Why is there Pressure to Eliminate Drowsy Driver Safeguards from the Trucking Industry?

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Last year on July 1, 2013, new federal hour-of-service regulations for commercial truck drivers went into effect. These new rules were intended to improve roadway safety by reducing commercial driver fatigue and were more stringent than the regulations they replaced. At the time the new rules went into effect, U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood stated, “These rules make common sense, data-driven changes to reduce truck driver fatigue and improve safety for every traveler on our highways and roads.” Likewise, Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration head Anne Ferro stated, “These fatigue-fighting rules for truck drivers were carefully crafted based on years of scientific research and unprecedented stakeholder outreach.” At the time, it was estimated that these rule changes would prevent about 1,400 collisions, 560 injuries, and 19 deaths.

However, a slightly more than one year removed from the new rules going into effect, trucking industry groups are pushing back against these changes. These groups have found a champion in Maine Senator Susan Collins who has advocated for a one-year delay in implementation of certain parts of the law and legislation that would compel the FMCSA to restudy the rules’ impact.

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How Big of a Problem is Drowsy Driving?

The March 2011 volume of Traffic Safety Facts, published by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, revealed the role drowsy driving played in all automobile crashes nationwide from 2005 to 2009. The data revealed that drowsy driving was a factor in an average of 2.5 percent all fatal crashes, 2.2 percent of crashes where an injury occurred, and 1.4 percent of crashes where only property damage occurred. While these percentages may seem insignificant, they account for an average of nearly 900 deaths and 37,000 injuries each year. As the data suggests, when a crash is due to drowsy driving, it often results in more serious injuries or death than other types of trucking accident causes.

According to a National Center for Sleep Disorders Research (NCSDR) and NHTSA expert panel regarding Drowsy Driving and Automobile Crashes, sleep is necessitated by a neurobiological need and governed by one’s circadian cycle. The need for sleep cannot be avoided and the greater the period of wakefulness, the greater the pressure to rest can become. When the need to sleep becomes extreme, the impulse to sleep can become irresistible. However, even prior to this point, sleepiness can impair one’s performance while driving.

The NCSDR and NHTSA panel cites a number of studies finding that a lack of sleep can slow the processing of information and reduce the accuracy of short-term recall. Furthermore, a lack of sleep can reduce one’s vigilance or ability to focus and maintain attention. Finally, a lack of adequate sleep can slow an individual’s reaction time even when one is only moderately sleepy. Irregular driving patterns that do not adhere to the regular sleep-wake cycle, shift work, lost sleep, use of sedating medications, consumption of alcohol and other factors that result in acute or chronic tiredness may increase the risks of a drowsy driving crash. In short, drowsy driving increases the risk of a mistake and thus vehicular accident.

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The Current Federal Rules Pertaining to Truck Driver Hours

The hourly guidelines and requirements for commercial truckers are delineated in 49 C.F.R. Part 395.1 and are restated in the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration’s (FMCSA) Interstate Truck Driver’s Guide to Hours of Service. The most recent rules were promulgated by the agency in 2010 and went into effect in 2013. These rules were intended to reduce the impacts of fatigue on commercial truck drivers.

Generally, the hour of service limits dictates how long and when a commercial driver may drive his or her commercial vehicle. Broadly speaking, there are three main maximum duty limits that a commercial driver must adhere to. These are the 11-hour driving limit, the 14-hour “driving window” restriction, and the 60-hour over 7 days or 70 hours over 8 days driving limitations.

As per 395.3(a)(3), a driver may drive for 11-hours during their 14-hour window. However, the driver may not drive those 11 hours consecutively. If 8 hours or more have elapsed since the driver’s last off-duty period, 395.3(ii) requires a break of 30 minutes. Finally, if the driver has reached the 11-hour driving limit, the must then be off duty for an additional 10-hours prior to being permitted to drive again.

As per 395.3(a)(2), the 14-hour “driving window” is somewhat akin to a daily driving limit, however, the window is not based on a 24-hour day. Rather, after being off for 10 or more hours, a commercial driver is allotted a consecutive 14-hour period in which they are permitted to drive for no more than 11 hours. After driving for 11 hours or the 14-hour window’s expiration, the driver must cease driving and rest for 10 hours consecutively before he or she will be in compliance with FMCSA standards.

Benjamin Franklin Bridge At Night

The 60/70 hour limits on a commercial trucker’s hours of duty are based on either a 7 or 8 day period, respectively. Although people sometimes think of this limitation as a weekly limit, it is not tied to calendar weeks and is essentially “floating” 7 or 8-day periods.  The current day is the first day of your 7 or 8 day period. At the end of each day, the oldest day’s hours drop off. Essentially commercial truck drivers may not drive more than 60 hours over 7 days or 70 hours over 8 days. They may perform other work, but they are prohibited from driving more than the allotted maximums.

Senator Collins (R- ME) has opined that the rules which include the foregoing restrictions are having unintended adverse effects on both driver flexibility and safety.

Who Must Comply with the Federal Hours-of-Service Regulations?

As per 49 CFR 395.1(a)(1) the hours-of-service regulations apply to all motor carriers and drivers who are not otherwise exempted by the statute. This typically includes vehicles that are driven interstate for a commercial purpose and:

  • weighing more than 10,001 pounds; or
  • has a gross combination weight of 10,001 pounds; or
  • Is transporting hazardous materials in a quantity sufficient to trigger the duty to display hazardous material placards.

To be clear, these general characteristics of covered vehicles apply only hour-of-services purposes. Other areas commercial vehicle regulation are subject to its own definitions and requirements.

Exemptions and exceptions to the general requirement to adhere to hours-of-service regulations are contained in sections 395.1(b) through 395.1(s) with many of the lettered sections containing subparts. These exemptions include:

  • 395.1(b)(1) Adverse Driving Conditions – In some circumstances where adverse weather conditions are encountered and the run cannot be safely completed, may be permitted an additional 2 hours to complete the driving run or reach shelter.
  • 395.1(c) Driver-SalespersonIf a salesperson who is also the driver does not drive more than 40 hours over 7 consecutive days, they are exempted from 395.3(b) which establishes a maximum driving time for vehicles carrying property.
  • 395.1(f) Retail store deliveriesFrom December 10th to December 25th annually, commercial motor vehicle drivers who make deliveries from a retail store or catalog to a consumer within 100 air-miles of the driver’s reporting location are exempt from the hours requirements of 395.3(a) & 395.3(b).
  • 395.1(s) Covered farm vehiclesFarm vehicles are defined in 390.5 and includes vehicles that are registered with the state as farm vehicles, vehicles operated by the owner of a farm or ranch or their family member, and vehicles used in the transport of agricultural products. Vehicles of this type are exempted from hours-of-service regulations.

While many other exemptions exist, the foregoing provides a representative sample of the types of scenarios and activities that would not be governed by the hours-of-service rules to prevent drowsy or fatigued driving.

New Amendments Proposed by Trucking Industry Aim to Loosen Hour-of-Service Requirements

Opponents of the regulations, led by Susan Collins (R – ME), have charged that the restart requirements have resulted in unintended consequences that actually reduce driver safety. Further, they charge that when regulators evaluated the new rules, they failed to account for the impacts of additional trucks during the morning and afternoon rush hours. A spokesperson for Senator Collins stated, “…there is increasing concern that the regulations affecting overnight driving are actually resulting in more trucks being on the road during congested, daytime hours, raising important issues that deserve more study.

Supporters of the revised hours-of-service regulations have defended both the rules and the process utilized to develop them. Supports have cited studies, such as the Field Study on the Efficacy of the New Restart Provision for Hours of Service that affirms the efficacy of the new regulations. The study found a statistically significant improvement in fatigue levels for drivers who had two consecutively nightly rest periods when compared to those drivers with only one. Furthermore, the number of nighttime rest periods also showed a moderate impact on drivers’ lane deviation and significant effect on mitigating fatigue. The study concludes by stating that it is in accord with earlier laboratory studies and that the objective data supports the efficacy of the new regulations.

While the Collins Amendment has been passed out of the Senate Appropriations Committee, it has not gone into effect yet. Therefore all commercial trucking companies, operators and drivers must continue to adhere to the new standards which went into effect July 2013. However interested parties should continue watching for new developments, including reconciliation by the House, regarding the Department of Transportation’s appropriations bill to which this amendment is attached.

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What Would the Trucking Industry Gain by Loosening Safety Standards?

The trucking industry and its drivers have cited a myriad of reasons for their displeasure with the new rules including that the rules are a government overreach.  Many of the reasons revolve around driver flexibility and money. Senator Collins has expressed concern that the law may be forcing commercial truckers to drive during the rush hour period. Similarly, when interviewed by the Portland Press Herald,  Brian Parke, President and CEO of the Maine Motor Transport Association, claimed that the new rules did not allow drivers ample flexibility in scheduling and meeting the needs of shipping companies.

The American Trucking Association and Auto Haulers Association of America took issue with a different aspect of the bill. The groups released a joint statement reading, “These two new restrictions have placed economic hardships on thousands upon thousands of employers, as well as reducing drivers’ wages throughout the motor carrier industry.” Supporting this viewpoint, Cesar Solis, a trucker from Texas who was also interviewed by the Portland Press Herald, told the paper that the new rules caused his weekly pay to be reduced by up to $500 a week.

In response to critics’ assertions that the current rules are ill-considered, Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ) requested that trucking industry groups provide data to support their concerns with the existing safety rules. Senator Booker stated, “There’s a very pointed assertion that’s been put on the table that if we persist with these rules, it’s going to force more people into the daytime traffic, thus making it more congested and thus creating more crashes. All I’m asking, very objectively: Is there any data yet to make that statement?” Anna Ferro, head of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration answered Booker’s question on the record stating that no data supporting these assertions had been presented.

That leads to the natural question of whether safety is really the concern regarding the trucking industry’s issues with the current rules.

Sources:

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