While driving down the road, you may have witnessed someone’s car swerve from its lane. You hold your breath, hoping it returns safely back to its place in the traffic pattern. But what happens when that vehicle is larger than a car? What if it is a heavy truck, hauling freight hundreds or thousands of miles? It might not make it back on the road due to truck driver fatigue.
Truck driver fatigue is becoming a more apparent issue, but efforts to protect truck drivers and other travelers on America’s roadways are often thwarted. In December 2011, the U.S. Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) published a new federal rule that reduced the maximum workweek for truckers to 70 hours and required drivers to take 34 hours off duty before starting another workweek, according to FMCSA Hours of Service Regulations. It also required the off-duty time to include two periods between 1 a.m. and 5 a.m.
The New York Times reported the regulation received pushback from the trucking industry, where time on the road translates directly to profits. Critics said the new regulation placed more drivers on the road during heavy traffic times without addressing safety concerns, and the specific off-duty time periods have been suspended pending further research.
However, fatigued heavy truck driving is undoubtedly a safety concern. In the explanation of its December 2011 regulations, the Department of Transportation wrote: “Additionally, new research available on the subject demonstrated that long work hours, without sufficient recovery time, lead to reduced sleep and chronic fatigue. That fatigue leads drivers to have slower reaction times and a reduced ability to assess situations quickly …Too often, fatigued drivers fail to notice that they are drifting between lanes.”
Safety investigators told The New York Times that sleepy or drowsy driving is far more problematic than it is perceived to be. The exact number of accidents caused by heavy trucks is difficult to determine.
For example, a 2007 FMCSA Large Truck Crash Causation Study found, “Fatigue, drinking alcohol, and speeding are major factors in motor vehicle crashes overall,” but lumped falling asleep with being physically impaired for other reasons, such as a heart attack, all under the “non-performance” causes of crashes.
Drivers falling asleep at the wheel is cited as the specific cause of crashes involving tractor trailers, though. The New York Times cites a 2009 crash that killed 10 people in Missouri due to a 76-year-old truck driver falling asleep at the wheel at 2:30 a.m. as an example.
Certainly making a profit is a crucial goal for the trucking industry and the merits of potential regulations should be evaluated, but doing so at the expense of the safety of truckers and the public is cause for concern. Truck drivers need rest, and guaranteeing them that rest saves lives.
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Beasley Allen attorney Chris Glover handles cases of personal injury involving heavy trucks, log trucks, 18-wheelers and other commercial vehicles. For more information about these types of claims, contact him by email at Chris.Glover@BeasleyAllen.com. Chris also recently wrote a book about trucking litigation, An Introduction to Truck Accident Claims: A Guide to Getting Started. This book is free to lawyers. To get your copy, visit www.chrisglover-law.com/book.
The New York Times
U.S. Department of Transportation
FMCSA – Large Truck Crash Causation Study
FMCSA – Hours of Service Regulations