The connection between over the road trucking and driver fatigue is not a new topic. For as long as drivers have had to make certain delivery times and shippers have paid to have their products delivered by truck, drivers have on occasion been falling asleep at the wheel. As early as 1935, the National Safety Council issued its report on the problem, titled, “Too Long at the Wheel.” Since then, our society has developed into a 24-hour society and fatigue, in general, has become a broad societal problem.
The National Sleep Foundation reports that 37 percent of American adults are so sleepy during the day that it interferes with daytime activities. Given the demands of the job, this has to be worse for truck drivers. The “just in time” delivery and “rolling warehouse logistics” have made trucking a truly around-the-clock endeavor. Yet today, certain trucking groups downplay driver fatigue and portray it as a relatively minor problem. Even the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA), which is supposed to be protecting the public from dangerous trucking activities, underreports fatal truck crashes related to fatigue.
Most leading sleep experts agree that driver fatigue is an underestimated problem in the industry. In 1995 the FMCSA, then under Director Frederico Pena, called for the first national truck and bus safety summit. At this summit there were meetings, sessions, workshops, and speeches to develop a list of 17 safety issues facing the trucking industry and ranked them in priority order. Number one on the list was driver fatigue. In the years following, more emphasis has been put on the fatigue issue, with fatigue training videos being offered by all major industry training suppliers. The trainer sessions have been developed along with other methods to alert the industry to the serious problem.
In spite of the additional focus and attention on the issue, and in spite of the Department of Transportation’s announced 1999 goal of reducing truck crash fatalities by 50 percent in 10 years, we still do not have a litmus test to determine whether a driver is fatigued when he or she is involved in a crash. It should be noted that there are more than 5,000 fatalities annually in truck crashes in the U.S. Even results from the long awaited large truck crash causation study will not be able to accurately portray the true extent of the problem. That’s because the study included no acceptable protocol to identify fatigue-related crashes. The fact of the matter is that driver fatigue is a significant cause of loss in the trucking industry and should be investigated as a possible factor in catastrophic truck crashes.
When what we know about fatigue is superimposed over what we know about the economics of the trucking industry since it was deregulated in 1980, it becomes clears that our highways are literally full of ”accidents waiting to happen.” Accordingly, an evaluation of a crash requires an understanding of the interplay among some or all the following: economics of the industry, how the crash occurred, the driver’s sleep/wake pattern in the days preceding the crash, time on task, time of day, driver’s training, driver’s health, company policies, and the fundamentals of the science of sleep.
Most of what we know about the science of sleep has been developed in the last 50 years. What we have learned so far indicates that a person’s need for sleep grows in direct proportion to the person’s lack of sleep (sleep debit) and that ultimately sleep is the only safe counter-measure for fatigue.
The regularity of a truck driver’s schedule frequently presents a danger for causing fatigue. Drivers frequently change schedules and may have very irregular sleep patterns. On average, a human adult physiologically requires about eight hours of sleep. However, there is a range of sleep need from about six to 10 hours of sleep.
The number of authorized motor carriers in the United States exploded after deregulation from less than 30,000 to more than 500,000 by the turn of the century. The resulting unfettered competition has been affective in keeping rates of drivers pay low. Throughout the long haul industry the most common method of pay is still “by the mile.” This means that the longer and farther a driver travels the more pay he or she can make.
Because the per mile rate has been kept relatively stagnant, drivers feel a great deal of pressure to continue driving when they know they should stop and rest. The industry refers to the present situation as a “driver shortage.” The reality, however is there is no shortage of workers in this country as is proven by national unemployment statistics. The fact is there is a shortage of people who want to work 70-100 hours per week, be gone from their families for extended periods of time, and make an average hourly wage that would be approximately equivalent to a senior fast food service job. Truck drivers are not protected by the overtime provisions of the Fair Labor Standards Act.
The result is that well-run, safe companies have been challenged by companies willing to cut corners to obtain and keep business. As carriers compete for the shrinking profit margin, working conditions for many drivers are worsened, leading to higher attrition rates and attracting more poorly qualified drivers.
Safety directors can no longer claim that they did not realize fatigue is a problem. Although the official industry line is that fatigue causes a low percentage of fatal truck crashes, the world’s foremost experts who have honestly looked at the fatigue problem have formulated a condensed statement and have concluded that fatigue is the largest identifiable and preventable cause of accidents in the transportation operation.
Although a wide variety of fatigue training materials are available from trucking industry companies, most trucking companies do not screen their drivers for sleep disorders and do not provide training to their drivers without problems associated with fatigue. Only recently have regulators provided specifically any driver training related to fatigue countermeasures and this only applies to entry level drivers.
Unless a company has someone sitting in the seat next to the driver, monitoring the driver’s alertness and telling him to pull over, the motor carrier must have in place a training system that complies with the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations. A motor carrier must also have in place a management system that effectively prevents a driver from continuing to drive when that driver is too fatigued to do so.
The safety department of a trucking company is interchangeably called the compliance department. A focus on safety, however, involves an assessment of the risks of the particular operation and implementation of the measures to reduce the risk. Since 1995, the industry has literally been flooded with information about the dangers of driver fatigue, educational and training materials for the drivers, and more information for their management. A company that does not provide a driver with adequate information, training and supervision to ensure that the driver does not drive while he is fatigued is closing its eyes to the greatest risk for the public that their operation presents.
If you need more information on this subject, including details from the status on “sleep,” statistics and reports, contact Mike Crow, a lawyer in our Personal Injury and Product Liability Section, at 800-898-2034 or 334-269-2343, or by email at Mike.Crow@beasleyallen.com.
Sources: National Sleep Foundation website; Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration website; and National Safety Council website
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