The NTSB determined that this Elmhurst, Illinois, crash was the Pioneer Transportation driver’s failure to respond to slow-moving traffic due to a performance decrement likely caused by fatigue associated with his untreated sleep disorder. - Photo: NTSB

The NTSB determined that this Elmhurst, Illinois, crash was the Pioneer Transportation driver’s failure to respond to slow-moving traffic due to a performance decrement likely caused by fatigue associated with his untreated sleep disorder.

Photo: NTSB

Truck drivers are pros at what they do. They drive the big rigs and all manner of smaller vehicles over our nation’s highways to transport critically needed goods that are essential to American commerce. But the nature of their work, driving eight to 11 hours a day, often at night, and regularly crossing time zones in a single trip, make them susceptible to fatigue. Fatigue on our highways is pervasive, preventable, and impacting transportation safety in all modes. 

The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration recently completed a two-year effort to permanently relax hours-of-service rules for commercial motor vehicle drivers. The new final rule puts commercial drivers — and those with whom they share the roads — at increased risk.  

The National Transportation Safety Board’s mission is to promote safe transportation, and we are troubled by the relaxed rules that ignore this approach. Fatigue degrades a person’s ability to stay alert and attentive while safely controlling any vehicle. We have investigated too many preventable tragedies to remain silent on this critical issue.

These rule changes come at a time when new data show trucking fatalities increasing. Between 800 and 900 drivers lose their lives on the road each year, and the risk only begins with the truck driver. We must be doing more to continue improving trucking safety, not less.  

It’s a fact that hours-of-service regulations save lives in transportation. But it isn’t easy. The effort to reduce fatigue goes beyond the regulations and requires a comprehensive approach, including research, education, training, technology, sleep disorder treatment, HOS regulations, and better scheduling policies and practices.

The FMCSA’s new rule uses terms such as “safety-neutral” and “without adversely affecting safety.” The Department of Transportation’s press release optimistically adds that the rule will “improve” safety. But the science doesn’t support those claims.

The FMCSA claims that the changes “enhance flexibility” so drivers can stop when they feel tired. The reality is, fatigued drivers are more likely to be in an accident, and humans are exceedingly poor at self-assessment.

The new final rule relaxes the HOS regulations in several ways. 

  • It expands the short-haul exception from 100 air-miles to 150 air-miles and increases the allowable duty day from 12 to 14 hours. That’s a loophole you could drive a truck through! 
  • It expands the driving window during adverse driving conditions by up to an additional two hours. So, the weather’s bad, the workload and fatigue is increased, and we’re going to press on?
  • It requires a 30-minute break after eight hours of driving time (instead of on-duty time) and allows an on-duty/not driving period to qualify as the required break. That might include loading or unloading, which could be even more tiring than driving. Sure, it feels good to get back in the cab where I don’t have to work so hard. But the risk is much higher!
  • It modifies the sleeper berth exception to allow a driver to meet the 10-hour minimum off-duty requirement by spending at least seven — rather than at least eight — hours in the berth, and a minimum off-duty period of at least three hours spent inside or outside of the berth. All of us fall asleep immediately and get high-quality sleep when we’re in the bunk, right?
When a Walmart truck driver approached the work zone in Cranbury, New Jersey, close to 1 a.m. on June 7, 2014, he had only gotten about four hours of sleep opportunity in the preceding 33 hours. - Photo: NTSB

When a Walmart truck driver approached the work zone in Cranbury, New Jersey, close to 1 a.m. on June 7, 2014, he had only gotten about four hours of sleep opportunity in the preceding 33 hours.

Photo: NTSB

We understand that economics matter in this debate, and that most drivers only get paid when the wheels are turning. But we don’t believe dollars versus human lives is a good tradeoff. You probably wouldn’t either.

NTSB isn’t alone in wanting to put safety first in the trucking industry. The Teamsters, who have a vested interest in full employment, recognize the value of ensuring driver safety and have also come out against these changes to the HOS rules.

We should point out, too, that trucking companies that have addressed fatigue beyond simply complying with HOS regulations have experienced fewer crashes and seen fewer fatalities as a result of driver crashes.

For example, after a fatigued driver caused a fatal truck crash in Cranbury, New Jersey, in 2014, Walmart Transportation introduced a fatigue management program that exceeded regulatory minimums with effective sleep management protocols. By investing in safety, proactive companies like Walmart have improved their bottom line. 

After the highly publicized 2014 fatal crash between a fatigued Walmart driver and a van limo carrying comedian Tracy Morgan, Walmart introduced a fatigue management program that exceeded regulatory minimums. - Photo: NTSB

After the highly publicized 2014 fatal crash between a fatigued Walmart driver and a van limo carrying comedian Tracy Morgan, Walmart introduced a fatigue management program that exceeded regulatory minimums.

Photo: NTSB

An investment in safety does not cost. It saves. A lawsuit from a fatal crash can easily cost a company and its insurer tens of millions of dollars, without beginning to consider the business costs that arise from damaged business relationships, lost business, and lost time. A fatal accident can cause small operators to go out of business. And when crippling injuries are added the fatal crash statistics, the cost-benefit analysis loses validity rapidly.

The HOS rules are complex, but sleep science is not. Fatigue is a manageable threat to transportation safety that can be mitigated through reasonable company safety practices and individual responsibility. The NTSB has recommended for decades that the FMCSA tighten enforcement of fatigue regulations, implement sleep apnea screening, set science-based maximum hours of service, develop sleep management programs, and deploy electronic logging devices for all commercial truck drivers.

Imagine what happens if a fatigued trucker collides with a minivan full of children, construction workers on the road, or commuters on an intercity bus. Recent investigations involving fatigued truckers prove the point — one in Boise, Idaho, and another in Elmhurst, Illinois.

Scene views of six of the vehicles at final rest on eastbound I-290 after a March 1, 2018, crash in Elmhurst, Illinois. - Photo: NTSB

Scene views of six of the vehicles at final rest on eastbound I-290 after a March 1, 2018, crash in Elmhurst, Illinois.

Photo: NTSB

Safety is job one in any mode of transportation. Compared with a crash resulting in serious injuries or loss of life, nothing else matters. And, getting adequate rest (at least seven to nine hours of continuous sleep) reduces fatigue and makes our highways safer. Like all drivers on our highways, commercial drivers must be well-rested. While fatigued drivers operating smaller vehicles can also result in deadly consequences, trucks weighing 80,000 pounds and up to 80 feet long require just a bit more alertness and finesse than driving the family car.    

National Transportation Safety Board Vice Chairman Bruce Landsberg poses a question to the investigative staff during a public meeting held in Washington, D.C. - Photo: NTSB Photo by Chris O’Neil

National Transportation Safety Board Vice Chairman Bruce Landsberg poses a question to the investigative staff during a public meeting held in Washington, D.C.

Photo: NTSB Photo by Chris O’Neil

Here is the bottom line: The fact that a driver has successfully (and luckily) driven fatigued for hundreds of trips absolutely does not guarantee that the next one will have a happy ending. Fact: Every one of the drivers involved in a fatal crash were 100% certain they could complete their run safely – let’s state it again, humans are exceedingly poor at self-assessment.

At a time when truck-related fatalities are increasing, how many of your family and friends are you willing to sacrifice for a few more miles each day? The NTSB has investigated too many preventable tragedies to remain silent on this critical issue. We urge you to join other responsible operators and view the hours of service regulations as what they are: the bare minimum. Together we can do more to improve trucking safety, not relax it. It’s an approach we all can live with!

Reduce Fatigue-Related Accidentsis on the NTSB 2019-2020 Most Wanted List.  

On Oct. 27 at 1 p.m. EDT, the National Transportation Safety Board will host a webinar, "Managing Commercial Motor Vehicle Driver Fatigue Risks." NTSB Highway Safety Investigator Mike Fox and Jana Price, senior human performance Investigator, will highlight the findings of fatigue-related crash investigations and discuss how companies can implement a fatigue risk management program.

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