Tired Truckers and Commercial Vehicle Safety

By HunterMaclean Attorneys

Special to Savannah Morning News

The recent New Jersey six-car highway accident that killed one person and severely injured actor and comedian Tracy Morgan and three others has put driver safety front and center. According to a criminal complaint, the Georgia truck driver accused of causing the collision had not slept for more than 24 hours when he crashed into the back of Morgan’s limo bus; the company he was driving for, Wal-Mart, said in a statement that he was operating within the federal hours of service (HOS) regulations. New Jersey law criminalizes driver sleep deprivation when it causes an accident.

Most drivers with a commercial driver’s license (CDL) must follow federal HOS regulations when they drive a commercial motor vehicle (CMV). These regulations, issued by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, limit the number of daily and weekly hours spent driving and working and regulate the minimum amount of time drivers must spend resting between shifts. One of the main purposes of the regulation is to prevent accidents caused by driver fatigue.

When there is a commercial vehicle accident like the Tracy Morgan crash, many are quick to point the finger at trucking companies, arguing that drivers are pushed to drive longer hours and deliver more. However, the risks clearly outweigh the benefits in doing so for drivers and their employers, and many motor carriers have systems in place to ensure that drivers comply with the HOS rules.

Aside from the human cost of physical injury, loss of life, and potential environmental contamination that can result from accidents caused by tired drivers, violating the HOS rules can be extremely expensive. According to a study released in May by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the economic and social harm from motor vehicle accidents totals $871 billion annually.

Safety is of utmost importance to the trucking industry, and motor carriers continually invest resources to ensure rules are followed. For example, many motor carriers have extensive in-house training programs and continuing education for drivers to keep them current on the rules. Also, companies are transitioning from having their drivers record their driving hours using paper logs to electronically automated log books that precisely record what the truck does. It is expected that by 2016 or 2017, all commercial drivers required to comply with the HOS rules will have to utilize an electronic logging device to record their hours. When a driver is nearing his or her HOS limit, the electronic system can trigger a dispatcher to contact the driver to remind him or her to take a break or rest. Some carriers offer incentives for accumulated accident-free miles.

In addition to participating in safety programs and training offered by their employers, commercial drivers must pass a strenuous test to earn their CDL. To maintain the license, they must also have an annual medical examination, something not required for a non-commercial driver’s license.

In addition, many state law enforcement agencies are educating non-commercial vehicle drivers about how to safely interact with tractor-trailers on the road. Unsafe driving behaviors such as quick lane changes, tailgating, and neglecting to signal contribute to accidents involving commercial vehicles as large tractor trailers take much more time to slow down and do not react as quickly as do passenger vehicles to sudden events unfolding in front of them.

While the driver in the New Jersey accident is charged with crimes for his alleged sleep-deprived state that caused that accident, it is important to remember that such criminal behavior is the exception, not the rule, when it comes to commercial drivers.  For the most part, commercial drivers drive millions of miles safely every year.  The implementation of HOS regulations and demanding motor carriers make sure that is the case.  In fact, fatigue is a causal factor in less than 10 percent of all truck accidents. Unfortunate and even criminal collisions happen from time to time, yet most trucking companies strive to meet the highest safety standards on the road while delivering cost-effective transportation services for American businesses nationwide. With both commercial and non-commercial drivers doing their part to obey the law and remain vigilant while driving, our roads will remain a very safe means of travel.