Truck drivers are asked to drive hundreds of miles in a single day, make their deliveries on time, and take their pay by the mile – so is it any surprise that fatigue is a constant concern?
But just how much of a concern it is depends on who is doing the talking. Safety researchers believe fatigue is the single greatest hazard that truck drivers face, while some trucking groups claim it’s practically irrelevant. Of course, what matters is what the federal regulators believe, but even they may not have an accurate picture of the situation.
In short, fatigue is a difficult to assess issue, but it is clear that tired drivers do cause accidents, and some of the worst in the industry.
Tired Drivers Are Accidents Waiting to Happen
Every year, 30,000 people die on U.S. roads, and commercial trucks are involved in one out of every seven of those deaths, or a little more than 4,000 annually. Commercial trucks are only involved in a small portion of vehicle accidents, but their much larger size makes them a major threat, even in low-speed crashes. According to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA), the primary regulatory agency in charge of the trucking industry, there were about 5.6 million vehicle accidents on U.S. roads in 2012, and only 333,000 involved commercial trucks, or about 6% of all crashes. But commercial vehicles are responsible for approximately 14% of all traffic accident deaths.
To what extent does fatigue play a part in this gruesome picture? Unfortunately, no one knows for sure, but several groups have put forth their best guesses. Remember, though, that some of these groups have a vested interest in defeating regulations that attempt to hold motor carriers to greater safety standards. That being said, here are several attempts to quantify the problem:
- In 1990, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) reviewed 182 commercial truck accidents and determined that fatigue was a primary factor in 31% of the studied crashes. The sample size is small, but the study is believed to be a watershed moment for trucker fatigue, as other safety institutes, including the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety and Highway Loss Data Institute, state that drivers are twice as likely to cause a crash if they are behind the wheel for more than eight hours at a time. Also, the National Sleep Foundation states that 37% of all U.S. adults are so tired on a daily basis that it interferes with their activities, which dovetails with the NTSB’s data.
- A 2006 data review by the FMCSA, using its Large Truck Crash Causation Study, determined that fatigue was the principal factor involved in 13% of all commercial vehicle crashes. This data is what the FMCSA and Department of Transportation use to build their safety regulations.
- The American Trucking Association (ATA), among the trucking groups that has fought fatigue regulations, claims that only 2% of truck accidents involve fatigue, citing a 2002 study authored by Kenneth Campbell and presented at the International Truck and Bus Safety Research and Policy Symposium. However, what the ATA usually doesn’t mention is that Campbell himself admits that his study’s methodology cannot accurately determine fatigue as a cause, and likely underestimates it as an extent.
- The ATA has since stated that it estimates the rate of accidents caused by fatigue to be around 7%, claiming that it uses federal data to come to that conclusion. However, given the ATA’s obvious conflict of interest and the FMCSA’s published federal data, it’s unclear just how trustworthy this estimate is.
These are only estimates, but the problem of fatigue in the truck cab is seen in some of the worst accidents that commercial drivers are involved in. In fact, experienced accident investigators can often tell when fatigue is present based on how the crash occurred. For example, an accident caused by fatigue typically looks like the following:
- A fatigued driver often suffers from “microsleeps” just prior to causing an accident. Microsleeping is when the brain effectively shuts down for several seconds at a time, unable to properly respond to external stimuli. Drivers in the middle of a microsleep behave similarly to drivers under the influence of alcohol, and may not notice road signs, lane markings, or even other vehicles. To illustrate how dangerous a microsleep is, in the five seconds that a driver may lose focus, their vehicle will have traveled more than the length of a football field.
- A fatigued driver usually does not apply the brakes before hitting an obstacle or vehicle, plowing into it at full speed.
- A fatigued driver may exit the road without inclement weather or other obstacles forcing them off the road.
- Fatigued drivers usually cannot point to weather or road conditions as a reason for their unsafe driving.
Investigators often point to fatigue when all other possibilities have been eliminated, and when no other explanation is easily available. For example, consider the 2010 truck crash in Oklahoma that killed 10 people. The truck driver, who suffered from sleep apnea, fell asleep at the wheel and smashed into a line of cars stopped on the highway. The driver did not respond until he had struck the line of vehicles, and his truck was not equipped with any warning system to alert him.
With so much at stake, most people would believe that motor carriers would do everything possible to avoid such outcomes, but if anything, many motor carriers are demonstrating the exact opposite behavior.
Motor Carriers Are Making the Problem Worse
Ask any motor carrier or company that employs a fleet of drivers and trucks, and they will claim they abide by all safety regulations. Those regulations include weekly driving limits and ensuring their drivers are given adequate rest. However, there is a pervading belief within the motor carrier industry that drivers alter their driving records to conform to any regulator inspections, and that their employers look the other way.
An investigative report aired on the TV show 20/20 in 2014 showed an example of how companies prod their drivers into taking dangerous risks. During the report, a driver with K&B informed several dispatchers within the company that he was too tired to drive safely after traveling 400 miles in the middle of the night to the first of two stops. At first, K&B dispatchers merely encouraged him to drink coffee and get back on the road, but after insisting on getting rest, the trucker was threatened with docked pay. According to the driver, this is a common occurrence he and others in the industry experience.
Part of the problem may be due to the extensive deregulation of the trucking industry, which reached its zenith in 1980, through the Motor Carrier Act of 1980. Among the many changes it brought to the industry, including reduced entry and price controls, the act eliminated the Interstate Commerce Commission, which was responsible for tightly regulating commercial trucking.
Now, consider the pressures placed on truck drivers:
- Drivers are almost always paid by the mile. This means that motor carriers are constantly pushing per mile wages down.
- As a result, drivers often work 60+ hours a week. This fact alone veers drivers close to the maximum driving limits allowed by the FMCSA’s safety regulations.
- Driver hours are not planned or scheduled with any consistency, so they may be required to drive at times when their fatigue is likely to peak.
- Drivers are only paid when they are moving, so when stopping to fuel or sleep, they are not earning wages.
- Drivers stopped in traffic or by poor weather are losing money, and they have to make up for it by spending more time behind the wheel or increasing their speed.
These problems are further exacerbated by the influx of motor carriers into the industry. The ATA states that in 1980, there were about 30,000 motor carriers in the U.S., but more than 500,000 just 20 years later. With so many companies in the field, it’s never been easier for motor carriers to put the pressure on drivers to accept lower wages and poorer working conditions.
What’s Being Done to Solve the Problem?
FMCSA safety regulations do provide a measure of safety to the industry, and the latest moderation of the regulations in 2013, which established an 11-hour daily limit behind the wheel, were estimated by the DoT to eliminate 1,400 truck crashes, 560 injuries, and about 20 deaths per year. However, these regulations are constantly being resisted by trucking groups, and in 2015, their lobbyists succeeded in getting parts of the FMCSA’s regulations suspended until further studies could confirm their efficacy.
Perhaps a more promising angle is the required adoption of electronic logging devices (ELD). In 2012, Congress passed the Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century bill, which among its many provisions was a call for the FMCSA to produce rules requiring the usage of ELDs. In December 2015, the FMCSA announced that all motor carriers must outfit their fleets with ELDs by December 2017, and those with devices already in place will have until December 2019 to verify they are within compliance standards.
ELDs are a major step forward for safety because they no longer allow drivers to alter their paper records and avoid scrutiny for driving while fatigued. ELDs are robust enough to do more than just log driving records, as they can track engine and brake performance, both of which can clue investigators in on whether a driver was fatigued prior to a crash. The first step to preventing fatigued driving is understanding the extent of it, and ELDs are an excellent tool in that regard.
ELDs may provide a way forward for the FMCSA to produce more precise and effective regulations, but whether it does or not, it will at least curb any attempts to suppress the issue of truckers and fatigue. And that will ensure drivers are sharper and more alert, and motor carriers safer.