Articles Posted in Truck driver fatigue

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As a trucking safety trial attorney in Atlanta, Georgia, I often see how truck driver fatigue contributes to 18 wheeler, semi truck accidents.

I’ve seen tragic cases where truckers tried to make it from Milwaukee to Tampa without required rest breaks, cases where truck drivers crashed when they fell asleep in their 18th or 20th hour behind the wheel. Paper logbooks are nearly useless in detecting such violations but we have been able to ferret them out with a variety of forensic methods.

But I don’t see truckers as bad guys. I’ve represented a lot of them, and have spent many pleasant hours drinking coffee and swapping stories with them in truck stops. They have hard, dangerous jobs. Most are hard-working, honest people who don’t fit any negative stereotypes. But there are still many who don’t fully appreciate how a macho desire to push themselves beyond the legal work hours endangers the lives of other people. The hazard of driver fatigue is complex and multidimensional.

Since 2004, the number of large truck crash injuries per 100 million miles has dropped 25 percent and the truck-involved fatality rate has dropped 22 percent. The fatality rate has dropped 66 percent since the DOT began keeping those records in 1975. The most recent figures from the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) indicate that the truck-involved fatality rate declined 12.3 percent in 2008 to 1.86 per 100 million miles, from 2.12 per 100 million miles in 2007. Persons injured in large truck crashes went from 44.4 per 100 million miles to 39.6, an 11 percent reduction.

There is room for debate, however, as to what factors had most to do with the change. Some attribute it to a change in hours of service rules. Others may point out the decline in truck traffic due to the recession, improved safety features in vehicles, variations in data reporting, etc.

While there is some improvement in accident data, the American Trucking Association has made five suggestions to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration to further combat hazards associated with driver fatigue. They are:

(1) Sleep disorder awareness, training and screening. (Raising consciousness of the problem among truck drivers is an extremely important step.)

(2) Promoting the use of fatigue risk management programs. (It has to be in the culture of the trucking companies. I’ve seen too many tragic cases where the trucking company management absolutely turned a blind eye to hours of service violations and driver fatigue.)

(3) Evaluating the use of fatigue detection devices. (When the driver’s eye are drooping and head is nodding, it’s time to pull over!)

(4) Increasing the availability of truck parking on important freight corridors. (It’s one thing to say a trucker can drive only so many hours, but that driver faces a Catch-22 dilemma when there are no legal places to park when he runs out of hours.)

(5) Partnering with the trucking and shipping communities to develop an educational process that identifies for drivers the location of available truck parking. (Of course!)

These all incorporate common sense. If fleshed out with quantifiable, measurable details, they could help a lot.
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As a trucking accident trial attorney based in Atlanta, Georgia, I try to keep up with trucking safety issues at the national level. The latest development was a statement last week by Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration director Ann Ferro at a U.S. Senate subcommittee. Some of the high points include:

Core priorities of FMCSA are to:
1. Raise the safety bar to enter the industry;
2. Require operators to maintain high safety standards to remain 3. Remove high-risk operators from our roads and highways.

CSA 2010 is to be implemented by end of 2010.
This Comprehensive Safety Analysis program is intended to measure seven key behaviors that are linked to trucking crash risk:
1.Unsafe Driving 2. Fatigued Driving 3. Driver Fitness which includes licensing and medical compliance standards 4. Crash History 5. Vehicle Maintenance 6. Improper Loading and Cargo 7. Controlled Substances – Drugs and Alcohol
New Entrant Safety Assurance Program
focuses on 16 safety regulations for which a violation by a new entrant carrier would result in an automatic failure of the safety audit. Any new entrant that fails the safety audit must submit a Corrective Action Plan (CAP) in order to continue to operate in interstate commerce. FMCSA also closely monitors the new entrant during the initial 18-month period of operation and, if certain violations are discovered during a roadside inspection, the new entrant will be subject to an expedited action to correct the identified safety deficiencies.

National Registry of Certified Medical Examiners rules later this year will establish minimum training and testing requirements for all healthcare professionals that issue medical certificates for interstate truck and bus drivers. (I’ve seen drivers who were cleared to return to service in a 10 minute checkup by a chiropractor after open heart surgery.)

Hours of Service. FMCSA is taking another look at the controversial hours of service rule.

Electronic On-Board Recorders will be required of an additional 5,700 motor carriers as a remedial measure. (The days of “comic book” driver logs may be numbered, but making the EOBR systems tamper-proof will be the next challenge.)

Distracted Driving. FMCSA has banned text messaging by drivers while operating a commercial motor vehicle. (It’s a step in the right direction.)

Drug & Alcohol Database. FMCSA is working on a database to keep up with drivers who fail drug and alcohol tests.

There’s more. I commend the entire statement to the interested reader.
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As a trucking accident trial attorney in Atlanta, Georgia, I often litigate about trucking accidents. As a seminar speakers, I often talk about them at continuing legal education seminars around the country. On this blog, I frequently write about them.

But last Sunday, I saw one.

While helping my son move his car and his stuff home from California, I was taking a turn driving east of Albuquerque when we saw a column of black smoke just ahead. As traffic ground to a halt, we saw that about 200 yards ahead on the westbound lanes of I-40, one tractor trailer had rear-ended another, and was beginning to burn.

Another bystander said that her husband had broken out a window in the cab of the striking vehicle and pulled the unconscious driver out before his rig burst into flames.

As traffic was blocked in both directions, my son and I waited over an hour, watching as the truck was engulfed in flames and a huge column of black smoke rose into the clear New Mexico sky.

Numerous emergency vehicles responded. Eventually a helicopter landed in our eastbound lanes and evacuated the truck driver.

While we waited, I talked with the drivers of trucks stopped behind us. A bulk freight tanker filled with plastic pellets was stopped behind me at an angle blocking both lanes. One of the other truckers thanked him for blocking both lanes that way, so that others would not get closer to the fire before stopping. He responded that he had no choice. Due in part to handling characteristics with that load, he had a hard time stopping without hitting us, and wound up at an angle across both lanes.

The truck drivers waiting on the road talked some about the new CSA 2010 (Comprehensive Safety Analysis) program coming online soon at the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration. A seasoned truck driver (about my age) was concerned that anyone who has been driving over the road for 30 years, with the diet and exercise difficulties that go with that, is bound to have medical conditions that require medication that would be reported under the new system.

They also talked a little about how they manage rest, diet and exercise. Or don’t manage it, as the case may be. One mentioned the near monopoly in the truck stop business, and the lack of healthy food or exercise facilities at truck stops. If the giant players in the truck stop industry would put in healthy food and fitness facilities, it would help a lot in improving truck driver health and public safety.

Eventually the helicopter took off and we were able to drive away. As we passed the burned out tractor trailer, it was difficult to recognize the completely incinerated tractor. Traffic was backed up for many miles on the westbound lanes of I-40 and probably was not cleared for quite a while longer.

No, I don’t know the causes of the crash — fatigue, distraction, speed, following too closely, or even sudden stopping in the middle of an open interstate through the desert.

Fortunately, it was another tractor trailer that was hit. While the trailer of the lead vehicle was destroyed, there was no direct impact to the cab. If a small vehicle had been hit in that manner, and then involved in the truck fire, it is unlikely any occupants would have survived.
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No matter how often it happens, the useless tragedy is never less shocking.

About 4 AM last Friday on I-65 in Indiana, a family of five was killed when a tractor trailer rear-ended their vehicle which had slowed for traffic

Several years ago, something similar happened to a family in our neighborhood in Sandy Springs. The parents survived but their lovely teenage daughter, who had been a friend of my daughter since kindergarten, was killed instantly when a tractor trailer ran right over them as they slowed for congested traffic on I-20 in Alabama. After seeing so many incidents of this sort, I automatically hit the hazard flasher button whenever traffic slows ahead of me on the expressway.

The predawn hours are an all too common time for this sort of crash. Driver fatigue and efforts to keep driving despite sleepiness are often a factor.

Investigation of such incidents should include tracking down and examining all driver logs, trip receipts, Prepass records, weigh station records, bills of lading, etc., etc., to determine whether there were violations of hours of service rules in the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations. It should also include investigation of the driver’s medical history, including any disqualifying medical conditions and use of prescription or non-prescription medications that may affect alertness.
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As long as truck drivers for interstate motor carriers have been required to log their driving, on duty and off duty time, falsification of logs has been common. Some drivers — though certainly not all — have regarded their logs as “comic books.” We have unraveled webs of deception to show that driver logs in some of our cases were complete falsifications.

Now legislation has been introduced in Congress that would require foolproof Electronic On-Board Recorders (EOBRs) in lieu of paper logs. The new highway reauthorization bill mandates EOBRs to track Hours of Service compliance for all commercial motor vehicles within four years of enactment.

The proposed legislation is substantially stronger than a proposed regulatory rule that would require only motor carriers with a demonstrated a history of serious noncompliance with the Hours of Service rules to install EOBRs.
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Obesity is a big risk factor for obstructive sleep apnea, which is a huge risk for drowsy drivers causing crashes.

And long days of sedentary, solitary work, legally driving up to 11 hours in a 14 hour work day, with no easy access to either healthy food or a place to safely exercise, promotes obesity.

It is no wonder then that long haul truck drivers often suffer from both obesity and obstructive sleep apnea.

MSNBC reported this week that a Harvard sleep scientist, Dr. Stefanos N. Kales, has published an article in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Health, calling for mandatory sleep apnea screening of commercial truck drivers.

“Screenings of truck drivers will be ineffective unless they are federally mandated or required by employers,” said Kales, whose study included more than 450 commercial drivers working for more than 50 firms.

Sleep apnea is a disorder that causes a person’s airways to collapse during sleep, cutting off breathing dozens – or even hundreds – of times a night. Because sufferers wake over and over, they’re never fully rested and their bodies are chronically deprived of oxygen. That can cause health problems ranging from heart disease to diabetes and symptoms that include daytime sleepiness and a tendency to nod off during normal activities.

“It can be a microsleep for few seconds,” said Kales. “That can be enough to throw a truck off the road.” The results can be devastating.

According to Kales, up to 20 percent of truck crashes are caused by drivers who fall asleep, and up to 28 percent of commercial drivers have sleep apnea. That works out to as many as 3.9 million of the roughly 14 million commercial drivers. The 28 percent rate among truckers compares poorly with about 4 percent of men aged 30 to 60 in the general population.

“A driver is impaired by fatigue long before he falls asleep,” said Jeff Burns, a lawyer representing the Truck Safety Coalition, a safety advocacy group.

Trucking industry groups routinely reject concerns about obesity and sleep apnea.

The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration’s Medical Review Board has recommended mandatory sleep apnea screening for commercial truck drivers, but the FMCSA does not appear to have the issue on its agenda for action in the near future.
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Truck driver fatigue is one of the most obvious causes of truck crashes. Obstructive sleep apnea is among the most common contributing factors. Obesity is a big risk factor for obstructive sleep apnea.

Now there is another study reconfirming the obvious: that obesity-driven testing strategies identify commercial truck drivers with a high likelihood of obstructive sleep apnea (OSA), and that mandating obstructive sleep apnea screenings could reduce the risk of truck crashes.

The study by Cambridge Health Alliance published in the March 2009 edition of the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine concludes that:

– Truck drivers with sleep apnea have up to a 7-fold increased risk of being involved in a motor vehicle crash.

– Drivers with sleep apnea frequently minimize or underreport symptoms such as snoring and daytime sleepiness.

– A majority of truck drivers did not follow through on physician recommendations for sleep studies and sleep apnea treatment.

– It is possible that many of the 14 million truck drivers on American road have undiagnosed or untreated sleep apnea.

– “It is very likely that most of the drivers who did not comply with sleep studies or sleep apnea treatment sought medical certification from examiners who do not screen for sleep apnea and are driving with untreated or inadequately treated sleep apnea.”

– The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration is currently deliberating recommendations to require sleep apnea screening for all obese drivers based on body mass index or “BMI.”
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Today a tractor trailer accident on a frozen Michigan highway spilled a truckload of eggs when the driver fell asleep and crashed. The spilled eggs broke, scrambled and froze on the concrete. Fortunately, there were no injuries reported.

This reminds me of a case we had on I-75 in south Georgia a couple of years ago. A truck driver trying to make it from Milwaukee to Tampa with a load of frozen hamburger meat without any rest recorded on a log fell asleep at the wheel, striking our client’s vehicle. The state trooper told me his biggest challenge was crowd control, stopping local deputies from making off with all the spilled hamburger patties.

There are at least a couple of possible violations of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations evident in the news report.

* 49 CFR 392.3 prohibits operation of a commercial motor vehicle when driver’s ability or alertness is so impaired, or so likely to become impaired, through fatigue, etc., so as to make it unsafe to drive. When truck drivers fall asleep at the wheel due to excessive fatigue, we often uncover violations of the hours of service regulation at 49 CFR 395.3.

* 49 CFR 392.14 requires “extreme caution” in the operation of a commercial motor vehicle when hazardous conditions, such as those caused by snow, ice, sleet, etc., adversely affect visibility or traction. The news report does not specify whether there was ice on the road, only that the eggs froze after the crash.
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New Year’s resolutions — mine included — often include aspirational goals for improved fitness and weight loss. As a trucking accident attorney in Atlanta, Goorgia, that perennial promise to myself is also a reminder of the relation between obesity, sleep apnea and dangers in interstate trucking.

Fortunately, Weight Watchers now has a mobile version that works with Blackberry. Truck drivers, as well as trial lawyers, could find that useful.

Last spring, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration’s Medical Review Board recommended that holders of Commercial Drivers Licenses be referred for medical testing for sleep apnea if they have Body Mass Index (BMI) over 30. One-third of Americans were classified as obese in 2003-2004, according to the Centers for Disease Control, and from what I see in truck stops and in litigation, truck drivers who have little way to maintain a good fitness routine on the road are no exception.

BMI combines a person’s height and weight to set a score. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, an adult’s BMI can be calculated by dividing the person’s weight in pounds by inches squared and multiplying that number by 703. A BMI number of 30 indicates obesity, according to the BMI system. A BMI calculator is available at

Sleep apnea occurs most often when throat muscles relax during sleep, momentarily preventing oxygen from traveling to one’s lungs.

I would not be surprised to see this recommendation become the basis for new rules under the Obama administration, as the Medical Review Board normally has considerable influence.
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Truck driver fatigue as a cause of major tractor trailer accidents is an old story. As a trucking trial lawyer in Atlanta, Georgia, I have seen it too many times.

In today’s Baltimore Sun, there is an editorial, “Yawning Danger,” urging the incoming Obama administration to overturn the hours of service rule that is set to become permanent on the last day of the Bush administration. The old rule limited truck drivers to 10 hours of driving in one day. The current temporary rule, which will become “permanent” on January 19th, allows driving 11 hours during 14 hours on duty.

The editorial points out:

Has the 11th hour made the roads more dangerous? Are 11th-hour drivers more likely to be involved in crashes? Some research suggests no, and that’s the evidence sited by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration when it granted the rule change in November. But advocates say the government’s analysis relies heavily on one study from the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute that is deeply flawed (depending, for instance, on truckers being videotaped; the presence of a camera onboard likely affected their performance).

The bulk of 35 years of research, the petitioners point out, shows that the performance of long-haul truck drivers diminishes even before the 10-hour limit is reached. And while the number of highway fatalities was down the last two years, it went up the first year the new rules were in place. Recent safety improvements to roads and vehicles as well as lower average highway speeds may be masking the effect of the longer hours.

It seems like common sense that fatigue is progressive, and that one is more fatigued and more accident prone in the 11th hour of driving than in the 10th hour.
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