In 2017, there were approximately 4,657 fatal accidents involving large commercial trucks, according to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration. That was a 10% increase over the previous year. Of the drivers involved in those fatal accidents, 60 were found to be “asleep or fatigued.” Chances are, there were more drowsy truck drivers — sleepiness is thought to be underreported in police accident reports.
In fact, the U.S. Department of Transportation did a study about 10 years ago in which it found that, of truckers involved in accidents with injuries or deaths, about 13% were suffering from fatigue.
Driver fatigue is one of the National Transportation Safety Board’s “most wanted” safety improvements, as it calls drowsy driving a “pervasive problem.” Currently, commercial truck drivers are limited in the amount of time they can drive and how long they must rest before driving again. Safety experts consider these hours of service regulations to be quite permissive.
Current rule: Drive 11 hours, take 10 hours’ rest
Right now, truckers are limited to driving 11 hours within a 14-hour on-duty window. Then, they are required to take 10 consecutive hours of rest before their on-duty clock begins again. Additionally, drivers who expect to drive for longer than eight hours must take a half-hour break before they reach eight hours.
Drivers who exceed those limits can be taken off the road for a day or longer, which typically means getting no pay. But there is immense pressure to work every possible minute to get goods delivered on time. In the past, some companies pressured drivers into falsifying the log books where they accounted for their time.
For most truckers today, however, on- and off-duty hours are recorded by electronic logging devices, or ELDs, which were mandated in 2017. These devices make it harder to fudge the rules — but they also give drivers less flexibility. For example, the Associated Press found one trucker who felt forced to park for 10 hours even though he was just 5 minutes from home.
Industry groups have been working to have the hours of service rules relaxed. For one thing, they would like to remove the half-hour break requirement. For another, they would like to allow truckers to pause the on-duty window for up to three hours during heavy traffic or other delays.
It’s disappointing that the rule can’t be as simple as using good judgment, but safety advocates argue that relaxing the hours of service rules would only contribute to more fatigue among drivers.
Drowsy driving is dangerous. Driving an 18-wheeler while you’re drowsy could be catastrophic. We need to do whatever is necessary to ensure that truckers get the sleep they need.