June 12, 2014
Arduous work schedules, tired truck drivers and 40-ton rigs have long been a dangerous combination. On an average day in the USA, large trucks are involved in nearly 10 fatal crashes. The death toll rose every year from 2009 to 2012, the most recent for which data are available.
The victims include entire families, newlyweds heading home from honeymoons, teenagers and infants. About one of every seven crashes involves a driver who was considered "fatigued" at the time.
These accidents typically don't generate wide attention, unless they are particularly gruesome—or involve a celebrity such as Tracy Morgan. The “Saturday Night Live” and “30 Rock” veteran was critically injured, and a fellow comedian was killed, when a sleep-deprived tractor-trailer driver slammed into their Mercedes limousine about 1 a.m. Saturday.
That made national news. But you may not have heard about the crash along an Illinois highway in January, when a trucker who had slept less than four hours during a marathon 37.5-hour shift rammed into a police car parked with its lights flashing. A tollway worker was killed and a state trooper was severely injured.
Despite this carnage, safety advocates seeking regulations that would shorten drivers' hours and require more rest time have made little headway against the trucking lobby.
Sometimes, they've even lost ground.
In 2003, the Bush administration increased the time drivers could be behind the wheel each day to 11 hours. For nearly 70 years, the limit had been 10 hours. In 2011, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration refused to reverse that dangerous addition.
But the agency did add some improvements, including a change to the so-called restart rule. The new rule requires drivers who've hit their maximum hours (for instance, 70 hours in eight days) to take 34 hours off. It requires that the break include two periods of 1 a.m. to 5 a.m.
Common sense, scientific studies and experts all agree on the restorative powers of nighttime sleep, which coincides with people's circadian rhythms. Regulators studying truck drivers found that those who began the week with just one night's sleep had more attention lapses and reported greater sleepiness than those with two nights.
Last year, a federal appeals court agreed there was "compelling" evidence that two nights are better than one and rejected the trucking industry's objections. Having failed in the courts, the trucking industry has turned to its friends in Congress. Last week, Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, joined by 20 colleagues in a committee, voted to suspend the new rule for a year.
Rules, of course, don't mean much unless they are enforced. Regulators have a ready solution.
Many drivers now keep manual logs of hours, breaks and time off—records that are easy to manipulate. Under a proposed rule, those records would be kept digitally. That would deter drivers from gaming the system, and make the roads safer.
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