It’s a problem that won’t go away even after eight decades of would-be solutions: Sleepy truck drivers crashing into cars. Crashes involving large trucks killed 3,921 people in the U.S. in 2012, more than died in U.S. airline crashes in the past 42 years. After a decade of declines starting in 1999, truck-crash fatalities started rising again; the 2012 figure was 16 percent higher than the 2009 low. There were many causes, including more trucks on the road in an improving economy. But regulators have focused on the persistent issue of fatigued drivers working long hours. The Transportation Department issued rules limiting driving hours and requiring rest periods. It is considering mandating electronic recorders to enforce duty-time limits. Even after falling for most of 30 years, the U.S. fatality count remains well above that of the U.K., where trucks killed 271 people in 2012. That’s about a third of the U.S. rate, adjusted for population but not for travel distances or vehicle density.
The latest U.S. truck-fatigue rules went into effect on July 1, 2013, capping 14 years of legal wrangling that a court described as “permanent warfare.” Within a year, the trucking industry was lobbying to roll back parts of the regulation. In December 2014, House and Senate negotiators agreed to suspend a mandate for two consecutive overnight rest periods after hitting weekly time limits while awaiting completion of a study weighing the benefits of more sleep. The industry also would like to remove company safety records from a public website. It says the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration has failed to resolve complaints about the data’s accuracy. The campaign to soften the rest rules lost some momentum after actor Tracy Morgan was severely injured in June 2014 in a collision with a truck on the New Jersey Turnpike. His friend and fellow comedian, James McNair, was killed. The driver, working for Wal-Mart, was near the end of his legal 14-hour workday, but police said he had been awake for at least 24 hours. The crash revived questions about how widespread fatigue among truckers is, and whether they’re a danger to public safety.
An 80-year-old pay system gives truck drivers strong reasons to stay on the road for as long as they can. They’re paid by the mile, typically earning nothing for time spent waiting at loading docks. The number of trucking companies increased after deregulation three decades ago, to 507,361 in 2013 from about 180,000 in 1982, making the industry more competitive and creating incentives to push drivers harder. Profit margins are tight. Demand is rising and is expected to keep growing. There’s no consensus among industrialized countries about what constitutes a safe work shift. In the U.S., there’s a 14-hour working limit, including a maximum of 11 hours of driving. In Canada, truckers can drive up to 13 hours. In Germany, the U.K. and the rest of the European Union, the limit is nine. India has an eight-hour driving day and a work week restricted to 48 hours.
There is little industry appetite for more limits on hours. Trucking companies say the rules in place between 2003 and last year worked well, reducing fatality rates. Safety advocates promote public awareness of truck crashes and argue for a 10-hour driving day. The FMCSA is studying the relationship between safety and drivers’ pay, and the Obama administration wants shippers to pay truckers for waiting time. That would create an incentive to get drivers back on the road faster and keep them fresher.
The Reference Shelf
- Bloomberg Visual Data has charts, maps and tables on U.S. truck-safety issues.
- The American Trucking Association has a website giving its perspective on safety issues.
- Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety offers a fact sheet with statistics on truck-related highway deaths.
- A court opinion upholding FMCSA rest rules in August 2013 described the agency’s fights with industry and safety groups as “permanent warfare.”
- The current trucker-fatigue regulation was published in 2011 and took effect July 1, 2013.
- The National Academy of Sciences’ Transportation Research Board published a “Trucking 101” primer about the industry.
- This International Transport Forum’s annual report on road safety compares the records and policies of 37 countries.
First published Sept. 30, 2014