Will Looser Federal Trucking Rules Put More Drivers in Danger?

Being alert and focused helps keep all drivers safe. Just like standard rules of the road, regulations for those who operate vehicles for work ensure the safety of not only the employee but other travelers, too. But what happens when those rules are challenged?

What is driver fatigue?

Currently, rules are in place specifically to avoid driver fatigue. This occurs when someone is too tired to continue operating their vehicle safely. It can happen to any driver, but it is more common in certain situations:

  • Drivers who don’t get enough sleep
  • Commercial drivers
  • Drivers with untreated sleep disorders
  • Drivers who take medications that cause drowsiness
  • Shift workers (night shift or shifts longer than eight hours)
  • Drivers who travel between midnight and 6 a.m. or during the late afternoon hours
  • Drivers encountering heavy traffic

Statistics show that being awake for 17 hours is the same as having a blood-alcohol level of .05. When you’re tired while driving, the fatigue you feel can lessen your ability to pay attention to the road and slow your reaction time to things like braking suddenly.

Current rules for truck drivers

Many regulations are in place regarding truckers’ driving hours. The main rule for hours of service states that truckers are limited to 11 hours of driving in a 14-hour period. This can go up to 13 hours under adverse driving conditions.

Truck drivers must also be off duty for 10 hours before they can start driving again. There are limits to the number of hours total that a trucker can drive in one week. Even with these rules, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety released some startling safety data:

  • If a trucker drove after 12 hours since an extended sleep period, they were 86% more likely to crash than drivers awake less than eight hours.
  • If a trucker drove more than five hours without stopping, they were more than twice as likely to crash as those who drove less than five hours. 

Proposed changes to the federal trucking rules

Regulators submitted a proposal to revise these truck-driving rules in order to make them more lenient. But, with driver fatigue playing a role in the safety of everyone on the road, these changes would possibly put travelers in even more danger. Some of the proposed changes include:

  • Extend the 14-hour window up to two hours if a truck driver encounters adverse conditions.
  • Expand the short-haul exemption of not having to log hours electronically from 100 miles and 12 hours to 150 miles and 14-hour workdays.
  • Stop the clock on the 14-hour day for a 30-minute to three-hour break.

The problem with these changes: The National Transportation Safety Board estimates that 30%-40% of semi-truck accidents involve driver fatigue. Extending the amount of time truckers can drive does not address this; it just increases the possibility that they’ll tire during their shift.

While the changes proposed by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration would only extend the daily work period under certain circumstances and not increase the allowed driving time, it still leaves safety questions. IIHS’s Senior Statistician Eric Teoh explains, “Driver fatigue is a major risk factor in large truck crashes. Creating more exceptions isn’t likely to improve safety and may well cause harm.”

What would help

A Florida law practice suggests that the regulations should be entirely overhauled to focus less on defining hours and more on teaching truckers fatigue management. Truck drivers don’t want to arrive late with a delivery. The stress of getting the job done within certain hours doesn’t make things safer.

The solution: Help truck drivers to recognize when they are tired so they can handle or avoid the drowsiness. It makes sense that preventing driver fatigue would be the answer, but it may never catch on. 

All of the proposed regulation changes can be found online, and the public has until October 7, 2019, to comment on this proposal.