Long haul truckers are well-known for their lengthy stints behind the wheels of big rigs. If ever there were a career where workers push themselves to the limit, this is it. Because they often get paid per mile and have to meet tight deadlines, many truckers will drive for days without taking a significant break. This leads to a lot of fatigued drivers who may have trouble reacting quickly or even staying awake on the road, endangering both the truck drivers and the people who share the road with them.
Knowing the dangers fatigued truck drivers can pose, the Department of Transportation implemented new regulations this past July. Under the new rules, truck drivers are required to take at least one 30-minute break within the first eight hours of driving and a 34-hour break from driving at least once a week, including two periods from 1 am to 5 am. Truckers can also drive no more than 70 hours a week, down from the previous maximum of 82. They estimate that these changes will save 19 lives and prevent 1,400 fatigue-related crashes and 546 injuries per year.
Both trucking companies and drivers will face steep penalties if they’re caught violating the new regulations and going over the maximum workweek by more than three hours. Businesses or trucking companies could pay up to $11,000 in fines, and individual drivers could pay up to $2,750. Clearly, the Department of Transportation isn’t messing around. They are determined to enforce the new regulations in order to cut down on the number of fatigue-related truck accidents each year.
The Controversy over the New Regulations
While the new truck driving regulations seem like an important step towards improving traffic safety, not everyone is pleased. Many long haul truckers worry that the reduced number of weekly work hours will significantly impact their ability to earn a comfortable living. Several commercial drivers interviewed on National Public Radio noted that they’re under a lot of pressure to make deliveries in a limited time-frame.
There have been complaints from business owners, who worry that the new restrictions will require companies to use more trucks and drivers to haul their freight over the same distances than were needed in the past. This will cost companies more money and drive up the prices of many products for consumers. It’s worth noting, however, that the new regulations will only affect about 15% of truckers – those who complete the longest cross-country drives. Therefore, the need for more trucks and drivers may not be as great as some businesses fear.
Since the new regulations were only implemented six months ago, it’s still too early to tell what kind of impact they will have on companies’ bottom lines. However, it’s hard to put a price on the lives the new rules could save.
Fatigue-Related Truck Accidents
In 2012, there were 3,921 truck accident fatalities. According to a causation study by the Department of Transportation, 87% of all annual truck accidents are the result of human error, with many being directly related to driver fatigue. The driver falling asleep at the wheel, becoming distracted or inattentive, failing to observe risks in their environment, and showing poor judgment about speed and following distance are among the common reasons cited for accidents. Significantly, all are also more likely to occur when a driver is sleep-deprived.
Another study published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 2007 found that long haul truckers regularly get less sleep than is required for them to be alert on the job. How so? Typically, they average just over 5 hours per night, whereas the recommended amount for the average adult is 7 or 8 hours. Getting a couple hours of sleep less than what experts say is needed might not sound like that big of a deal, but it adds up over time. Long-term sleep deprivation can have a significant negative impact on both physical health and cognitive processes. If we want truckers to perform their job well and be able to make important judgment calls that help them to stay out of accidents, making sure that they get a healthy amount of sleep each night is in everyone’s interest.
Connections Between Drug Use and Fatigue
Another major cause of truck driving accidents is impairment from drugs or alcohol, and evidence suggests that one of the risk factors for truck drivers abusing drugs is fatigue. Two of the drugs most commonly abused by truckers – speed and cocaine – may be appealing because they give the driver a temporary energy boost. But these illicit substances are incredibly dangerous, not least because they mask unsafe levels of exhaustion and impair judgment.
Data analysis of 36 surveys and drugs tests found that the truck drivers most at risk for using drugs were the ones whose pay was determined by their productivity. This sort of pay-per-mile motivation can lead to a perfect storm of accident risk factors: truckers are taking drugs to stay awake, speeding to cover greater distances, and skipping necessary breaks.
How Will the New Department of Transportation Regulations Play Out?
Only time will tell whether the new Department of Transportation regulations will cause a significant reduction in the number of truck accidents per year. 2014 will be the first full calendar year with the new regulations in effect, and the DOT will likely look at next year’s crash statistics compared to 2012 and 2013 to determine what difference they’ve made and where we need to go from here.
For the time being, it certainly seems like the stricter regulations are a good choice when it comes to protecting the health and safety of both long haul truckers and occupants of smaller passenger vehicles. Ideally, trucking companies should work to change their payment policies to put less pressure on drivers to forego sleep and race to deliver their freight on time. Truckers should not have to risk their lives and the lives of others for their profession.
About the Author:
Attorney Jeffrey A. Luhrsen credits his military career with the work ethic, integrity, and tenacity that drives his career as a personal injury attorney. Having garnered numerous academic awards and scholarships during college and law school, Mr. Luhrsen has continued to earn accolades throughout his career, including a Martindale-Hubbell AV® Preeminent™ Peer Review Rating, the highest rating an attorney can achieve in legal ability and ethical standards. He has been in private practice since 1998 with a focus on tort claims and insurance disputes. Luhrsen Law Group, based in Sarasota, Florida, is proud to be a family-owned firm that helps Florida families recover after serious injuries and from legal wrongs.