Drivers on Colorado’s Interstate 25 were largely unaware that the Otto-Budweiser semi-truck next to them had no one in the driver’s seat, on October 20, 2016. The truck was operated by autonomous driverless technology during a 120 mile maiden trip; a beer run from Fort Collins to Colorado Springs.

Does a fully loaded, driverless tractor-trailers pose a threat to the motoring public?

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The Department of Transportation recently announced a proposal to add speed limiting devices to commercial trucks in an effort to improve highway safety. The devices would physically prevent trucks from exceeding a maximum speed—recommended at 60, 65, or 68 miles per hour. The rule would apply to commercial vehicles over 26,000 pounds with motor carriers responsible for maintaining the devices and enforcing the speed rules.

Every driver knows that cars must share the highways with commercial trucks. There isn’t a separate road system. Big rigs weigh upwards of 80,000 pounds and that puts passenger cars at a serious disadvantage in a crash. The weight of the vehicles and speed at impact sometimes result in multi-car pile-ups and almost always result in serious injury or death.

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Have you ever seen a big rig parked on the shoulder of the Interstate? How about twenty of them? In the town of Mahwah, New Jersey, this is a daily occurrence. Every night truckers turn the shoulder of Interstate 287 into an improvised truck stop. This is both a nuisance and a danger.

The area where the truckers stop has steep inclines and the highway shrinks from three lanes to two, which is dangerous enough without big rigs blocking the shoulder. Truckers claim that they have no choice—the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) says they have to stop driving after 11 hours and that’s what they do—right there in the emergency lane of I-287. However, if trucking companies and truck drivers responsibly planned their routes, there would not be such a large number of trucks dangerously and illegally parked on the roadway each night.

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The Obama administration today is proposing training standards for entry-level commercial truck and bus operators, as mandated by Congress as part of MAP-21.

In a statement, Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx called it a “major step towards ensuring that commercial vehicle drivers receive the necessary training required to safely operate a large truck or motorcoach.”

Specifically, those seeking a “Class A” commercial drivers license would have to have no less than 30 hours of training behind the wheel from a program that meets minimum FMCSA standards. This also includes at least 10 hours of practice driving.

For a “Class B” commercial driver’s license, applicants would have to have at least 15 hours of training behind the wheel and seven hours on a practice range.

The new standards would apply to any first-time CDL applicants, those with a current CDL license seeking an upgrade or additional endorsement, and anyone who had previously been disqualified from a CDL again seeking to be licensed. Military drivers, farmers and firefighters would continue to be exempt.

The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration has posted on their website that on Thursday, January 21, 2016, that the FMCSA will publish a Notice of Proposed Rule Making (NPRM) to establish new methods for a motor carrier to be classified as unfit.

Under the NPRM, the 34-year old system of dividing commercial motor carrier’s safety ratings into three tiers—“satisfactory,” “conditional,” or “unsatisfactory”—would instead be replaced with a simpler designation of “unfit.” Carriers deemed unfit would have to improve safety levels or cease operations.

Other changes in the proposed rule are:

  • Carriers would be assessed monthly, using fixed failure measures that are identified in the NPRM. Stricter standards would be based on those from the agency’s Behavioral Analysis and Safety Improvement Categories (BASICs) with a higher correlation to crash risk, which include examining unsafe driving, Hours-of-Service (HoS) compliance, and driver fitness.
  • Violations of a revised list of “critical” and “acute” safety regulations would result in failing a BASIC.
  • All investigation results would be used, not just from comprehensive on-site reviews.
  • A carrier would be proposed unfit by failing two or more BASICs through:
    1. Inspections
    2. Investigation results
    3. A combination of both

The carriers identified in the agency’s analysis have crash rates that are more than three times the national average.

Unfortunately, those marginal carriers that are currently rated as “conditional” will now be listed as satisfactory. This will make it difficult for brokers, shippers, and the general public to identify “high-risk carriers,” thereby making it more difficult to hold these carriers responsible when they injure and kill innocent victims on our highways.

If you were injured as a result of a trucking accident, it is strongly recommended that you seek experienced counsel immediately.

On November 30th, the U.S. Department of Transportation published a Final Rule that will punish carriers, brokers, shippers, and all others who pressure truckers to violate federal safety regulations. This rule is designed to protect honest, law-abiding truckers and, in turn, the motoring public at large.

A trucker’s job is far from easy. On-duty truckers have to worry about inspecting and maintaining their equipment; following federal, state, and local laws; keeping themselves fit, well-rested, and alert; navigating through our congested and deteriorating roadways; and making safe deliveries. Oftentimes, these truckers are away from their homes and families for extended periods of time, which leads to additional stress. The last thing that truckers should worry about is being pressured by carriers, brokers, shippers, and any others in the supply chain to violate federal safety laws in order to increase profits for the trucking industry.

This new rule comes in response to truckers’ complaints that when they refuse to violate safety rules, such as the hours-of-service requirements, the trucking industry threatens to harm them economically. Specifically, the trucking industry will threaten to reduce their miles, reduce their loads, or impose other financial harms. Truckers, who are already underpaid, are unfairly forced into a catch-22: violate safety rules and needlessly endanger themselves and others, or put food on the table for their families.

Profit motivates the trucking industry, and the hope is that the financial penalties associated with the new rule will discourage the trucking industry from coercing truckers to violate safety rules. Under the new rule, any carrier, broker, shipper, receiver, or anyone else in the supply chain who attempts to force drivers to operate their vehicles when it would violate federal rules to do so will face fines of up to $16,000.00. The rule will go into effect on January 29, 2016, which is 60 days from its publication date in the Federal Register.

12/3/15 Update: “The FAST Act” Still Contains Anti-Safety Provisions

Members of the United States Congress are currently negotiating the final language of a transportation bill known as “the DRIVE Act.” This legislation will have a major impact on everyone using our nations’ roadways in the years to come.

The terms of the Act have been a subject of debate for some time now, and certain anti-safety provisions (such as the proposed increase in the maximum weight limit for commercial trucking) have been defeated. However, the current legislation still contains numerous provisions that must be removed because they present a threat to the health and safety of the public. Some examples include:

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A new piece of legislation, introduced by Representative Reid Ribble (R-WI), appears to ignore the findings of a recent U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) study and aims to increase the weight limits of large trucks. Opponents of the bill say that it will needlessly endanger the public and further damage our deteriorating transportation infrastructure, an argument that seems to be supported by the DOT study findings.

Representative Ribble’s bill, tagged by opponents as a “profits over people” measure, seeks to increase the federal weight limit for large trucks from 80,000-lbs to 91,000-lbs. In support of the bill, Representative Ribble appears to be relying on trucking industry-funded research that ignores the results of the DOT’s Comprehensive Truck Size and Weight Limits Study (Study), which concluded that there should not be an increase in truck size and weight due to a lack of data.

The Study revealed that there is very little national information on the use of six-axle, 91,000-lb. trucks, since heavier truck configurations are currently only in use in Washington State. In Washington, these heavier trucks experienced a 47% crash rate increase, compared to standard truck weights. Additionally, the Technical Report of the Study showed that trucks in excess of 80,000-lbs had 18% more brake violations and a higher number of brake violations per inspection. Heavier trucks also have longer stopping distances and, when a crash occurs, the forces involved are significantly greater. According to the DOT study, Representative Ripple’s assertion that heavier trucks are just as safe as 80,000-lb trucks is statistically, and logically, false.

Heavier trucks are not only generally unsafe, but can also be damaging to our nation’s deteriorating roadways and bridges. The proposed legislation ignores the fact that 91,000-lb. trucks will violate the 1975 Bridge Formula, which established the maximum weight any set of axles on a motor vehicle may carry on the Interstate highway system. Further, unbiased studies show that increasing the weight of a truck by 10% increases bridge damage by 33%. Representative Ripple’s assertion that increasing truck weight will not increase damage to our transportation infrastructure is not supported by any unbiased research.

Finally, Representative Ripple claims that heavier trucks equal fewer trucks on the roadway, but history would disagree. Increases in truck size and weight over the last 35 years have never resulted in fewer trucks on American roads. There is no scientific or practical reason to believe that this trend will change.

At face value, this piece legislation seems to benefit only the trucking industry and puts the profits of that industry over the safety of the American people, including truckers and innocent motorists. One would hope that Representative Ripple’s colleagues in the House will put the safety interests of their voters first and veto this potentially hazardous bill.

It is expected that the final rule mandating the use of Electronic Logging Devices (“ELDs”) will be published shortly. The rule will take effect two (2) years after it is published in the Federal Register.

Under the proposed new rule, truck drivers who are required to keep duty status records will have to track their hours-of-service (“HOS”) with an ELD, which had previously been referred to as Electronic Onboard Recorders. The ELDs will effectively replace paper logs, which can be easily altered.

The Prohibition of Driver Coercion (“PDC”) rule is also set for publication on September 30, 2015. Although not specifically related to the ELD rule, it was designed to address an issue with the original ELD rule, which had been struck down by the court after its publication. The prior ELD rule, published in 2011, had been struck down after drivers complained that motor carriers and shippers would improperly use the ELDs to harass them and coerce them to violate the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations (“FMCSR”).

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On February 18, 2015, I wrote about a New York City-area scheme where three individuals helped as many as 500 people cheat on the Commercial Driver’s License (“CDL”) test. More recently, a multi-agency investigation in Florida has uncovered a similar scheme involving a commercial truck driving school. The Department of Transportation’s Office of the Inspector General, the FBI, Homeland Security and the Florida Highway Patrol joined forces to uncover the plot, which enabled unqualified drivers to receive CDLs. Ellariy Medvednik, Natalia Dontsova, Adrian Salari and Clarence Davis were all charged in connection with the investigation. These people were affiliated with Larex, Inc., a commercial truck driving school that marketed itself to Russian-speakers online. Read more