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Truck driver fatigue still a major cause of tractor trailer wrecks

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.

Ken Shigley is a truck and bus safety trial attorney representing seriously injured people and families of people killed in tractor trailer, big rig, semi, intermodal container freight, log truck, cement truck, dump truck, log truck and bus accidents statewide in Georgia.

Mr. Shigley has extensive experience representing parties in interstate trucking collision cases, and in the past two years has spoken at national interstate trucking litigation seminars in Chicago (trucking insurance), New Orleans (trial tactics and side underride issues), St. Louis (punitive damages), San Francisco (dealing with insolvent trucking companies), Atlanta (trucking insurance, closing argument), Nashville (use of Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations), and Amelia Island (overview of trucking litigation).

A Certified Civil Trial Advocate of the National Board of Trial Advocacy, he has been listed as a “Super Lawyer” (Atlanta Magazine), among the “Legal Elite” (Georgia Trend Magazine), and in the Bar Register of Preeminent Lawyers (Martindale). In addition to trucking litigation, he has broad experience in products liability, catastrophic personal injury, wrongful death, spinal cord injury, brain injury and burn injury cases.

Mr. Shigley served as chair of the Southeastern Motor Carrier Litigation Institute and is a national board member of the Interstate Trucking Litigation Group. He is currently Treasurer of the 41,000 member State Bar of Georgia, of which he will become President-Elect on 6/19/10 and President in on 6/4/11. This blog expresses only personal views of Mr. Shigley, and nothing in it should be construed as expressing any opinion on behalf of any organization of which Mr. Shigley is a member or officer.

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