The tired tractor trailer driver who plowed into Tracy Morgan’s vehicle on the Jersey Turnpike in June has turned the spotlight again onto the hours that truckers drive and the power the trucking industry holds in Washington. The June 7, 2014 collision had a simple cause; the Atlanta based driver admitted he had not slept in 24 hours before he failed to recognize that traffic had come to a stop in front of him and he slammed into the limo van, killing one passenger and critically injuring actor/comedian Tracy Morgan and several others.
The New York Times ran a business page piece on the problem in mid-June and cited statistics showing that in June alone, there had been three fatigue related trucking crashes. Throughout the United States, there are approximately 4,000 deaths a year involving tractor trailers. The article explains that the trucking industry keeps pointing to studies showing only 2-13% of crashes are “related” to driver fatigue.
The error in those numbers is of course, how do you prove fatigue? Over the road truck drivers are required to keep hours of service logs to track how long they have been driving and to prevent fatigue. It is probable that the numbers from those studies flow from police reports from officers when they are able to identify egregious logs violations or in the rare instance where the driver admits it.
As a trucking attorney who used to defend trucking companies as well, I can tell you anecdotally that fatigue is in issue in over 50% of fatal crashes. It shows up in the fact that the majority of trucking crashes happen at night when our circadian rhythms dictate that we should be asleep. Driving drowsy is as dangerous as driving drunk.
The good news is with electronic skid control, better ABS systems and sophisticated airbags, the number of fatal and serious injury crashes has been declining for years for all types of vehicles. Safety systems can do amazing things and can help to avoid many of these crashes. The disturbing thing is Walmart owned the truck involved in the Tracy Morgan crash and has gone on record stating that the truck had lane change radar warnings as well as auto braking features that should have detected traffic stopping ahead and applied the brakes before a sleepy driver could. The truth about the efficacy of those systems and whether they were operational in the Morgan crash will not be known for years when it finally comes out during litigation.
The Morgan crash illustrates the reality that despite having advanced safety systems, tractor trailers are still dangerous when captained by tired drivers. The trucking industry is regulated by the Department of Transportation instead of the Department of Labor and this leads to one of the issues. The Department of Labor says that anything over 40 hours of work is to be paid as overtime. This tends to limit the hours companies want their workers working. Trucking companies do not have to pay overtime. They instead chose to pay their drivers by the mile driven. If a driver is stuck in a 3 hour traffic jam in Cobb County, he is losing money as the seconds tick by. If he does not get the load to the destination that day, it comes out of his pocket, not the company’s. This is the conundrum. There is a direct financial incentive for the truck driver to drive extended hours and to violate the federal regulations. In the battle between a traffic ticket and a paycheck, which do you think will win? The ultimate loser though is the motoring public because the consequences can be catastrophic.
Meanwhile, the trucking industry has a powerful group of lobbying bodies in Washington. In 2013, tighter restrictions only allowing a driver to work 70 hours in 7 days was instituted. After an outcry about profits, a Republican Senator from Maine pushed through a freeze on implementation in an appropriations bill. This is the reality in Washington.
It is true that we cannot regulate every kind of human behavior and Federal regulation can be less effective than State regulation. When it comes to the fact that 80,000 pound trucks share the road with my family going to the beach for vacation, I would rest a lot easier if the regulations were as tight as possible on the simple issue of rest. The trucking industry is making a good profit across the board these days. The cost of consumer goods is stable and inflation is below expectations. In that kind of environment, there is no reason for Washington to kneel before special interest groups. Take the time and let your Congressman know how you feel.