On April 25, 2019, a semi-truck traveling down I-70 near Denver crashed into backed up traffic, striking 28 vehicles, killing four people, and sparking a large fire. The big-rig crash shut the interstate down for two days as clean-up crews and investigators worked on the scene. The 23-year-old truck driver, Rogel Lazaro Aguilera-Mederos, has been charged with 36 felonies, including four counts of vehicular homicide and 24 counts of attempted first-degree assault.
The Colorado trucking accident is one of the latest examples of the trucking industry’s continued struggle with safety nationwide. Experts suggest that even if mechanical failure played a role, inexperience combined with inadequate training may have been the deciding factor in the fatal crash.
A lack of training and experience can turn even alert big-rig drivers into major hazards on the road.
The trucking industry is experiencing a lack of fully qualified drivers in recent years. A combination of age and illness-related attrition, combined with fewer drivers entering the industry in recent years, has resulted in a workforce led by fewer veteran drivers every year. Training can improve the safety and reliability of newer drivers, but not all truck driving schools are equal, nor do they necessarily prepare drivers for the actual routes they may drive.
Aguilera-Mederos told investigators that his truck’s brakes failed prior to the crash, and that he was attempting to avoid a big-rig parked on the side of the freeway before the accident occurred. Witnesses report seeing his truck swerving between lanes. Video captured by one motorist shows a speeding semi almost colliding with other vehicles only minutes before the accident, though investigators have yet to determine if the truck on video was the one involved in this big-rig crash.
Just prior to the accident, he was allegedly filmed speeding past a runaway truck ramp, one of 13 in the state of Colorado designed to forcibly slow down trucks in similar circumstances. Such circumstances aren’t rare—according to the Colorado Department of Transportation, since 2016 there have been 9 trucks that used the runaway truck ramp Aguilera-Mederos passed by prior to his accident. Had he used the ramp, the accident would have been prevented. Instead, his panic and inexperience proved lethal.
A better trained or more experienced driver may have recognized that a steeper downhill grade was coming, based on signs posted throughout the freeway, and adjusted their speed accordingly before a downhill section. In the case of brake failure, they would have known of the location of the runaway truck ramp, and known how to use it.
But novice drivers like Aguilera-Mederos are not nearly so prepared for the adverse road conditions common to mountainous states like Colorado, nor do they have the experience to deal with mechanical failures. According to his family, he’d been a truck driver for just over a year.
Calls for stricter safety rules have failed to address often inadequate truck driving training requirements, which fail to prepare drivers for mountainous driving conditions.
There has been a very public push for rules that limit the risks to truck drivers, and those they share the road with. The FMCSA has pushed for regulations governing the hours a driver can work, in addition to mandating electronic monitoring devices to be installed in trucks. The industry has been looking to implement automation into driving, attempting to remove or limit the “human factors” that could contribute to accidents.
But none of these measures focus on the nature of driver training. The law currently does not require truck drivers to receive specialized training for mountain driving, and few schools are equipped to provide such training. The training for a commercial driver’s license that Aguilera-Mederos received is likely comparable to that found at any truck driving school in the US, and the industry currently allows drivers to receive training from any accredited school. This means training for mountainous roads, where steeper grades and even the altitude can affect the handling of a vehicle, is often limited to what is found in training manuals. But they are also limited by location. A school in Colorado might emphasize driving under these conditions more, but in a state like Texas, where Aguilera-Mederos earned his CDL, the training may only skim this topic.
Additionally, there are no roads in Texas that replicate Colorado’s mountainous and sometimes deceptive freeways. This means that no driving school in the state can offer practical experience that may be found elsewhere. With no rules that require emphasis on driving in these conditions, a new truck driver’s options are currently limited to schools in areas where there are similar roads to practice on.
This problem can still occur even in states with a wider range of roads. A California truck driving school near the mountains might place greater emphasis on the techniques required to safely drive those roads. But schools in the Sacramento region or the Bay Area might place greater emphasis on urban or freeway driving. The result is the same: certified and licensed drivers who are trained to the legal standard, but are potentially ill-prepared for road conditions their training may have only briefly covered.
Existing safety rules are inadequate, and even those often are not enforced.
One of the factors in this case that was brought up shortly after the crash was the safety record of Aguilera-Mederos’ employer. Castellano 03 Trucking LLC, based out of Houston, Texas, had racked up numerous violations between 2017 and 2019, with out-of-service vehicle rates 2.4% above the national average of 20.7%. Ten of the recorded violations involved brake issues, affecting all five trucks in the company’s fleet.
The FMCSA did not designate the company as an unsafe carrier despite its multiple safety violations, leaving some to question if action should have been taken sooner to get their vehicles off the road.
But even if the agency determined that Castellano was not a safe freight carrier and moved to shut them down, it may not have been enough. Since 2008, FMCSA has been trying to combat “chameleon carriers,” new freight companies opened by owners who have closed down their previously red-flagged companies to start anew with a clean safety record. But despite an increased focus on this problem, identifying and shutting down these carriers has proven difficult. Owners of such companies have often resurfaced multiple times, even after deadly accidents resulted in the closure of previous ventures.
With trucking accident fatalities on the rise, the industry is facing a potential legal crisis across the country.
In the 1980s, the US government placed great pressure on the freight industry, with new safety standards and stiff penalties to enforce them. Despite decades of marked improvement, the number of crashes involving large trucks rose by 42% between 2009 and 2017.
Some states, like California, have reacted to these safety trends by enacting stronger regulations. This has placed tens of thousands of vehicles “out-of-compliance” and in need of replacement or retrofit, while also forcing carriers to provide for more break periods for their drivers. But these requirements are not matched across state lines, leaving carriers to face potentially losing out on certain lucrative transport routes should they fail to meet standards limited to a single state.
In addition to these potential quagmires, such laws at the state level can be preempted by federal laws, according to a ruling by the U.S. Department of Transportation, setting the stage for future legal challenges. This also means that if a state requires specific training, those laws may be overruled by federal regulations.
For now, the driver responsible for the trucking accident in Colorado faces a lengthy prison sentence, should he be convicted of all the charges in place. His employer, with its safety record in the public eye, may be brought to court by dozens of families seeking compensation, and could be forced out of business as a result.
The industry itself likely faces stiffer regulations and penalties, all the while struggling to modernize its truck fleets, and convince more Americans to consider a career on the nation’s highways. But if current training does not change, these newer drivers will be getting on the roads without the experience or the knowledge needed to safely drive on more dangerous routes.