Truck Driver Fatigue Can Have Deadly Consequences

Dangers of Driver Fatigue

In the best of conditions, tractor trailers are dangerous vehicles simply due to their size and weight. The average semi can carry more than 40,000 pounds of cargo, let alone the mass of the truck, fuel and trailer. The average passenger vehicle, on the other hand, weighs only 4,000 pounds - a deadly match in a collision.

When truck drivers get too little sleep or spend too much time behind the wheel, the results can be disastrous. According to the National Transportation Safety Board, 30 to 40 percent of trucking accidents are the result of driver fatigue. And the people most likely to be injured in these accidents are not the over-tired truck drivers, but the drivers and passengers in the other vehicles. In 2008, 69 percent of the people who died as a result of a trucking accident were driving or riding in a passenger car or truck.

Commercial truck drivers are just like other drivers - once they get tired, they are more likely to make mistakes. The difference, however, is that their mistakes will likely be much more deadly. Tired truck drivers may be less aware of the position of their vehicle and other vehicles on the road. They are more likely to follow too close or change lanes without checking for other vehicles. Fatigued truckers are also more prone to distractions from talking on cell phones, texting, communicating with dispatchers, and using on-board computer and GPS systems.

Industry Pressure Fuels Fatigued Driving

If it is common knowledge that fatigued truck drivers are more likely to cause deadly accidents, why do they continue to do it? Truck drivers are usually paid by the mile. The more miles they can log in a day, the more compensation they will make. In other cases, truck drivers may simply want to get home sooner and force themselves to keep driving long after they should have stopped.

Commercial trucking companies also put a lot of pressure on their drivers to get their deliveries done quickly. Company profits depend on drivers delivering loads on-time, and early deliveries free up a driver and equipment for the next run. As a result, trucking companies may push their drivers to stay behind the wheel right up to the federal hours-of-service limits. Others may go farther than this and turn a blind eye when their drivers violate federal regulations, or even encourage them to do so.

Hours-of-Service Laws Under Review

The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) is in charge of regulating the commercial trucking industry, including how many hours truck drivers are permitted to operate their vehicles within any given day and week. Under present federal hours-of-service (HOS) regulations, commercial truck drivers are required to follow the 11-hour and 60/70 rules:

  • 11-hour rule: Truck drivers may not drive more than 11 consecutive hours within a 14-hour period followed by 10 hours off-duty.
  • 60/70 rule: Truck drivers may spend no more than a total of 60 hours on-duty within any seven-day period or 70 hours on-duty within any eight-day period. A new seven- or eight-day period does not begin until the truck driver has spent at least 34 hours off-duty.

These regulations have been in force since 2003, prior to which the total number of hours truck drivers were permitted to drive in a 14-hour period was only 10 hours. Safety advocates, including Public Citizen and Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, have argued that the one-hour increase in the total number of driving hours threatens the safety of truck drivers and other motorists. Further bolstering their claim is a study released by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, which found that the risk of accident increases two-fold when truck drivers operate their vehicles for more than 8 to 10 consecutive hours.

As a result, Public Citizen and other advocacy groups have taken legal action against the FMCSA to roll back hours-of-service regulations to at least pre-2003 levels. The FMCSA agreed to review the HOS rule in an October 2009 settlement with the safety advocates.

In recent comments before a Senate subcommittee, FMCSA Administrator Ann Ferro pledged a thorough review process, stating that the agency is "committed to using all of the information we have received to propose a rule that addresses the concerns of our stakeholders and presents the safest option." But she said the process may take until July 2011.

Conclusion

Federal regulations limit the number of hours truck drivers are allowed to drive, but it is not uncommon for drivers to ignore these limits and stay behind the wheel long after it is safe. If you have been involved in a trucking accident, contact an experienced attorney. Commercial truck drivers are held to a higher standard of care than other drivers, and you may want to consider legal action against a driver or trucking company for negligence.