New Truck Safety Regulations Go Into Effect July 1st

Many independent-minded South Carolinians are less than completely thrilled by the federal government’s ever expanding reach into our daily lives. On some subjects, though, federal intervention can have positive effects for the safety of citizens here in South Carolina. Falling into this welcome category are the recent changes to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations (FMCSR), which impose rules and guidelines on operators of commercial trucks: flat-beds, log trucks, tractor trailers, 18- wheelers, cement mixers, etc.

In particular, the FMCSR has beefed up its rules concerning what the rules call a driver’s “hours of service”. Hours of service, as a general matter, refers to the amount of time a driver can be at the wheel of his truck on a given day, and how much downtime—sleeping or just being off duty—he must take during and between shifts at the wheel. As we outlined in a prior post, the hours of service rules can be quite tricky. Indeed, when Traywick & Traywick partner Ben Traywick worked for the transportation industry defending the very same truck wreck cases he now prosecutes for injured people and their families, he marveled at how the federal government expected ordinary folks who drive trucks to keep up with such complex regulations. Obviously, some truckers here in South Carolina are still quite unhappy about the regulations.

The regulations’ complexity is an issue Ben now sees quite differently: yes, the regulations are complicated, but given that their purpose is to keep trucking companies from killing and maiming innocent motorists, the industry’s compliance with these regulations does not seem like an unreasonable expectation for the public to have.A good outline of the changes, and discussion of the associated issues, is available at the South Carolina Trucking Association’s website.

The two most significant changes are fairly straightforward. First, the new rules prohibit a truck driver from operating his tractor trailer for more than eight hours consecutively. If a driver hits eight hours of consecutive driving time, he or she must then take a thirty minute break away from the truck: in a rest area, a truck stop, a restaurant, etc. Outcry by the industry over this “burdensome” regulation strikes us as rather absurd: frankly, we can’t imagine why it hasn’t been in place all along. Everyone knows that hour upon hour of travel can be quite tedious and boring, and that the mind becomes unfocused and dull during a long, uninterrupted road trip. Requiring the operators of 60,000 pound trucks to take the break that all other sensible drivers take is not excessive federal regulation: it’s common sense. The only conceivable reason not to require these breaks is a desire to protect the profitability of the corporations who run these trucks. As we’ve discussed in other posts, profit and safety are at constant loggerheads in the transportation industry.

A second major change concerns the so-called “34 hour restart” that the rules have long imposed on drivers. Speaking generally, the 34 restart requires a truck driver who has worked a full week to park his truck for a minimum of 34 hours, in order that the driver can rest and re-charge his mental batteries, before he goes back to work. This rule in essence imposes the equivalent of a normal weekend on truck drivers, who have notoriously round-the-clock type schedules. Before the new changes went into effect earlier this week, on July 1st, the driver could begin his 34 hours off duty at any time: whatever was most convenient for him and his employer. Under the new rule, the 34 hours must be timed such that it will encompass two separate periods from 1:00 A.M. to 5:00 A.M. This is an important change, enacted in part in response to substantial research which shows that an inordinate number of really terrible trucking accidents happen in the very early morning hours. By keeping drivers off the road during these dangerous hours, the government hopes to reduce overall rates of personal injury and death on the highways.

Let’s look at an example under the old rule: Steve, a truck driver, pulls into his home terminal at 9:00 on a Saturday morning, having driven through the night to finish a grueling week of cross-country hauling that included 60 hours at the wheel. Steve’s 34 hour restart clock begins immediately when he gets out of the cab, exhausted, at 9:00 on Saturday. Under the old rule, Steve—who gets paid by the load, and has a family to feed—could get right back to his next 60 hour driving week at 7:00 P.M. the following evening, on Sunday. When he does, he’s got plenty of hours to drive all through Sunday night and the early morning hours of Monday. Obviously, in this scenario Steve is not enjoying an ordinary person’s weekend that the 34 hour restart is supposed to provide for him. And, he’s all set to drive during the known dangeroushours of 1:00 to 5:00 A;M. on Monday.

Under the new rule Steve is basically compelled to take that real weekend. If his 34 hour restart clock begins to tick at 9:00 A.M. on Saturday, the new rule is going to force him to rest not just Saturday night but also Sunday night, because he cannot get back into the truck until 5:00 A.M. Sunday morning (he still hits 34 hours off-duty at 7:00 P.M. Sunday, but now he’s got to get through that second 1:00 to 5:00 A.M. period before he can drive again). This forced additional rest is critical because there is a mountain of evidence that fatigued driving by tractor trailers is a leading cause of accidents, personal injuries and wrongful death, both in South Carolina and in the nation as a whole.

Frankly, we expect that the driver population will welcome this change: more rest, a real break from the road, more time with their families. Big trucking companies certainly will not be pleased, for the reasons described above.

As always, the lesson for the smart consumer of legal services is simple: do your homework before you hire a lawyer for a serious case. As of five years ago we have two law schools in our small state churning out what most of us view as far, far too many lawyers. Lots of them are advertising and marketing aggressively, in particular for truck wreck cases. But because of this complicated federal regulatory structure—which is piled atop similar and overlapping state laws—a truck wreck is not the same as a car wreck. Experience in this area is key- just key. Be smart: make sure the lawyer you hire knows how to handle the case you’re hiring him to handle.

Traywick & Traywick’ lawyers are always available to speak with you about your or your friend or family member’s case- no charge for the consultation.


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