Not everyone is cut out to climb behind the wheel of a truck. Some people aren’t healthy enough for it. Some people aren’t good enough drivers. And some people have criminal and/or driving records that just make them a bad fit to take responsibility for heavy cargo. The law has a term for that last kind of shouldn’t-be-commercial-truck drivers. They’re called “disqualified.”
The thing is, even though someone is deemed “disqualified”, they might still be behind the wheel of a truck, right now. It’s scary, but it’s true. There’s a shortage of commercial truck drivers in the country, and as a result, sometimes trucking companies hire people who have no business taking the wheel of so much as a box truck, let alone a tractor-trailer. It’s illegal, but it happens, and on occasion, those “disqualified” drivers get into truck accidents.
That’s when the mess really starts. A trucking company that hires a disqualified driver will face near-certain legal liability if that driver causes an accident, especially if the accident relates to the reason the driver is disqualified. But, the fact that a driver was disqualified can also cause complication for the people who need the trucking company to pay damages for the injuries the driver caused.
So, let’s take a closer look at what it means for drivers to be disqualified, how often they end up on the road, and what happens if they cause an accident.
Driver Disqualification Categories
Federal regulations set minimum standards for the disqualification of commercial drivers. No state can have disqualification rules that are less strict than these, but it can have rules that are more strict. Here is what Texas law says about when and how long a holder of a Texas Commercial Drivers License (CDL) becomes “disqualified” under the laws of our state (Keep in mind that the violations listed below apply no matter what kind of vehicle the driver was driving at the time; in other words, for CDL drivers, getting caught speeding in a personal car counts as a violation just as much as getting caught speeding in a commercial truck).
A CDL driver is disqualified from commercial driving for 60 days if he has had:
- Two serious traffic violations (which includes speeding, reckless driving, dangerous lane changes, etc.) that occur within a three-year period; or
- one violation of a law that regulates the operation of a motor vehicle at a railroad grade crossing.
A CDL driver is disqualified from commercial driving for 120 days if he has had:
- Three serious traffic violations arising from separate incidents occurring within a three-year period; or
- Two violations of a law that regulates the operation of a motor vehicle at a railroad grade crossing that occur within a three-year period.
A CDL driver is disqualified from commercial driving for one year if he:
- Gets convicted of three violations of a law that regulates the operation of a motor vehicle at a railroad grade crossing, within a three-year period;
- Gets convicted of driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs;
- Gets convicted of leaving the scene of an accident as the driver;
- Been convicted of using a motor vehicle in the commission of a felony (other than a felony related to drug trafficking, which carries lifetime disqualification);
- Gets convicted of causing the death of another person through the negligent or criminal operation of a motor vehicle; or
- Gets convicted of driving a commercial motor vehicle with a revoked, suspended, or canceled CDL, or while he is disqualified from driving;
- Refuses to submit to a sobriety test such as a breathalyzer;
- Is found to have had a blood-alcohol concentration (BAC) of 0.04 or of having drugs in his system while operating a commercial motor vehicle; or
- Is found to have had a BAC of 0.08 or more while operating any other kind of motor vehicle.
A CDL driver is disqualified from commercial driving for three years if he commits any of the violations listed above for the one-year suspension (other than the third offense for violating a regulation relating to railroad crossings) while driving a commercial vehicle carrying hazardous material.
A CDL driver is disqualified from commercial driving for LIFE if he:
- Commits any of the violations under the one-year disqualification provision two or more times, in any combination;
- Uses a motor vehicle in the commission of a drug trafficking felony;
- Uses a motor vehicle in the commission of a federal involving the transportation, concealment, or harboring of an alien.
Federal regulations also allow for a driver to be “disqualified” for any period of time when his driving poses an “imminent hazard” to the health and safety of the public.
In addition to the penalties above, it is a misdemeanor in Texas for a driver to operate a commercial motor vehicle while disqualified, and for an employer to “knowingly permit” a disqualified driver to operate a commercial motor vehicle.
So, How Often Do Disqualified Drivers Drive?
We’d love to tell you CDL drivers never drive when they’re disqualified. Unfortunately, that wouldn’t be true. It happens, and the effects can sometimes be disastrous.
How often does it happen? It’s hard to say, exactly. What we do know from the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) is that from 2010 to 2014, about 9 percent of all of enforcement actions the FMCSA took for violations of the motor carrier regulations involved driver-qualification violations. That doesn’t mean that all of those drivers were “disqualified” (some just weren’t eligible to drive for health reasons, for instance). But, as the fourth-most-common category of violations cited by the FMCSA, with 4,640 violations over the time period, it does mean that “disqualified” drivers hit the roadway more often than they should.
How does this happen? Shouldn’t trucking companies be checking to see if a driver they’re about to hire is disqualified? Shouldn’t they also monitor to make sure their existing drivers stay qualified? Yes and yes. They should. In fact, the trucking companies have a legal obligation to check and maintain driver histories to ensure they’re not putting disqualified drivers on the road.
But, the system isn’t foolproof. Driving records aren’t perfectly up-to-date, even when people try to keep them accurate. Plus, drivers have been known to fail to report disqualifying violations that happened in other states, to keep their CDL in a different state “clean.” Also, trucking companies are short on drivers these days. They need all the help they can get. It’s no surprise some of them are willing to break the rules to keep their trucks rolling.
Finally, there’s the fact that disqualified drivers don’t necessarily become BETTER drivers when their disqualification period ends. So, as long as a driver hasn’t been disqualified permanently, it’s pretty likely he’ll be back behind the wheel sooner or later. Odds are, some of those previously-disqualified drivers will go back to their old, unsafe-driving ways.
Does Anyone Try to Stop Them?
Well, trucking companies are supposed to. But, when that doesn’t happen, the FMCSA and state-level government agencies have the power to do random inspections, and levy fines and other punishments, if a company gets caught hiring disqualified drivers or sending them out on the road.
Unfortunately, you can’t just rely on the government to stop people from doing bad things. The lawyers and legal staff of the national law firm of Stewart J. Guss, Attorney at Law represents people who get injured in accidents with disqualified truckers. Obviously, his top priority is recovering compensation for his clients from the truckers and trucking companies. But, by pursuing these cases, Attorney Guss believes he and his clients are also doing their part to deter trucking companies and disqualified drivers from making bad decisions. After all, the more expensive you make it for disqualified drivers to take to the road, the harder trucking companies will try to make sure that doesn’t happen.
What Can I Do?
Everyone can play a role in keeping disqualified drivers off the roads. First and foremost, you know when you see those “how’s my driving?” stickers on the back of a truck, with a 1-800 number to call? They’re there for a reason: to give the public the opportunity to report bad driving behavior. If you see a truck driving unsafely—changing lanes recklessly, speeding, acting aggressive—and ONLY IF you can do so safely, call the number and report the behavior. The trucking company has to keep track of your report, and you may just keep a dangerous trucker from hurting someone. Alternatively, if you can’t get a good look at that 1-800 number before the truck speeds away, you can also always call 911 and report the truck to law enforcement. They know how to handle those situations, too.
Yes, we know, when you report truckers for driving badly, you’re putting their careers and income at risk. And, to be fair, truckers have a tough job. It’s way more exhausting than you might imagine to drive a big rig. Truckers push themselves, often too hard, to deliver cargo on time. But, look at it this way: you’re also doing the driver a favor in the long run by helping to keep him safe, too, as well as other passenger vehicles on the road.
I Got Hurt in an Accident by a Truck Driven by an Unqualified or Suspended Driver. Now What?
Go see a doctor if you haven’t already. Make sure you get the medical care you need. Not only is your health the most important thing, but if you have a legal claim for damages against the driver or the trucking company, you’re going to need medical records to prove how badly hurt you are and that the accident caused your injury.
As for the legal side of things, here’s what’s likely to happen. The authorities will probably have figured out that the driver was disqualified. That means there’s going to be an investigation of the trucker and the trucking company. You’ll want to have an attorney involved representing your interests, to stay on top of what’s happening in that investigation. Facts the investigators discover in the investigation will probably be really important for your lawyer when it comes to seeking damages for you.
Also, because the driver was disqualified, the trucking company and its insurance company will probably be in full damage-control mode; they’ll know they probably have liability to you for your damages (Even if the insurance company’s policy doesn’t cover disqualified drivers, federal and state law requires the trucking company to have the financial resources to cover your losses). Believe it or not, that makes this a tricky time for you.
The trucking company and its insurer may try to get you to sign away your rights to damages by offering you a quick settlement. DON’T SIGN ANYTHING. If you hear from the trucking company, it’s the insurance company, or a lawyer representing either of them, be sure to have an attorney you trust review your case, any offers or correspondence from other parties, and advise you accordingly on how to proceed.
Find a Nationally Recognized Truck Accident Lawyer
Hiring disqualified drivers and sending them out on the road behind the wheel of a multi-ton truck DEFINITELY qualifies as the sort of reckless behavior that usually leads to liability for damages.
Hopefully, this post helps you understand the basic ins and outs of an accident claim involving a disqualified driver. However, if you’ve suffered an injury in an accident with a truck, or if a loved one has died in that kind of accident, it’s often wise to contact an attorney. Unlike individual victims, experienced truck accident law firms should have the resources, experience, and know-how to recover maximum compensation for truck accident victims, especially in cases where the driver had no business being behind the wheel.