Why We Care About Truck Driver Fatigue

moving truck

Of all the responsibilities we have at the Department of Transportation, none is more important than protecting the lives of the traveling public.  Nowhere do we lose more lives than on our nation's highways where more than 30,000 of our citizens and loved ones perish each year

As part of our mission to improve highway safety, our Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) is charged with regulating the number of hours truck drivers may operate to ensure that they are not driving while fatigued.  When we develop those rules, we are required and duty-bound to use the best science available to us. 

Now the vast majority of truckers on our highways behave responsibly and drive well within reasonable limits.  But our rules must protect against those drivers and trucking companies who are tempted to push the limits and put our families and loved ones at risk.  Nearly 4,000 people die in large truck crashes each year and driver fatigue is a leading factor.  Tragically, the truck drivers themselves sometimes die driving tired. 

In December of 2011, the FMCSA issued a new rule to stop fatigued driving by making changes to the "hours of service" rules for truck drivers. The rule was complicated, but it basically boiled down to two updated requirements.  One is that drivers take a 30-minute rest break within the first 8 hours of their shift so they can stay alert on the road.  The other updated the use of the 34-hour rest period, known as the "restart".  In the interest of safety, the 2011 rule restricted drivers to using the restart only once every seven days and it required that the restart period include at least two periods of rest between 1:00 a.m. and 5:00 a.m. Basically, it required that drivers have the opportunity to take a very real rest and catch up on sleep before working another very long week.  The net effect of these changes was to reduce the average maximum week a driver could work from 82 hours to 70 hours.

While most truckers don't come close to operating this many hours a week, the FMCSA rules were not a solution looking for a problem.   To the contrary, it was brought to our attention as we were developing this rule that a segment of the industry was often operating at the maximum hours allowed.   It was also revealed that some truckers operating under the old rules were adding one full work shift per week. These observations were verified through studies and truck inspections conducted in the field.

Additionally, new research available on the subject demonstrated that long work hours, without sufficient recovery time, lead to reduced sleep and chronic fatigue. That fatigue leads drivers to have slower reaction times and a reduced ability to assess situations quickly.  One of the most dangerous elements of fatigue is how quickly it can sneak up on vehicle operators, be they car drivers or truck drivers.  The research revealed that truck drivers (like most people) often can't assess their own fatigue levels accurately and are therefore unaware that their performance has degraded.  Too often, fatigued drivers fail to notice that they are drifting between lanes.

FMCSA fulfilled its responsibility to develop a rule based on the best science available, protect the driving public, and ensure the continued flow of commerce.  In fact, the rule was challenged in court by those who felt it was too restrictive and others who felt it wasn't restrictive enough.  The court found that FMCSA got it right.  The rule still allows FMCSA to grant waivers to companies or industries for compelling reasons on a case-by-case basis.

Now, there are efforts in Congress to suspend the update to the restart provision through a rider that could be included in the final Appropriations bill for the year. I have voiced my strong objection to that rider.  This rider will have the effect of once again allowing a segment of the trucking industry to operate an average of as many as 82 hours per week.  The best science tells us that's unsafe and will put lives at risk.  Our responsibility to the traveling public requires us to warn Congress of these risks and urge reconsideration.

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