Fatigue Leads to Deadly Crashes,
But Can We Make Truckers Rest?

By Jeff Burns —

“If the wheels ain’t turnin’, you ain’t earnin’.”

So goes the old trucker motto, one that reflects the reality of many drivers who push themselves beyond the limits of safety.

After actor Tracy Morgan was injured in a tractor-trailer crash in 2014 that killed a fellow passenger, prosecutors claimed that the truck’s driver hadn’t slept in more than 24 hours when he collided with Morgan’s vehicle. Trucker fatigue was suddenly front-page news.

But there is disagreement on how extensively fatigue contributes to crashes, because it’s hard to prove that a driver has fallen asleep.

A 1990 National Transportation Safety Board study found that fatigue was a factor in 31 percent of cases. The Department of Transportation estimated in 2006 that fatigue-related crashes made up only 13 percent of trucking accidents, while acknowledging that truckers are afraid to admit that they were sleepy after a crash has occurred, lest they be found criminally liable.

“Until we have a blood test for determining fatigue, all estimates are likely going to underreport fatigue, because the dead don’t speak and the living often plead the Fifth, especially if they are facing criminal charges,” said Deborah Hersman, president of the National Safety Council and a former chairman of the NTSB.

Truck drivers are frequently required to work much longer hours than other workers. There is no such thing as a 40-hour workweek, and truckers are exempted from the overtime provisions of the Fair Labor Standards Act. While there is a general limit that requires drivers to stop driving after working 70 hours in 8 days, they can extend that to more than 82 hours in 8 days by using the “34-hour restart” rule.

Safety investigators stress that drivers who begin their work week with just one nighttime period of rest were more likely to have attention lapses and cross into other lanes while driving.

Drivers are also limited to 11 hours of driving time per day, within a 14-hour “work window.” But some drivers say the new regulations have backfired, not allowing them the flexibility to pull over and nap during rush hour or bad weather. Instead, they have to get as far as possible before that 14-hour window closes.

That’s because many truckers are paid by the mile. They have to deliver to get paid. They frequently receive no pay for the time they spend waiting to load or unload, which may reach over 40 hours of waiting time in a week. Economist Michael Belzer has compared trucks to “sweatshops on wheels.”

The trucking industry is highly competitive, with companies operating on razor-thin margins. Demand for overnight shipping and fresh produce means drivers are under pressure to meet deadlines.

An OSHA survey found that 75 percent of long-haul truck drivers received an unrealistically tight delivery schedule, and nearly 40 percent of those same drivers admitted to violating hours-of-service rules. Another survey found that 1 in 5 truck drivers admit to falling asleep at the wheel in the previous 30 days.

As more trucks are tracked electronically, it will be harder for drivers to fudge their registers of time spent driving. Cheating was simpler in the times of paper records, which were so openly falsified that truckers called them “comic books.”

Jeff Burns, a truck crash attorney with Dollar Burns & Becker and victim advocate.