Asleep at The Wheel: The Deadly Price of Trucker Fatigue

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If commercial trucking disappeared, America would simply cease to function.  Groceries would rot, manufacturing plants would close, and life-saving medication would never make it to the patients.  The trucking industry rakes in $650 billion annually, and truckers are responsible for nearly 84% of the transportation sector’s revenues.  But unfortunately, truckers are also responsible for numerous deaths and catastrophic injuries every year. What’s causing these tragedies, and what’s being done to fix the problem?

Truckers Under Immense Pressure to Meet Deadlines

The American Trucking Associations (ATA) estimates about 3.5 million truckers live and work in the U.S. today.  If you broaden the definition to include industry professionals who do not actually drive, that figure balloons to nearly nine million.  Projected growth for the next decade exceeds 20%, and on a daily basis, truckers already transport over $300 million worth of goods as it is.  All of these facts and figures add up to one obvious point: trucking is absolutely critical to America’s economy.  The $650 billion the industry generates each year is 5% of the nation’s GDP.

When you combine that enormous commercial importance with the financial handicap of a recession, the result is huge amounts of pressure on truckers to make their deadlines. Competition for opportunity is fierce, and if one driver can’t get the job done on time or even ahead of schedule, then another driver will.

“As long as the wheels are turning,” says long-haul trucker Manuel Hernandez, “I’m getting paid.”  He echoes a slogan within the community: “only turning wheels are earning wheels.”

For time-crunched truckers who want to support their families and keep their jobs — and for the motorists who drive alongside them — the industry’s get-it-done culture is a recipe for injury and death.

Truck accident

Nearly 4,000 Deaths From Trucking Accidents Every Year

In 1997, a survey conducted by the Federal Highway Administration revealed that an alarming 28% of drivers had dozed off while behind the wheel.  Not just “over the past year,” or “over the course of a career” — in the previous month alone.

Then again, nearly 20 years have passed since 1997.  Are the more recent statistics quite as disturbing?

Unfortunately, they are — and so are the trends they reveal.  The Advocates for Highway & Auto Safety report 104,000 injuries related to big-rig accidents in 2012, with another 3,921 fatalities.  That number represents a consistent, steady increase from previous years, with “only” 3,757 deaths in 2011 by comparison.  There were 3,675 deaths in 2010, and 3,380 were killed in 2009.  Fatalities caused by truck accidents have grown like clockwork for years.

According to a report published in the Journal of Sleep Research entitled “Fatigue and Accidents in Transport Operations,” fatigue “is the largest identifiable and preventable cause of accidents in transport operations (between 15% and 20% of all accidents), surpassing that of alcohol or drug related incidents in all modes of transportation.”

FMCSA Says Workweek Cap Saves Lives, Trucking Industry Angered by Lost Profits

In July of 2013, the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) unveiled new federal regulations that slashed truckers’ maximum work week from 82 hours to 70 hours.  

The lowered limit was a response to safety concerns.  The FMCSA estimated the 12-hour cut would prevent roughly 1,400 accidents annually, in addition to 560 injuries.  U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood praised the changes, stating, “Safety is our highest priority.  These rules make common sense, data-driven changes to reduce truck driver fatigue and improve safety for every traveler on our highways and roads.”  

Oftentimes, these situations move in reverse, with outcry that profits are being placed ahead of public safety.  Yet on this rare occasion where safety was finally prioritized over greed, the backlash from concerned industry professionals was fierce.

“It’s just making it harder for the small businessman out here to compete with the big boys,” says Robert Simonds, a Virginia-based trucker with 20 years of experience.  “It’s people that are making decisions behind a desk that have never been behind a wheel.”

Richard Allen, also based in Virginia, agrees.  “It’s hard.  They have no clue what they’re doing,” he says.  “We’ve been doing better and better and better and better out here.  I don’t need these people telling me how to stay alive.”

“Who made up these rules?” asks Manuel Hernandez.  “Did they have any experience in driving truck, and traffic and dealing with customers and your breakdowns?”

Despite criticism, the FMSCA has stuck by its original logic.

“Safety has to be built into that supply chain,” says administrator Anne Ferro.  “Prior to this rule, drivers could work as much as 82 hours in an eight-day period.  Once in a while, perhaps you can do that.”  She adds, however, “Week after week, that schedule results in a state of chronic fatigue that impacts a driver’s ability to be alert and respond.”

But now, Senator Susan Collins (R-Maine) is leading the fight to lift the cap and raise the maximum workweek back to 82 hours.  Her efforts are being hailed by members of the industry.

“Today, thanks to Senator Collins’ leadership,” says ATA President Bill Graves, “we are a step closer to reversing these damaging, unjustified regulations.”

A statement from the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association says, “The FMCSA cannot simply regulate based upon guesses and it should not make a regulatory decision and then create data behind it that supports their decision.”  The same organization has even called for Ferro to resign, saying she has demonstrated a “clear bias against truckers and the trucking industry.” 

“My mission is to save lives,” says Ferro.

Truck drivers have a responsibility to obey industry safety regulations.  If you or someone you love was hurt in an auto accident caused by a distracted or fatigued trucker, you may be entitled to compensation.  To schedule a free and confidential legal consultation with an experienced truck accident lawyer, call the law offices of The Reiff Law Firm at (215) 246-9000, or contact us online today.

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