Tired Truck Driver Accidents
If you have ever driven on a long car trip – such as from Atlanta to Washington, Chicago or Houston – you can understand the fatigue of long distance truck drivers.
Imagine doing that day after day, for a 70 hour (or more) work week, driving an 80,000 pound tractor trailer 11 hours of a 14 hour work day in a noisy, rough riding cab. And imagine all your sleep being in the sleeper berth of a truck cab in an often noisy truck stop, that you are paid by the mile with none of the wage and hour protections applicable to most workers, that the only way to increase your income is to drive more miles. In addition, imagine that you work for a trucking company that demands on-time delivery and does not monitor whether actual hours of driving and work conform to the legal limits of 11 driving hours and 14 total work hours per day, or 70 hours work per week.
Now you can more fully comprehend why truck driver fatigue is such a common safety hazard.
Sleep deprivation among overworked big rig truck drivers has been well-known safety hazard on the highways since the early development of long distance commercial trucking. For generations, truck drivers have been falling asleep at the wheel, causing deaths and serious injuries. That hazard has grown worse with the growth “just in time” deliveries and “rolling warehouse deliveries,” as shippers, receivers, brokers and trucking company dispatchers insist on timely delivery even if it requires pushing truck driver beyond the limits of human endurance.
Indeed, it is intuitive common sense that sleep deprivation reduces alertness in any job, including one that involves operating an 80,000 pound vehicle across the county on our highways, so that dozing off can be a major threat to safety of others. Sleep science experts agree that fatigue is the largest identifiable and preventable cause of truck crashes. The tendency of the trucking industry to underestimate fatigue as a safety hazard is party of the problem.
While we see estimates of 5,000 fatigue-related truck crashes per year, reliable statistics on fatigue-related crashes not reliable because such incidents are drastically underreported by police for at least three reasons. First, there is no test of fatigue comparable to a "breathalyzer" or other test to give a driver after a crash to determine his or her fatigue level. Second, even a very fatigued driver is likely to have an energizing jolt of adrenaline after a crash, masking fatigue. Third, if a driver log appears to comply with hours of service rules, investigating police officers are unlikely to dig deeper into time-stamped records of loading, unloading, weigh stations and fuel purchases.
Investigation of tractor trailer crashes often reveals circumstances consistent with driver fatigue, including “microsleep” of drivers who momentarily doze off at the wheel. Some involve a crash with little or no braking with one vehicle running into another vehicle or object, or running straight off the road when the road turns, even though there was nothing to impede visibility. However, fatigue may be a causative factor in a crash even without falling asleep while driving. Fatigue impairs drivers in much the same way that alcohol or drug intoxication may, as a driver's ability to perceive and react diminishes with the increasing level of fatigue. Even relatively moderate levels of fatigue can impair performance to an extent equivalent to or greater than is currently acceptable for alcohol intoxication.
In litigation of catastrophic truck crashes, we have ferreted out time records unavailable to investigating police officers to show that driver logs were completely falsified and that truck drivers had far exceeded the maximum legal driving and work hours. In one of our cases, a federal judge wrote, in denying a defense motion to exclude a claim for punitive damages, that the trucking company willfully “turned a blind eye” to safety.
Now we have a little more science to explain the need for sleep. Researchers at the University of Rochester have found that sleep serves a function of cleaning out toxic waste products produced by cells in the brain that accumulates while we are awake. Those byproducts include beta-amyloid protein, clumps of which form plaques found in the brains of Alzheimer’s patients. Other neurodegenerative disorders, such as Parkinson’s disease or chronic traumatic encephalopathy, are also associated with a backup of too much cell waste in the brain.
As we sleep, neurons shrink, widening channels for cerebrospinal fluid to flush out metabolites, cellular waste products, twice as fast. This a network that drains waste from the brain, called the glymphatic system, works by circulating cerebrospinal fluid throughout the brain tissue and flushing waste into the bloodstream, which then carries it to the liver for detoxification and elimination. All of us need sleep to allow this to happen.
When we become chronically sleep derived, gunk builds up in our brains. As most of us have experienced, too little sleep causes slower reactions, worse decision making, mental fog and crankiness. If sleep deprivation persists, it can cause increased risks of migraines, seizures and even death. As the body craves sleep, it will take precedence over our work duties.
Thus, sleep has been called the “ultimate brain washer.”
Not just the amount of sleep but its patterns affects human function. Having regular times for the onset and ending of sleep helps promote quality sleep. The human body has a "circadian clock" which tends to promote sleep at particular times of the day. The irregularity of a person’s sleep schedule frequently presents the danger of causing fatigue. Truck drivers who have frequently change schedules are impacted by the fatiguing effects of irregular sleep pattems.
For years there have been political, regulatory and court battles over which driver fatigue and hours-of-service regulations should be implemented. The current requirements of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations include the following:
- FMCSR 392.3 - Ill or fatigued operator. “No driver shall operate a commercial motor vehicle, and a motor carrier shall not require or permit a driver to operate a commercial motor vehicle, while the driver’s ability or alertness is so impaired, so likely to become impaired, through fatigue, illness, or any other cause, as to make it unsafe for him/her to begin or continue to operate the commercial motor vehicle.”
- FMCSR, 49 CFR § 395.3 Maximum driving time for property-carrying vehicles. “Subject to the exceptions and exemptions in § 395.1:
(a) No motor carrier shall permit or require any driver used by it to drive a property-carrying commercial motor vehicle, nor shall any such driver drive a property-carrying commercial motor vehicle:
(1) More than 11 cumulative hours following 10 consecutive hours off duty; or
(2) For any period after the end of the 14th hour after coming on duty following 10 consecutive hours off duty, except when a property-carrying driver complies with the provisions of § 395.1(o) or § 395.1(e)(2).
(b) No motor carrier shall permit or require a driver of a property-carrying commercial motor vehicle to drive, nor shall any driver drive a property-carrying commercial motor vehicle, regardless of the number of motor carriers using the driver's services, for any period after- (1) Having been on duty 60 hours in any period of 7 consecutive days if the employing motor carrier does not operate commercial motor vehicles every day of the week; or
(2) Having been on duty 70 hours in any period of 8 consecutive days if the employing motor carrier operates commercial motor vehicles every day of the week.
- FMCSR, 49 CFR § 395.8 Driver's record of duty status.
- “(a) Except for a private motor carrier of passengers (nonbusiness), every motor carrier shall require every driver used by the motor carrier to record his/her duty status for each 24 hour period using the methods prescribed [herein]....
- (e) Failure to complete the record of duty activities of this section or § 395.15, failure to preserve a record of such duty activities, or making of false reports in connection with such duty activities shall make the driver and/or the carrier liable to prosecution.
- FMCSR 392.6 Schedules to conform with speed limits. “No motor carrier shall require a run nor permit nor require the operation of any commercial motor vehicle between points in such period of time as would necessitate the commercial vehicle being operated at speed greater than those prescribed by the jurisdictions in or through which the commercial motor vehicle is being operated.”
- 49 C.F.R. § 390.3 requires that “every employer shall be knowledgeable of and comply with all regulations . . . applicable to that motor carrier’s operations” and just as importantly, “every driver and employee shall be instructed regarding, and shall comply with, all applicable regulations….”
- FMCSR 390.13 Aiding or abetting violations. “No person shall aid, abet, encourage, or require a motor carrier or its employees to violate the rules of this chapter.”
It does not say "no motor carrier." A trucking company owner or manager who makes irresponsible dispatching decisions may become an individual defendant. FMCSR, 49 CFR 390.5 defines "person" as “any individual, partnership, association, corporation, business trust, or any other organized group of individuals.”
So a company is responsible for making sure its driver know the rules and comply with them.
There seems to be no limit to the ways a company can make a show of conforming to safety rules while actually turning a blind eye to safety. The reality of a company’s safety management and culture is always subject to scrutiny.
The American Trucking Association has made five suggestions to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration to further combat hazards associated with driver fatigue. They are:
(1) Awareness, training and screening for sleep disorders. This requires educating drivers and managers about risks and available treatments for sleep disorders such as obstructive sleep apnea, for which truck drivers doing sedentary work with limited opportunities for regular exercise and healthy diets.
(2) Fatigue risk management programs. It has to be in the culture of the trucking companies. I’ve seen too many tragic cases where the trucking company management absolutely turned a blind eye to hours of service violations and driver fatigue.
(3) Fatigue detection devices. New technologies can detect when the driver’s eye are drooping and head is nodding, and signal that it’s time to pull over.
(4) Increase availability of truck parking on important freight corridors. It’s relatively easy to say a trucker can drive only so many hours, but the driver faces a tough dilemma when there is a severe shortage of legal places to park and sleep when he runs out of hours.
(5) Coordination of trucking and shipping communities to identify for drivers the location of available truck parking.
These suggestions all incorporate common sense. If fleshed out with quantifiable, measurable details, they could help a lot.
When we represent families impacted by catastrophic trucking crashes, we examine the roots of truck driver fatigue with a focus on the corporate management, supervision, policies and culture that aid, abet and encourage driver fatigue.