Fatigued Truck Drivers and Hours of Service Rules

By now it is common knowledge that a fatigued driver is a danger to himself and to everyone else on the roadway. Fatigued driving of a passenger vehicle creates a very serious hazard; fatigued driving of an 80,000 pound tractor trailer or log truck presents an appalling menace. This enhanced risk is well understood, to the point that it is codified in federal law by what are called the “Hours of Service” or HOS rules. These rules impose limitations on truck drivers as to the number of hours they can be at the wheel, and the amount of off-duty time they are required to take in between shifts.

A landmark study by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and the National Center on Sleep Disorders Research (NCSDR) provides the relevant data. Fatigue has an adverse effect on the entire scope of cognitive activity necessary for safe driving: reaction time, vigilance, attention and information processing. These deficiencies affect all fatigued drivers, of course. However, fatigued drivingitself is caused by driving behavior specifically associated with the trucking industry: driving between midnight and 6:00 A.M., driving substantial numbers of miles per day and per year, driving for long distances without taking a break.

Because these driving behaviors are so common in the trucking industry, fatigued driving is of particular concern in the context of preventing trucking accidents. Frighteningly, research conducted by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA), the federal agency charged with regulating the trucking industry, demonstrated that drivers frequently do not appreciate their own level of fatigue. So, a fatigued driver frequently does not even realize that he has a slower reaction time, diminished attention and a reduced ability to process the information necessary to maintain safe operation.

So how do the hours of service rules work? There are three main rules, known as the 14 hour rule, the 11 hour rule and the 60/70 rule, respectively. First, when a driver comes on duty, he has fourteen hours during which to conduct his day’s business. For example, if he comes on duty at 6:00 A.M., he has to be out of the truck and off the road by 8:00 P.M. This is the 14 hour rule. Second, during that period, he may only actually be at the wheel driving for a total of eleven of those 14 hours; the remaining three hours must be spent doing something other than driving his tractor trailer. This is the 11 hour rule. Third, during any 7 or 8 day period, the driver cannot drive if he has been on duty (which generally includes all time he is working, and not just driving) for 60 or 70 hours, respectively, within that period. Taken together, the intent of these rules is to eliminate fatigued drivers, to ensure drivers get enough rest, and to ensure that the pressures of business and profit do not subsume good common sense and safe driving practices.

While these seem like fairly straightforward rules, their practical application actually is rather complicated. Drivers are busy people: taking dispatch orders, picking up freight from shippers, operating the truck, navigating to destinations, delivering freight to consignees…the list goes on. Conducting this demanding job, while also keeping painstaking track of their every movement, in fifteen minute increments (as the hours of service rules require), is no small task.

Furthermore, there are integration problems within trucking companies, as well: for instance, the company’s dispatcher and all of the drivers in his segment of the fleet have to be on the same page as to the driver’s HOS limitations. Take Driver X, based in Charlotte, North Carolina, who on a particular day has driven from Nashville, Tennessee to Charleston, South Carolina, arriving in the late afternoon. Driver X probably has driven for ten hours to make it that far, leaving him with just one hour of driving time left before he has to get off the road, under HOS mandates. But Dispatcher Y in Charlotte has a critical load that he wants Driver X to take from Charlotte up to Indianapolis, leaving the next morning. So Dispatcher Y sends a message to Driver X that he needs to return to Charlotte immediately, in order to get his ten hours off duty and be ready to leave in the morning.

Well Driver X is in a predicament. Either Dispatcher Y is ordering him to violate federal law by driving from Charleston to Charlotte when he only has one more lawful hour at the wheel. Or, more likely, Dispatcher Y simply has not paid close enough attention to Driver X’s HOS status, and as a result he has unknowingly given an unlawful dispatch order to Driver X. Driver X, if he is like a typical driver, is quite likely to be relying on his dispatcher to ensure his compliance with the HOS rules.

With each relying on the other, there is inadequate coordination of efforts to comply with the rules, and that seemingly innocuous drive from Charleston to Charlotte is converted to a known dangerous task, undertaken in violation of federal law, and the creation of significantly enhanced risk of personal injury to the motoring public. This example illustrates the fact that it does not take a rogue truck driver, or a profit-hungry trucking company to create unreasonable risks to the public. A simple failure of organization, of coordination, or of compliance systems, can produce the same dangerous result.

Happily, the hours of service rules have proven a spectacular success in reducing the incidence of large truck crashes and the number of injuries such crashes have caused. From the year HOS rules instituted, 2005, to 2012, the rate of persons injured in large truck crashes has dropped 22%, and the fatality rate has dropped 25%. On the positive side, these numbers reflect the impressive effectiveness of HOS. On the negative side, they illustrate just how serious the danger from fatigued driving really is. Sadly, trucking lawyers know all too well that fatigued driving is far from a solved problem; to the contrary, it is a frequent factor in the carnage occurring on South Carolina’s highways.

When people are injured in large truck crashes, they and their families should seek legal representation from lawyers who know the industry inside and out: this expertise is critical in procuring maximum compensation for injuries or death. Traywick & Traywick has this knowledge, and welcomes the opportunity to provide a free consultation.


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