The use of video recording systems in trucks frequently captures valuable information used to defend motor carriers in court

The use of video recording systems in trucks frequently captures valuable information used to defend motor carriers in court.

Latest three sticking points to consider: Why (or why not) video?

Points to ponder: The Federal Highway Administration is studying frequent freight standstill on America's roads. It's often a tangled infrastructure out there riddled with distracted driving, as multiple law enforcement agencies across the U.S. have attested.

Meanwhile, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration's (FMCSA) studies of crashes between heavy trucks and passenger cars, cyclists and pedestrians have shown that a decisive majority of the time, the accident isn't the truck driver's fault. And yet reporting from Fleet Owner has elucidated a public perception of just the opposite: John Q. Public sees a heavy truck-smaller vehicle crash as a "big guy-little guy" situation and tends to point blame at the big, heavy equipment.

With that in mind, here are three related arguments and things to consider that have come up recently regarding the use of video systems in heavy trucks.

1. They're playing juries against you.

Noting as above that there can be a negative public perception — or fear — when it comes to heavy trucks on America's highways, it seems there are lawyers out there akin to so-called "ambulance chasers" looking for big injury settlements who've also figured this out.

"In passenger vehicles vs. large truck [accidents], who's usually at fault? The passenger vehicle — that driver who didn't do an inspection on his vehicle before he started; that driver who's not responsible for compliance or regulated by enforcement; it's that passenger vehicle or pedestrian," notes Drew Schimelpfenig, senior manager of integration programs at fleet management systems provider Omnitracs.

"You would think with those things being the case that [fleets' and trucking companies'] accident costs would be down," he says, "but what we've seen in this industry are some record-setting jury-awarded judgments against carriers" to the tune of tens or even hundreds of millions of dollars. And sometimes in these lawsuits, "the judgments are just not adding up with the circumstances" and are unexpectedly high, he argues: Schimelpfenig points to a large award in 2015 to a passenger car driver who crashed into a heavy truck that was stopped 12 ft. off the roadway.

How is this happening? Schimelpfenig contends that some plaintiff attorneys are playing on juries' built-in fears and bias against big trucks and trucking. "They make you the carrier look like you are a danger and a threat to society, to the jury's community, to the jury's family, even the jury's children — they'll go that far," he says. "The way they do this is by using fear, not facts; the facts may not make it into the case much."

He adds that attorneys Don Keenan and David Ball have published a sort of "user's manual" for this kind of trial strategy called the Reptile Theory. Because of such "bold and brash" strategies by attorneys, Schimelpfenig says video has become a "silent witness" that better-prepared motor carriers can use in their defense.

2. FMCSA's proposed program to determine whether crashes are preventable could include video input.

Last week, FMCSA proposed a demonstration program for determining whether crashes reported on carriers' records are preventable or not. The program would take into account information reported from the scene of accidents by law enforcement and others such as tickets and citations issued, but could also include things like video showing the crash.

Fleet Owner asked Joe DeLorenzo, director of FMCSA's Office of Compliance and Enforcement, specifically about the potential use of video in the demonstration program. This was his reply:

"We didn't specifically address video in the proposal, but this has come up before recently. I think those kinds of comments [on including input such as video from a forward-facing, in-cab camera] are what we expect to get from this notice.

"We ask specifically what type of information and what type of documentation would be useful, and if [video] becomes a continuing thing we may want to include — if we can find a way to get that submitted to the process — that may be something we can add as we move forward."

So it appears that video will likely be relevant to an FMCSA crash preventability demonstration program, should it materialize. Also note that the National Transportation Safety Board earlier this year made "expanded use of recorders to enhance transportation safety" — which includes the use of cameras and video in trucking and transportation — one of its top 10 most important issues.

3. With carriers, there's been a tug-of-war going on regarding whether to put a camera on the driver — but if you have driver-facing cameras, be aware of this.

Forward-facing cameras get lots of support, but fleets differ on whether to keep a camera on the driver. One video systems provider, PeopleNet, can include a driver-facing camera in a system but doesn't particularly encourage it. The company's Jim Angel, vice president for video intelligence solutions, continues to stress that instead of video, data such as telematics information coming off a truck's control module such as speed and when the brakes were applied can tell the story of what the truck driver was doing.

"There's two sides of it with the driver-facing camera. Yes, I absolutely believe there is valuable information available by having a driver-facing camera," he tells Fleet Owner. "But I also know you have to be prepared to defend everything that you have."

Angel says plaintiff attorneys can make a driver-facing camera part of their strategy in court. "What they're going to ask that carrier for in any collision is six months of history of that driver's video, because what I want to do is build the history of that driver," he says. "Maybe that day [of a collision] wasn't exactly his fault, but two months ago I see he was holding his cell phone and driving. Maybe three months ago, he wasn't wearing his seat belt or had a 32-oz. 'big gulp' in front of his face.

"What the attorney then says, as ludicrous as it sounds, is, 'That driver shouldn't have even been in the truck that day. You guys didn't address these problems the driver had a long time ago, and he was in that position to have a collision with my client and he should never have been there in the first place," Angel contends.


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