time, and often the ability to process and make decisions, gets worse as we age.

I’ve been on both sides of this issue. As an attorney, I’ve also spoken at legal seminars and written about representing the elderly when they’re injured in car accidents. Too often, the defense and insurance companies devalue these people and claim their pain and suffering is worth less because of their advanced age.

Here’s the distinction. Older and elderly drivers have a greater propensity to cause a preventable motor vehicle accident due to the advances of the aging process, such as failing vision, confusion behind the wheel, declines in cognitive functioning and perception and reaction time. So an elderly driver is more likely to get confused and go the wrong way on a freeway, or fail to see a child and run the child over in a neighborhood street. Even a two-to four-second delay between perceiving an object – like a child or pedestrian – and being able to react by pressing on the brakes or turning the steering wheel, can be deadly because of the distance a vehicle can travel per second.

But now imagine an elderly and confused driver behind a fully-loaded, 80,000-pound commercial truck, where a small error in judgement can result in a moving brick wall crashing into an unsuspecting vehicles or pedestrian.

While our attorneys are familiar with the terrible consequences of elderly drivers (many who also have serious medical conditions), the CBS News analysis of crash data revealed a 19% increase in accidents involving commercial truck and bus drivers in their 70s, 80s and even 90s, in just the last three years alone.

From 2013 to 2015, there were more than 6,636 involving elderly drivers in 12 states alone.

I want to stress that I’m probably first to recognize that we’re discussing about limiting the independence and choices of a group based upon generalizations that can be made to this group as a population, not as it applies to an individual. This is troubling and I recognize this is an extremely sensitive and emotional issue. In the past when I’ve been interviewed on the subject, I’ve said the answer must be better and more frequent testing of older drivers to make sure they’re safe instead of using any arbitrary cut-offs based upon age alone.

Age is a correlating factor of unfortunately many serious safety issues. But age is not a cause in and of itself.

If the trucking industry wants to hire older drivers, it must revisit its training and monitoring of
these drivers.

As of now, the FMSCA does not prohibit the hiring and training of older drivers. If you can pass the physical, you can drive a truck in America.

Again, I’m not saying we should take away all elderly drivers’ freedom or that someone should be banned from driving trucks once they reach a certain age; that is by definition discriminatory. What I’m saying is we can and must strike a balance between protecting the rights of the individual and protecting the safety of the public. The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMSCA) must strengthen its rules on training, drive time and physical qualifications for older drivers. The motor carriers who employ these older drivers must be extremely vigilant that these rules are being followed.

A good place to start would be requiring re-testing every couple of years. A mini-mental status test and a short physical examination and vision test should be performed at least every two years. As an attorney who has litigated these cases, I also know trucking companies cannot be trusted to self-regulate. These companies face a trucker shortage and too often, they will put their bottom lines before the safety of the public.

Steven Gursten Photo

About Steve Gursten

Attorney Steven Gursten is president of the Motor Vehicle Trial Lawyers Association and past president of the American Association for Justice Trucking Litigation Group. He has been named a Michigan Lawyers Weekly "Leader in the Law" for his efforts to prevent truck accidents and promote national truck safety. Steve was also a Michigan Lawyers Weekly "Lawyer of the Year" for a record settlement in a truck accident case. He has received the top reported truck accident jury verdict and top reported truck accident settlement in Michigan for multiple years, according to published year-end compilations of all jury verdicts and personal injury settlements by Michigan Lawyers Weekly. He has been named a "Top 50 Super Lawyer," by SuperLawyers, is listed in Best Lawyers in America, and has been awarded an AV-rating by Martindale-Hubbell, which is the highest rating for legal ability and ethics. Steve speaks to lawyers throughout the country on truck accident litigation. He is a founding member of the Truck Accident Attorneys Roundtable, head of Michigan Auto Law, and has dedicated his legal career to making our roads safer.
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