When a person commits suicide, more than one life is destroyed. Not only are family, friends, neighbors and co-workers devastated but if suicide victims involve strangers in their demise, the results can be even more damaging.
Suicide by truck, forcing a stranger to kill you with his speeding vehicle, is something that drivers don't want to think about and carriers don't want to discuss openly.
Experts don't know how often suicide by truck occurs because legally proving that someone purposely ran in front of a moving truck – or drove their car directly into its path - is difficult. Without a suicide note or verbal forewarning, it's nearly impossible. Moreover, the social stigma often attached to suicide causes police and courts to err on the side of calling the death an unfortunate accident.
In many instances, however, suicide is the only reason that makes sense once everything else logically is ruled out.
"Suicide probably occurs in more cases than we care to tell the jury that it occurs," says Bill Chamblee, managing partner of Chamblee Ryan in Dallas, who has represented trucking companies for more than 28 years. "Lots of lawyers and insurance companies, either consciously or unconsciously, are reluctant to suggest suicide …" When you suggest suicide, Chamblee says, it can elicit a negative response from juries. When nothing else makes sense, however, when every other reason is dismissed, even then, he never uses the word 'suicide' in court.
About ten years ago, Chamblee had a case in Fairfield, Texas, where a woman parked her car at a gas station and walked on the entrance ramp to I-35. It was night and she wore dark clothing. A truck entering the highway, traveling at about 25 or 30 miles per hours, hit and killed her. There was nothing the driver could do and there was no reason for the woman to be there, he says. "Nobody could come up with a reason for her to walk from the grass on to the ramp... I'm pretty sure it was suicide… I would guess that most lawyers who do defense work have experienced suicide cases even if they don't know it."
He adds: "I have suggested to juries that when you look at all the circumstances it's almost as if this person wanted to take their own life. Usually that’s enough for the jury to think about the only thing that make sense even though I never say the word 'suicide.'"
Chamblee also notes cases in which auto drivers aimed their cars directly into an oncoming truck – truckers reported that it seemed intentional – but, again, suicide is difficult to prove even though no other reason could be offered.
For trucker Bob Eason there is little doubt about the circumstances last September when he hit and killed a man who parked his vehicle on the should of Route 287 near Montvale, New Jersey and stepped in front of his tractor-trailer. Eason is one of only a few truckers willing or able to talk publicly about the incident which continues to give him nightmares. "I work very hard to put food on the table for my family, but I don't know why the guy chose my truck," he told NJ.com. "It's tough for me. I can't trust anybody. I don't believe that they're not going to jump in front of me and take their own life."
Unlike suicides by railroad which are tracked by the Federal Railroad Administration, nobody tracks suicides by truck. "There are no statistics for suicide by truck," says Jill Harkavy-Friedman who is vice president of research for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. "Most likely it would be lumped in with something else like pedestrian deaths."
Harkavy-Friedman says that railroads make a concerted effort to determine suicides which is easier for them to do than for trucks because there are so few railroads in the country. Chamblee notes that nobody expects an engineer to do anything but try to slow down, but almost everyone questions whether a truck driver could have done something differently. This always calls into doubt whether a death is suicide or a preventable accident which makes tracking the issue even more problematic.
How Fleets Can Help Drivers Cope
Many fleets have ways of helping drivers who have killed people in accidents but few have ways of dealing specifically with suicides. "It's important for fleets to check in with the driver, assure him that his job is not jeopardized... managers should be on the lookout for stress disorders and substance abuse. Drivers may think they're fine at first but it can affect them later," says Harkavy-Friedman.
Do driver react differently to a suicide as opposed to an accidental death? Nobody knows. "It is difficult to compare individuals' responses to different types of trauma and evidence is not available to compare truckers involved in suicide versus accidental death. Personal and situational factors play key roles in response to trauma," she says.
Harkavy-Friedman notes that drivers will often have feelings of guilt and fear which is common and normal. "You might have to remind yourself about the reality of the situation so the feelings don't become overwhelming." She says that fleets can institute a four-step Safety Plan, a concept that emerged from work at the Veterans Administration to help military people deal with post traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD).
First, drivers should know the warning signs and distract themselves with something they like doing, going to the movies, perhaps. Next, try a different distraction by talking with someone else to help process what happened. The third step is professional intervention and the last resort is emergency intervention.
"Sometimes people will turn to drugs or alcohol to get numb. That may temporarily make you feel better but it actually makes your mood worse and disinhibits you so you might do things you normally wouldn't do," says Harkavy-Friedman.
She concludes: "Most important is to know the signs of when a person needs help healing from trauma including re-experiencing and reimagining the events, avoidance, physical symptoms and effects on mood and behavior to the point at which functioning is affected."