An accident that closed I-77 in North Carolina llustrates how driver fatigue is a problem that is a lot more complex than just creating regulations saying when truckers can and can’t drive — and how enforcement sometimes erroneously targets truckers in the name of safety.
Published reports indicate the southbound side of the interstate was closed for hours on Friday near Charlotte after a tractor-trailer wrecked in the wee hours of the morning and spilled 50,000 pounds of potatoes. The driver told the State Highway Patrol that he fell asleep, according to an article in The Charlotte Observer.
The driver, who was from Utah told state troops that he had heard of truckers being arrested in the state for pulling off to the roadside to sleep, so he decided to try to make it through the state.
What he had heard had a basis in reality. Late last year, the paper reported that truckers found themselves “the target of an unusual state campaign to punish violators of an obscure no-parking law,” sparked by complaints to the governor from a longtime political supporter.
Last May, the Highway Patrol announced a statewide effort to reduce crashes that involved vehicles illegally parked along interstate highways. Turned out the Highway Patrol had quietly launched its no-parking push three months earlier, focusing at first on I-77 in Surry and Yadkin counties, according to the paper.
Turns out, according to the News & Observer, there was a reason state troopers focused on that area first, and it had nothing to do with safety. Surry County winery owner Charlie Shelton, a longtime political donor, had complained to Gov. Pat McCrory about “unsightly” tractor-trailers sleeping on the shoulders of I-77 ramps near his winery.
We don’t know for sure if the driver of the potato truck was within his legal hours of service or not from the article, but it does say the driver “will likely be charged with a minor traffic offense, such as failure to maintain control of a vehicle.” If he had been cheating on his logs, I suspect the state police would have told the paper that they were at least investigating that possibility.
The thing is, it's still possible to get sleepy, especially at 2 in the morning, even if you're within your legal hours of service. All the electronic logs in the world aren't going to change that. Drivers need to be able to have the flexibility -- and the place to park -- to stop when they feel sleepy.
Obviously parking on the side of the road is not an ideal place to get that rest. Tales abound of motorists crashing into the rear of parked tractor-trailers and in fact these types of crashes have helped spark calls for stronger underride guards on trailers.
But the News Observer found earlier this year that the “data driven” crackdown by the highway patrol was based on faulty data. Parked or disabled vehicles figured in 5% of interstate crash deaths – not 20%. Truck drivers napping on ramps, the primary enforcement targets, were involved in only 1% of deaths.
Yet this crackdown had the far-reaching consequence of prompting a driver to decide he couldn't stop in the state to sleep.. Thank goodness the only victims of the Utah driver’s decision to keep pushing through his sleepiness were potatoes and inconvenienced motorists. It could just as easily have been a bus full of children. And the driver’s lucky to have escaped without major injuries.
What does your carrier tell drivers to do when they’re sleepy and there’s no truck parking nearby?
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Reporting on trucking since 1990, Deborah is known for her award-winning magazine editorials and in-depth features on diverse issues, from the driver shortage to maintenance to rapidly changing technology. 28 Jesse H. Neal honors.View Bio