NHTSA Trucker Rest Rules to be Repealed; Is Congress Gambling with your Safety?

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Regulations and guidelines that restrict hours-of-service limits for commercial drivers are intended to reduce the risk of accidents by reducing the number of fatigued commercial drivers on the highways, freeways and local roads. These rules were developed based on traffic data and studies that had been conducted over a number of years. For instance, according to the March 21, 2011, edition of National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s publication, Traffic Safety Facts, fatigued driving was a factor in approximately two-and-a-half percent of all fatal accidents. In accidents where there is only damage to the vehicles or other property, a fatigued driver is linked about 1.4 percent of the time.

Unfortunately, the rest rules developed by NHTSA are again under attack by Suzanne Collins, a US Senator from Maine. Her amendments would suspend many of the rest rules that have been in effect since 2013. She claims that these hours-of-service rules have created unintended consequences and has moved to suspend the rules by inserting a provision into the 2015 government spending bill.

Why are Hours-of-Service Regulations Important for Roadway Safety?

Clinical and scientific studies have shown that sleep is an essential biological need for humans and most other complex, living creatures. As the need for sleep increases due to fatigue, the impulse to rest becomes increasingly strong. At a certain point, the need for sleep can become so pronounced that the individual can fall asleep without realizing it or the lack of sleep can lead to psychosis and loss of ability to orient oneself to time and place.

Fatigue can have serious impacts on one’s cognitive abilities and motor skills long before the need for sleep becomes extreme. Even mild to moderate levels of fatigue can impair memory & recall abilities, slow information processing, create an attention deficit, impairs the decision-making process, and can result in longer reaction times. Furthermore, an irregular sleep schedule, a schedule that goes against one’s natural circadian rhythms, the use of sedating medications, or the use of alcohol and drugs can all amplify the effects of fatigue potentially resulting in a commercial trucking accident.

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What Do the Current Commercial Trucker Rest Rules Require?

Aside from the hours-of-service requirements, commercial truck drivers must also meet certain physical requirements. In general, a truck driver can meet these physical requirements by undergoing a medical evaluation as required by in §391.43 of the federal rules. The presence of certain conditions or impairments, such as narcolepsy or sleep apnea, can make one ineligible to legally drive a commercial vehicle. For a more thorough discussion of the physical requirements, please see our blog post regarding the federal regulations concerning commercial drivers with sleep apnea & other conditions.

NHTSA ‘s hours-of-service rules impose limits on the length of time a commercial operator can drive his or her truck, tractor-trailer, or other commercial vehicle. In short, there are three independent hour-of-service limits that a commercial driver must comply with. While these limits are not tied to specific weeks or days on a calendar and can roll across weeks and months, it can be useful to refer to them in that fashion to differentiate among them. In essence, there is a daily limit, a day driving window, and a weekly limitation.

Section 395.3(a)(3) of the federal regulations permits a commercial driver to operate his or her vehicle for 11-hours once he or she begins. Section 395.3(ii) states that a commercial driver is required to take a 30-minute break if 8 hours or more have elapsed since the trip commenced. The 11 hours of “daily” driving must be completed within a 14-hour window that starts simultaneously with the 11-hour limit. Once the 14-hour “window” is reached, the driver must go off-duty for a minimum of 10 hours to reset the limit. Finally, depending on the particularized circumstances, a commercial driver may only drive for 60 or 70 hours over a 7 or 8-day “week”, respectively. As the “week” progresses, the driving hours from the oldest day fall away and are replaced with the hours of the current day.

A Second Attempt at Overturning Fatigued Trucker Safeguards

This amendment to the federal spending bill is Senator Collins’ second attempt at gutting the federal hours-of-service safety rules. Her first attempt at rolling back these safety rules intended to protect motorists failed largely due to the public outrage that was stoked by the commercial trucking accident on the New Jersey Turnpike where a truck carrying goods for Walmart hit the limo carrying comedians James “Jimmy Mack” McNair, Tracy Morgan, and other. The accident was caused by a commercial driver, Kevin Roper, and resulted in wrongful death by commercial truck of McNair and a severe traumatic brain injury (TBI) for Tracy Morgan. A police report completed after the accident alleged that Mr. Roper had been awake for, at least, 24 hours at the time of the accident. Furthermore, the report alleges that Mr. Roper was traveling in excess of the speed limit and that he failed to react to the stopped traffic ahead due to fatigue.

New Rules Would Suspend Fatigued Commercial Driver Protections

Since the June accident, the public furor has, predictably, fallen by the wayside as news organizations have moved on to newer breaking stories and the focus of the public has shifted with the holiday season has arrived. Furthermore, this amendment is part of a major omnibus spending bill; not an independent piece of legislation that is likely to spur extensive debate on its merits.

The bill is nevertheless expected to pass as part of the omnibus budget deal. It is believed that the changes contained in Senator Collins’ amendment would suspend much if not all of, the hours-of-service rules that were passed in 2013. It is believed that the amendment would extend the “weekly” driving limit to a minimum of 82 hours from its current maximums of 60 or 70 hours per a “week”. The bill would add three states — Wisconsin, Mississippi, and Kentucky – to the two states already exempted from certain truck size limits. Finally, the Collins amendment requires the US Department of Transportation to commission a new study regarding the effects and efficacy of the hours-of-service rules.

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