Truckers racing to beat the federal rule requiring a rest break after driving for eight hours could be contributing to increased fatal crashes involving big rigs.
Deaths from large truck crashes reached their highest level in 29 years in 2017, according to National Highway Traffic Safety Administration data.
“Drivers feel like they literally have a gun to their head,” Todd Spencer, president of the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association, told Trucks.com. “The typical response was to turn up the maximum permissible speeds on the trucks to allow drivers to make up some time.”
In 2017, 37,133 people died in motor vehicle crashes, a 2 percent decline from the prior year. But large-truck fatalities rose 9 percent to 4,761, an increase of 392 lives lost over the prior year. About 1,300 of the deaths were truckers. The remaining 72 percent occurred in the other vehicle involved in the collision.
Looking at trucks in the largest weight segment, Class 8, deaths climbed by 221 in 2017 from 2016 to 3,844. That’s a 4 percent increase for trucks that weigh more than 33,000 pounds.
“We hear a lot of drivers saying because of a lack of flexibility, we’re speeding,” said Jim Mullen, chief counsel for the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration. “I hope they’re not putting themselves and the motoring public in danger just to get their freight from Point A to Point B because of the regulations.”
Mullen said that while drivers may be speeding, he doesn’t think there is link between truck fatalities and the federal hours-of-service rule. The regulation limits driving to 11 hours in a 14-hour period with a 30-minute break at eight hours.
But regulators are considering modifications. The FMCSA is reviewing 5,200 comments to proposed changes in the hours-of-service rule. The 30-minute break received the most comments, Mullen said.
The rest break is “the dumbest rule I’ve ever heard of,” said Luke Foster, who hauls cars for Romulus, Mich.-based United Road. He said the forced downtime increases his fatigue. The 61-year-old driver prefers working 11 hours straight before resting.
“You put me on break, sometimes I’ve got to ride with the window down to stay awake,” Foster said.
Truckers who do speed are getting caught and ticketed more often, said Duane DeBruyne, an FMCSA spokesman. Speeding remains the No. 1 cause of fatal crashes. But speed has been responsible for a declining percentage of fatal crashes involving big trucks for three consecutive years, DeBruyne said.
Some truckers attribute the deaths to bad driving habits.
“The younger drivers who are now getting into trucking are bringing along their bad driving habits,” said Jeromy Hodges, a retired trucker from Victoria, Texas.
Hodges recalled seeing one trucker driving with both feet on the dash and the vehicle on cruise control. He also sees truckers texting.
He retired in 2016 because it had become “such a dangerous job with all the distracted drivers out there. I didn’t want to press my luck any longer.”
Driver monitoring through on-board technology could help reduce crashes.
Software developer Trimble Inc., which offers a suite of driver analytics that measure factors including seat belt use, hard braking and speeding, is partnering with Pulsar Infomatics to monitor how fatigue affects driving behaviors. A digital scorecard lets motor carriers reward, coach or even fire drivers based on how well they drive.
Fatigue and lack of sleep are cited as danger signs in multiple studies of truck driver safety.
Most crashes in which the trucker was at fault and judged to be sleepy or fatigued occurred at least 20 miles from a rest area or truck stop, according to a study in the November 2017 edition of Accident Analysis & Prevention.
Many in the industry attribute driver fatigue to a lack of accessible and safe parking.
Truckers voted safe rest areas as their second-greatest concern following hours-of-service rules changes in the latest Top 10 challenges compiled by the American Transportation Research Institute. Motor carriers voted it their ninth-highest priority. That made it the No. 5 concern overall.
FMCSA Administrator Ray Martinez said additional safe rest areas for drivers need to be part of any infrastructure bill. President Donald Trump called for a $1.5 trillion infrastructure plan in his 2016 campaign.
The answer is more full-service truck stops, said Barry Pottle, chairman of the American Trucking Associations. He said five rest areas in his home state of Maine have closed in the last year because there is no money to operate them.
Nearly two-thirds of car-truck collisions are caused by the drivers of passenger cars, said Chris Spear, the ATA’s chief executive. He said distracted driving is the major reason. Technologies like automatic emergency braking, included on most new heavy-duty trucks, could help reduce crashes. Automatic braking becomes standard on passenger cars in 2022. Spear said automatic braking, combined with vehicle-to-vehicle communications, could put all highway fatalities “on the road to zero.”
But FMCSA’s Mullen said driver-assist features could be causing some truck drivers to pay less attention.
“Distracted driving absolutely is rising, and it’s problematic,” he said. “We’re trying to juggle having sufficient technology to assist the driver but not overwhelm him or her or create complacency.”