Truck drivers shoulder a lot of responsibility for safety on the road. Most do an admirable job. But even a good operator can become fatigued and yet not stop driving to rest. The reasons can vary, but some of the most common are economic reasons and pressure from an employer. While there are federal laws called hours-of-service requirements, sometimes these regulations are not heeded.
Fatigue has been cited as a contributing factor in 13 percent of large-truck crashes. While we don’t know how many of the crashes were fatal, we can tell you that, in 2015, there were 3,598 fatal crashes and 83,000 injury crashes involving large trucks. Also in 2015, the numbers tell us that in 33 percent of crashes, some form of driver error contributed to the accident. Large trucks can weigh as much as 40 tons, meaning that possibilities loom for a lot of carnage if an operator continues to drive when they are too tired to do so and falls asleep behind the wheel.
What Causes Driver Fatigue?
Commercial truck drivers are among the groups of people most likely to be in a fatigue-related crash, along with shift workers, business travelers, and the young and inexperienced. A driver who has been awake for 17 hours, whether or not they drive the entire time, has an impairment level equal to 0.05 on the blood alcohol content scale. After being awake for 24 hours, the impairment level rises to an equivalence of 0.10 on the blood alcohol content scale. For comparison, 0.08 BAC is legally drunk.
Large-truck drivers do receive training in recognizing fatigue. But knowing the facts and doing something about them can be two different things. For example, a driver can feel pressured to keep driving to meet a deadline, especially if they have encountered traffic jams, bad weather, or have been too tightly scheduled by their employer. Also, a driver may not be able to obtain good-quality rest while on a multi-day trip, meaning that their driving abilities can deteriorate quickly. The main reasons that drivers can become fatigued are:
- They’ve been awake for too many consecutive hours.
- They are driving at a time when they would normally be sleeping, especially in the early hours of the morning.
- They are not getting good sleep while on the road. Fatigue can accumulate if the driver is on a multi-day trip.
- The roads they are driving are boring, providing little mental stimulation.
- They have an untreated sleep disorder.
The federal regulations known as hours-of-service, enforced by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) and summarized in the Interstate Trucker’s Guide to Hours of Service, control the amount of time that interstate drivers can remain on the road. The federal regulations do not apply to those operators who drive intrastate (only within one state); however, many states have their own version of the federal law.
The hours-of-service regulations must be followed by interstate truck drivers whose tractor-trailer or truck weighs at least 10,001 pounds or carries hazardous materials requiring placards. The regulations can be summarized as follows:
- Drivers have a daily driving window of 14 hours. The 14-hour period includes time spent driving and time spent not driving—resting, napping, eating, and so on. Within that 14-hour timespan, an operator can drive only 11 hours. After the 14 hours, a driver must stay off the road for at least 10 hours.
Here’s an example of how it works: If a driver spends eight hours behind the wheel, takes two hours for a meal and nap, drives another two hours, then takes a two-hour break, they cannot drive again for at least 10 hours, because their on-duty hours add up to 14 (8 + 2 + 2+ 2 = 14). Even though their driving hours don’t reach the 11-hour limit, they must wait 10 hours before they drive again.
- In addition to the 14 hours/11 hours driving requirement, drivers can be on-duty in a seven-day work cycle for a maximum of 60 hours or for a maximum of 70 hours in an eight-day work cycle. After the on-duty period of time, a driver must take at least 34 consecutive hours of off-duty time. This is often referred to as the “34-hour restart.” One exception is made for oil-transporting drivers; they are allowed to drive again after 24 consecutive hours of off-duty time.
- Drivers must take at least a 30-minute break after driving eight hours.
- In certain unforeseen conditions, such as fog, snow, or an unexpected traffic stoppage, drivers are allowed to drive up to an extra two hours per day. However, conditions cannot be ones that are normally expected (such as a rush-hour traffic jam).
- Drivers must keep detailed logs showing that they adhered to regulations. These days, logs are often kept electronically.
These regulations are current as of October, 2017. However, trucking companies and other organizations periodically pressure Congress for changes that would enable drivers to stay on the road longer hours, even though the hours-of-service regulations undoubtedly prevent crashes and save lives.
The Hazards of Truck Driver Fatigue
A report released in May, 2011, by FMCSA provides some correlations between the odds of a crash and the number of hours spent behind the wheel. Some of the report’s findings:
- An increase in the probability of a crash starts with the fifth hour and continues through the 11th hour of driving.
- The 11th hour has the highest odds of a crash.
- Drivers who take a break reduce their odds of a crash by 32 percent if they are carrying a full truckload and by 51 percent if they have less than a full truckload.
Truck drivers are responsible for what they do while they are on the job. Violating the hours-of-service requirements can mean that the driver is considered negligent under the law. Even if hours-of-service regulations are obeyed, a driver can be found negligent if it is shown that they were driving when they were too tired to do so safely. In a large-truck crash, both the owner of the truck and the driver’s employer can also be held liable if negligence is found to be a factor on their part. If an hours-of-service regulations violation occurred, and the employer either failed to enforce the regulations or encouraged the driver to violate the regulations, the employer can be found responsible for their negligence.