Would you get tired after driving for 8 hours straight? What about after driving up to 11 hours, even with a short rest break? Suppose your vehicle weighed 80,000 pounds and was 80 feet long—would that require just a bit more alertness and finesse than the family car?
Trucks are an essential part of the supply chain, but their human drivers are just as susceptible to fatigue as the rest of us. To meet the needs of the country during this current pandemic, some trucking regulations have been relaxed to meet the unexpected, increased demand for goods and services. I understand the need to make some temporary adjustments to meet the nation’s needs; however, unfortunately during this time, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) also completed a 2-year effort to permanently relax hours-of-service (HOS) rules for commercial motor vehicle drivers. The new final rule puts commercial drivers—and those with whom they share the roads—at increased risk.
Fatigue is a pervasive yet preventable problem impacting transportation safety. Tackling fatigue requires a comprehensive approach focused on research, education, training, technology, sleep disorder treatment, HOS regulations, and on- and off-duty scheduling policies and practices. At the NTSB, we are troubled by the relaxed rules that ignore this approach. The FMCSA’s final rule uses terms like “safety-neutral” and “without adversely affecting safety”; and the US Department of Transportation’s press release optimistically adds that the rule will “improve” and “increase” safety. But the science doesn’t support those claims. The FMCSA euphemistically claims that the changes “enhance flexibility” so drivers can stop when they feel tired; the reality is that humans are exceedingly poor at self-assessment, especially when a paycheck is involved, and will push beyond reasonable endurance. The fact that a driver has successfully (and luckily) driven fatigued for hundreds of trips absolutely does not guarantee that the next one will have a happy ending.
The new final rule relaxes the HOS regulations in several ways.
Bluntly speaking, the increase in allowable miles from home base for short-haul drivers is a loophole you could drive a truck through.
We understand that economics matter in this debate, and we know most drivers only get paid when the wheels are turning. But we don’t believe any dollar amount is worth a human life. And we aren’t alone in wanting to put safety first in the trucking industry—the Teamsters, who have a vested interest in full employment, recognize the value of ensuring driver safety and have also come out against these changes to the HOS rules. We should point out, too, that trucking companies that have addressed fatigue beyond simply complying with HOS regulations have experienced fewer crashes and seen fewer fatalities as a result of driver crashes. For example, after a fatigued driver caused a fatal truck crash in Cranbury, New Jersey, in 2014, Walmart Transportation introduced a fatigue management program that exceeded regulatory minimums with effective sleep management protocols. By investing in safety, proactive companies like Walmart have actually improved their bottom line.
The HOS rules are somewhat complex, but sleep science is not. Fatigue degrades a person’s ability to stay awake, alert, and attentive to the demands of safely controlling a vehicle. Humans can become fatigued under the conditions the final rule allows. Fatigue is a manageable threat to transportation safety that can be mitigated through reasonable company safety practices and individual responsibility. Understanding this, the NTSB has recommended for decades that the FMCSA tighten enforcement of fatigue regulations, implement sleep apnea screening, set science-based maximum HOS, develop sleep management programs, and deploy electronic logging devices for all commercial truck drivers.
These HOS rule changes come at a time when new data show trucking fatalities increasing. Between 800 and 900 drivers lose their lives on the road each year, and the risk only begins with the truck driver. It doesn’t take much imagination to see what happens when a fatigued trucker collides with a minivan full of children, construction workers on the road, or commuters on an intercity bus. Just look at our recent investigations involving fatigued truck drivers—one in Boise, Idaho, and another in Elmhurst, Illinois. The NTSB has investigated too many preventable tragedies to remain silent on this critical issue. At a time when truck-related fatalities are increasing, how many of your family and friends are you willing to sacrifice to an exhausted trucker? We should be doing more to improve trucking safety, not relax it.
Reduce Fatigue-Related Accidents is on the NTSB 2019-2020 Most Wanted List.