There are many things that truck drivers can do that make an accident more likely. But few are as large a potential concern as driving while fatigued. In this article, we are going to discuss the laws related to fatigued truck drivers, and how a violation of these laws relates to a finding of fault or liability in a personal injury or wrongful death case.
How big of a problem is this?
There are many people in America who work double-shifts or pull an all-nighter. They often work a lot of consecutive hours without anyone getting upset about it. So, is it really that big of a deal for a truck driver to drive many hours without a break? Admittedly, this is one instance where the law creates a double standard, but it does so for justifiable reasons, as 10 hours seated at a desk job and 10 hours behind the wheel of a commercial vehicle are not equivalent in terms of the risks involved. For this reason, while it is reasonable for the law to allow someone working in an office environment to work extended shifts, it is only appropriate that unique limits be put in place for drivers of commercial vehicles, for whom the stakes are so much higher.
Psychology of Sleep
According to studies from the National Sleep Foundation, sleepiness can impair driving performance as much as, or more, than alcohol. They go on to say:
Commercial truck drivers are especially susceptible to drowsy driving. A congressionally mandated study of 80 long-haul truck drivers in the United States and Canada found that the average commercial truck driver got less than 5 hours of sleep per day. (Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, 1996) It is no surprise then that the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) reported that drowsy driving was probably the cause of more than half of crashes which resulted in a truck driver's death. (NTSB, 1990a,b) For each truck driver fatality from such crashes, another three to four other people are killed. (NHTSA, 1994)
The act of driving a tractor-trailer is both physically and mentally exhausting, which can lead drivers who've been on the road too long to fall asleep, which can be a dangerous situation, even if they're only out for a minute or two. And why are tired drivers such a big problem? The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration found that of all truck accidents caused by driver error, 18% involved driver fatigue.
When anyone falls asleep behind the wheel, the the potential consequences can be bad. When a truck driver does it, they can be catastrophic.
Laws Pertaining to Truck Driver Fatigue
The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Act put into place certain regulations regarding the time limits and breaks necessary for truck drivers to execute their jobs efficiently and safely. These regulations, known as hours of service rules, set forth limits on the amount of driving permitted in a day to ensure that truck drivers get amount of sleep needed to drive safely. Under these rules, truck drivers can work (including waiting for their vehicle to be loaded and other non-driving tasks) a maximum of 14 hours per day, during which time they can only drive for a maximum of 11 hours. The driver must be off-duty for 10 consecutive hours prior to the start of a shift. The driver also cannot drive after being on duty for 60 hours in seven consecutive days or 70 hours in eight consecutive days.
How truckers are punished for violations
Truck drivers that violate the regulations put in place can be sanctioned via administrative violations. Repeated violations could result in revocation of their commercial driver's license, which obviously impairs their ability to carry out their job effectively. If their fatigue causes a wreck resulting in injury or death, both the driver and their employer can be held liable for any injuries and deaths that result.
Some, particularly commercial drivers themselves, may question whether truck driver fatigue is something that needs to be addressed through the legal system, but whatever your opinion, regulations are already in place, and responsible professionals have an obligation to follow them. Even if truck drivers feel like they are ok to keep driving past their limit, science disagrees.
With that in mind, here's what you need to do as a victim of a commercial truck accident. If you can prove that driver fatigue was the proximate cause of an accident, you will likely be able to hold the fatigued driver and their company responsible. In many cases, we've been able to prove that the trucking company knowingly encouraged their employee to violate hours and rules, which can result in increased damages against them. None of this can be proven to the extent required by law without a thorough, independent investigation.
How widespread is this problem?
In may of the hundreds of truck accident cases we've handled, a violation of hours was a part of the issue. To be clear, I'm not saying that it was always the proximate cause. That's simply not the case. However, it's undeniable that fatigue is the primary contributing factor in a large enough percentage of cases that it's vital to investigate it as a possibility.