A 2012 federally-funded study conducted by the Virginia Tech University Transportation Institute and the American Transportation Research Institute, revealed that speed reduction decreases the number of truck crashes on U.S. roadways. The study included data from 20 fleets, 15,000 crashes, and 138,000 trucks.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has used the study as supporting evidence for its new proposed rule to mandate Speed Limiters on commercial vehicles. The Speed Limiter Rule would physically prevent trucks from exceeding a maximum speed of up to 68 miles per hour.

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The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) is continuing its campaign to prevent crashes by improving commercial truck safety. It recently issued a modification rule to allow voluntary placement of safety devices in the windshield area of cars and commercial vehicles. These safety systems are reputed to decrease driver errors and protect those on the road from catastrophic crashes and injuries. The FMCA has the authority to “regulate drivers, motor carriers, and vehicle equipment,” including regulatory power over commercial vehicle safety.

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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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We’ve all experienced it. You are driving down the freeway at 65 miles per hour in the middle lane. Suddenly a massive eighteen wheeler looms in your rearview mirror. Or one roars past you well in excess of the speed limit. Or, even worse, both trucks barrel down on you at the same time. It is intimidating and frightening to be in the path of an 80,000 pound big rig while driving in a 3000 pound car. Here’s why you should be frightened: that truck driver may be exhausted, on the verge of falling asleep, and about to crash into you or the cars around you.

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Monday’s Huffington Post contained an article entitled “Trucks are getting more dangerous and drivers are falling asleep at the wheel. Thank Congress.” This article is described as “the inside story on how the trucking industry and politicians have conspired to make our highways less safe.”

The article in question highlights the catastrophic collision and injuries suffered by Illinois State Trooper Douglas Balder when his police vehicle was struck by a flatbed due to the driver’s fatigue. It then draws a link between this specific instance and Congress’ ongoing failure to protect the public from the negligent conduct of the trucking industry.

More specifically, the article outlines how Congress has been caving to lobbyists from the trucking industry that want to roll back, block, and/or modify at least a half-dozen safety regulations.

While the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) has recognized the mounting evidence demonstrating that sleep apnea has caused perilous levels of fatigue to drivers, pilots, train engineers, and others who need to remain alert at work, trucking lobbyists have been successful in persuading the FMCSA to back off and ultimately withdraw its proposed rules that would have required over weight truckers to get checked for sleep apnea.

To further compound this egregious conduct, trucking industry lobbyists “approached allies in Congress to write a law that would require the agency to follow the longer, more cumbersome formal rule making course.”  This was done to slow the FMCSA from enacting more stringent rules that would make our highways safer.

If you were involved in a trucking accident, it is strongly recommended that you seek experienced counsel immediately.

Yesterday, December 2, 2015, Congress released a report detailing the results of the bicameral agreement reached concerning the terms of the surface transportation reauthorization bill commonly known as the “Drive” Act or the “FAST Act” (“Fixing America’s Surface Transportation”). The original House and Senate proposals for the Act included a number of anti-safety provisions which were strenuously objected to by Public Safety Advocates, including Trucking Attorneys like myself. I pointed out some of the key problems with the initial proposal in a prior blog.

Fortunately, the Members of Congress serving on the Conference Committee listened to the facts and to the arguments presented for greater safety, and made a number of positive changes to the final bill.

Examples of these improvements include:

  • Removal of a section which provided exemptions to hours of service requirements for certain classes of truck drivers;
  • Modifications to the “teen drivers provision” such that there will be a limited pilot program and a greatly reduced volume of higher-risk drivers who are permitted to drive large trucks across state lines;
  • Removal of a provision designed to limit the liability of shippers and brokers who negligently hire unsafe trucking companies;
  • Removal of a proposed Amendment which would have prohibited states from providing additional meal and break protections for truck drivers; and,
  • Modifications to the language in the Act that will eliminate some of the hurdles the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) must navigate in making its determination as to whether minimum insurance limits for large trucks should be raised.

Unfortunately, not all of the anti-safety provisions were eliminated from the final bill. The bill still includes:

  • Vehicle weight limit exemptions for the shippers of logging products and milk products, and for large trucks powered by natural gas; and,
  • Provisions restricting public access to certain CSA scoring data, and implementing other procedures which may impact the Safety Management System (“SMS”) ratings maintained by the FMCSA for trucking companies.

While the bill is not entirely free of anti-safety provisions, I would like to extend a thank you to those Members of Congress who listened to the appeals for public safety and worked to improve the final bill.

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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