One of the top concerns of safety advocates around the country has long been drowsy driving, and this is of particular concern when it comes to the drivers who operate tractor trailers on our nation’s highways. These mammoth vehicles carry a great deal of additional risk for the simple reason of their sheer size, but because drivers are often under deadline stress and pressure from their owners, many drive with too little sleep, greatly increasing the likelihood of deadly accidents.
The rules regarding how many hours a trucker can operate their vehicle have been being cutback over the last dozen or so years. Referred to as hours-of-service rules, the Department of Transportation changed them back in 2003, creating a regulation that indicated drivers were not permitted to drive for stretches of longer than 14 hours without taking a break. In 2013 the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration also took a stand and indicated that drivers were not permitted to drive more than seventy hours within a one-week period; this marked a dramatic decrease from the previously allowed 82 hours per week. In addition to the drop in maximum hours driving, the new regulations restricted drivers from driving without taking a 34 hour rest period covering two periods from 1 a.m. to 5 a.m. every seven days.
Though safety advocates believed that these rules provided valuable protections both to drivers and to those with whom they share the road, the drivers and the trucking industry voiced strong objections to these restrictions. According to one owner operator, Dick Pingel, who has been driving for decades, “If the wheels aren’t turning, you’re not earning. It’s real nice to think you’ll be sleeping that whole time. All you’re doing is being tense, thinking about how you’re going to get your hours in.”
In response to concerns like these, as well as intensive lobbying efforts by the powerful trucking industry, the newly-passes federal spending bill has not only suspended the rule requiring 34 hours of rest every seven days, but also returned drivers to the 82 hour maximum hour ruling. The revisions, which some say weaken oversight and imperil innocent drivers who share the road with drowsy truck drivers, were included in the new $1.014 trillion spending bill that Congress just passed. The trucking industry was behind the switch, saying the hours of service restrictions were their top issue. Among those who have been extremely vocal in wanting the rules relaxed were the American Trucking Association and the Owner Operator Independent Drivers Association.
Though drivers are happy that the rules have gone back to their original status, they also agree that it is wrong for truckers to be forced by their employers to drive longer than is safe. Their issue is with the lack of control that had been imposed by the rules, and they say that prudent drivers know when they are sleepy, and stop. Pingel said that because his hours were so restricted by the previous rules, he would actually push himself beyond what was safe in order to maximize the 14-hour stretch that he was permitted. “I think I can pretty much figure out when I can drive, and when I’m tired,” he said. “Now, once you start in the morning, no matter how you feel, if you get started and hit Chicago at rush hour, it’s not to your advantage to stop.”
Prior to the passage of the new budget, the rules have been the target of many lawsuits filed by the trucking industry. Despite the protests from the various professional organizations, those on the other side indicate that the old rules which were just thrown out did not go far enough to protect the drivers and the public. Included amongst those arguing for stricter regulation are safety advocacy groups like Public Citizen, and the Teamsters Union, which represents a good number of the drivers. The teamsters have imposed their own contractually defined hours.
Representatives of the Department of Transportation have long been against changing the rules unless it was to make them stronger still. Included among the arguments in favor of the regulations have been multiple studies showing that fatigue puts drivers into a position where they are inattentive, and that most people are unable to accurately assess their own level of fatigue. The transportation agency has spent years defending their position, both indicating that it was not too tough to trucking industry representatives and that it wasn’t too soft to safety advocates. But with the recent budget conversation, Senator Susan Collins, a Republican from Maine, was able to get the old regulations eliminated. Many fear that this will quickly lead to increased accidents on the roads.
For its part, the trucking industry has maintained the position that the previous rules, which forced truckers off of the roads during the early morning hours, actually endangered more drivers. They state that because those are the hours when there are the fewest vehicles on the road, they are actually the safest times for the big rigs to be traveling. They are backed up in their argument by the National Fraternal Order of Police, though interestingly, the International Association of Chiefs of Police strongly oppose that position. For those who are anxious about the impact of the change, the good news is that it is only a delay of the imposition of the rules, and will expire in September. The Department of Transportation will be conducting numerous studies in the interim to determine whether there has been any detectable change in the period without the rules.
For the trucking industry, the relaxation of the regulations is particularly welcome during the holidays, when they anticipate being able to spend more time on deliveries and thus being more productive. Truck drivers feel that they will be able to make more money, and try to calm the fears of safety advocates by indicating that they would not do anything to jeopardize their own safety.