Sleepy truck drivers cause hundreds of fatal crashes each year. Drivers work in an industry that rewards miles driven, not time on the clock, so many truckers push the envelope just to make a living.
The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration keeps drivers in check with so-called Hours of Service Regulations. The regs cap driving time at 11 hours a day. Truckers have to stop and rest for at least a half hour during that time, and no matter how much downtime they may have in between, they have to quit for the day 14 hours after they start.
"It's kind of like when you're in kindergarten and they're sitting there saying, okay, it's nap time. You have to take a nap," said truck driver Carmen Anderson, as she sat in the back of her burgundy Kenworth semi-truck.
Anderson was stranded in her semi in an industrial section of Shreveport, Louisiana, on a road flanked on both sides by warehouses and wire fence. No sidewalks, no bathrooms, no security. Anderson says she spent 17 hours parked there, eight of them locked in the sleeper berth of her truck, per hours of service regulation. "I would like to see more flexibility," she said.
So would Dan Horvath, Vice President of Safety Policy for American Trucking Associations. He says the current push to ease hours of service rules amped up in December, 2017. That's when the government started enforcing a requirement that all long-haul trucks carry electronic logging devices, minders that track a semi's every move. Before then, the regulations were more like suggestions. Many truckers kept paper logs of their driving time, so easy to fudge they were widely ridiculed as 'comic books'.
"Now we're counting seconds and minutes," said Horvath. "Carriers that may not have been complying with the rules before, this is all coming to kind of a spotlight situation here."
So, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration is weighing exceptions for that mandatory half hour rest break, letting truckers split up their sleep time, and easing the standards in other ways. Driver Michael Whitaker says tweaks like that would make it easier to avoid hazards, like rush hour.
"We don't want to interact with cars during rush hour traffic. We want to stay as far away from you all as possible," says Whitaker waiting for a load at the Port of Long Beach.
After all, car drivers are a lot more likely than truck drivers to cause a wreck.
One the other hand, a 70,000 pound semi-truck is a lot more lethal than a car, and sleepy truck drivers kill someone almost daily.
"My dad was killed by a tired trucker back in December of 2004," says Dawn King, President of the Truck Safety Coalition, a volunteer position.
King says changes proposed for Hours of Service regulations all extend driving time and working limits. She says the trucking industry has yet to produce data showing that the relaxed standards would increase safety.
On the contrary, Cathy Chase, President of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, says trucker driving limits should, if anything, be tightened. She says that deadly truck crashes are on the rise, up 40% since 2009.
"We really should not be considering weakening the regulations we should be considering enhancing them," says Chase. "The safety of everyone traveling on our roads is at stake."
The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration is expected to issue an Advanced Notice of Proposed Rulemaking. That will open a two month comment period on hours of service changes. Then the administration can move forward with new rules.
King believes that the administration will likely agree to relax the rules. But she says safety advocates will fight the changes every step of the way.
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
On an average day, crashes involving large trucks or buses kill about a dozen Americans. There's a good chance at least one crash will involve a sleepy driver. But some truckers say rules designed to make sure they get enough rest actually contribute to accidents, and they want those rules relaxed. Safety advocates say doing that would almost certainly drive up the death toll. Frank Morris of member station KCUR reports.
FRANK MORRIS, BYLINE: Most truck drivers are paid strictly by the mile not by the hour, so they drive as much as possible. But tired truckers can cause horrific wrecks. So the government caps driving time at 11 hours a day. Truckers have to stop and rest for at least a half an hour during that time. These rules are part of hours of service regulations, and many drivers just hate them.
CARMEN ANDERSON: It's kind of like when you're in kindergarden, and they're sitting there saying, OK. It's nap time. You have to take a nap.
MORRIS: And driver Carmen Anderson says you don't necessarily get to choose your spot to stop. In fact, when I caught up with her, she was stranded in her burgundy Kenworth semi in a barren industrial section of Shreveport, La.
ANDERSON: Warehouses on one side and smaller warehouses on the other side of - it just, you know, goes all the way down the block like that - warehouses and fences, no sidewalks even.
MORRIS: No security, no bathroom - though at least it didn't reek of urine like many of these makeshift parking spots. Anderson had to spend a whole night - a full eight hours - locked in the sleeping berth behind her cab because of those hours of service regulations.
ANDERSON: I would like to see more flexibility.
MORRIS: So would Dan Horvath with the American Trucking Associations. He says the push to ease the hours of service rules started about a year and a half ago. That's when the government mandated electronic logging devices in long-haul trucks - minders that track a semi's every move. Before then, truckers kept paper logs of their driving time - so easy to fudge that some drivers called them comic books.
DAN HORVATH: Now we're counting seconds and minutes. For carriers and may not have been complying with the rules before, this is all coming to kind of a spotlight situation here.
MORRIS: So the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration is looking at maybe getting rid of that mandatory half-hour rest break or letting truckers split up their sleep time. Driver Michael Whitaker says tweaks like that would make it easier to avoid hazards like rush hour.
MICHAEL WHITAKER: We don't want to interact with cars during rush hour traffic. We want to stay as far away from y'all as possible.
MORRIS: After all, car drivers are a lot more likely than truck drivers to cause a wreck. But trucker fatigue is a factor in hundreds of crashes each year, and the results can be deadly.
DAWN KING: My dad was killed by a tired trucker back in December of 2004.
MORRIS: Dawn King, who now volunteers with the Truck Safety Coalition, says Bill Badger was stuck in traffic, waiting for police to clear a wreck up ahead.
KING: The semi truck in back of him failed to see any of that, slammed into him while on cruise control. And the driver jumped out of the cabin, said he had fallen asleep.
MORRIS: More than one in 10 large truck crashes involve sleepy truck drivers. And highway safety advocate Cathy Chase says large truck crash deaths are up a whopping 40% from a decade ago.
CATHY CHASE: We really should not be considering weakening the regulations. We should be considering enhancing them. The safety of everyone traveling on our roads is at stake.
MORRIS: Dawn King says the hours of service changes proposed in the name of flexibility all extend driving and working limits. And so far, she says the industry hasn't produced the data to prove that that won't cause more deadly truck crashes.
For NPR News, I'm Frank Morris.
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