Does a federal rule requiring truckers to take a rest break after eight hours of driving have them racing to make up time, causing an increase in fatal crashes? Some in the industry claim that it does.
According to data provided by the Highway Traffic Safety Administration, deaths from large truck crashes in 2017 reached the highest level in 29 years.
While deaths in motor vehicle crashes declined by 2 percent from the prior year, large-truck fatalities rose 9 percent to 4,761, an increase of 392 fatalities above the prior year. Truckers accounted for about 1300 of those deaths with the remaining 72 percent being occupants of other vehicles. Fatalities from trucks weighing over 33,000 pounds, the largest, class 8, weight class, climbed to 221 deaths in 2017 to 3,844 – an increase of 4 percent.
“Drivers feel like they literally have a gun to their head,” said Todd Spencer, president of the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association in an interview with Trucks.com. “The typical response was to turn up the maximum permissible speeds on the trucks to allow drivers to make up some time.”
“We hear a lot of drivers saying because of a lack of flexibility, we’re speeding,” said Jim Mullen, chief counsel for the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration. “I hope they’re not putting themselves and the motoring public in danger just to get their freight from Point A to Point B because of the regulations.”
Mullen doesn’t think there is a connection between large truck crash deaths and the federal hours-of-service rule that limits driving to 11 hours in a 14-hour period with a required 30-minute break after eight hours. However regulators are considering modifications.
The FMCSA is currently reviewing 5200 comments to proposed changes in the hours-of-service rule. According to Mullen, the 30-minute break rule received the most comments.
Luke Foster who hauls cars for Romulus, Mich. based United Road referred to the rest break as “the dumbest thing I have ever heard of.” The 61-year old said he prefers driving the 11 hours straight through and claims the forced downtime increases his fatigue.
“You put me on break, sometimes I have to ride with the window down to stay awake,” Foster said.
Duane DeBruyne, an FMCSA spokesman said that truckers who speed are getting caught and ticketed more often. Speeding remains the number one cause of fatal crashes. But speed has been responsible for a declining number of crashes for three consecutive years.
Some truckers place the blame for the deaths on bad driving habits.
Jeremy Hodges a retired trucker from Victoria, Texas said he retired in 2016 because it had become “such a dangerous job with all the distracted drivers out there out there. I didn’t want to press my luck any longer.”
“The younger drivers who are now getting into trucking are bringing along their bad habits with them,” Hodges said.
Hodges remembers seeing one trucker driving with both feet on the dash and the vehicle on cruise control. He also sees frequent texting by drivers.
Could large truck crashes be reduced by onboard technology designed to monitor drivers?
Driver analytics software developer Trimble Inc. is partnering with Pulsar Informatics to monitor the affects of fatigue on driving behaviors. Motor carriers can use information from a digital safety scorecard to reward, punish or even terminate drivers. Trimble currently produces a suite of driver analytics that measure seatbelt use, hard braking and speeding.
Multiple studies show that fatigue and lack of sleep are major detriments of truck driver safety.
A study in the November 2017 edition of Accident Analysis & Prevention showed the most crashes involving trucker fatigue or sleepiness, occurred at least 20 miles from the nearest rest area or truck stop.
Additional safe rest areas, the second greatest concern of drivers after the hours-of-service rules, need to be part of any infrastructure plan, said FMCSA Administrator Ray Martinez. President Donald Trump called for a $1.5 trillion infrastructure plan during his 2016 campaign.
According to Chis Spear, chief executive of the ATA, two-thirds of all accidents involving cars and trucks, are the fault of the passenger car drivers. He cited distracted driving as the major contributor. Truck crashes could be reduced by newer technologies like automatic emergency braking, included in most new heavy-duty trucks. Automatic braking coupled with vehicle-to-vehicle communications could “put all highway fatalities on the road to zero,” Spear said.
“Distracted driving absolutely is rising and it’s problematic,” Spear said. “We are trying to juggle having sufficient technology to assist the driver but not overwhelm him of her or create complacency.”
But Mullen of the FMCSA said driver-assist features could be causing some truck drivers to pay less attention.