In late December 2011, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (“FMCSA”) issued new rules that are a step in the right direction, but not the leap that was and is necessary to keep our roadways safe. The new rules include a shorter work week for commercial drivers and a required 30-minute rest break after eight hours on duty. Unfortunately, the agency failed to reverse the dangerous change made in 2003, when the Bush administration’s “profits over people” policy increased the time that drivers could be behind the wheel each day to 11 hours. For nearly 70 years, the limit had been 10 hours.
“It’s only one hour” is what you will hear from the trucking industry’s powerful and well-funded lobby, the American Trucking Association (“ATA”). However, for families that have lost loved ones in truck crashes involving fatigued drivers, that hour could have been the difference between life and death.
Truckers drive when they are fatigued. This should come as no surprise as the trucking industry incentivizes fatigued driving; drivers are often times paid by the mile and companies are paid by the load. In a 2005 survey that the FMCSA commissioned, 65% of truckers reported that they sometimes or often felt drowsy while driving. Nearly 48% said they had actually fallen asleep while driving during the previous year. Putting fatigued drivers behind the wheels of 40-ton instruments of death hurtling down interstates is a formula for tragedy. Just ask the surviving families of the 10 individuals that tragically passed as a result of a 2009 crash in Oklahoma where the driver of a semi-trailer truck plowed into a line of stopped vehicles because of fatigue.
After safety advocates sued to reverse the 2003 change, two federal courts questioned the government’s reasons for hiking the daily limit, citing the agency’s own concession that “performance begins to degrade after the 8th hour on duty and increases geometrically during the 10th and 11th hours.” Clearly, a return to the 2003 10 hour limit is not enough.
At the same time that the Transportation Department introduced new hours of service rules for truck drivers, it issued new hours of service rules for certain pilots. Inexplicably, the Transportation Department determined that pilots should be limited to 9 hours on duty, whereas truck drivers, who must concentrate constantly, are allowed to be behind the wheels for 11 hours a day. What the trucking industry has declared a “victory” in its “profits over people” campaign is really a loss for its drivers and innocent motorists.