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Safety Advocates Say Rules to Get Tired Truckers Off Road Too Weak

Oct 31, 2005 |

How long can you drive before you get tired?

The government says a truck driver can spend up to 11 hours a day behind the wheel before taking a break.

People whose family members have died in trucking accidents say that's too long. Some want to limit it to a maximum of eight hours.

"If our daughter had been killed in an airplane crash involving a tired pilot, the federal government would be racing to pass bills and regulations to address fatigue," said Rick Curl, of Loch Lloyd, Mo. His 15-year-old daughter, Ashley, and four others were killed in 2001 on a Kentucky highway by a truck driver who fell asleep.

The maximum used to be 10 hours, but the Bush administration changed that in 2003 to 11 hours. After safety advocates complained, the administration revised its rules this past summer to make some changes to a truckers' workday, but the 11-hour limit remained.

Trucking company and government transportation officials contend the new rules strike a proper balance between the need to keep goods moving and the need to keep people on the road safe. Truck drivers can spend more time behind the wheel, but their rest is much more regulated than before.

For example, a trucker's total workday, which could include loading and unloading time, has been shortened from 15 to 14 hours. For the first time, drivers are required to rest for at least 10 hours in a row, eight of which must be in their sleeper berth.

Beth Bandy of Somerville, N.J., thinks truckers need more rest.

Her father, Bill Badger, died Dec. 23 when a tractor-trailer rear-ended his cherry red Chevrolet Cavalier, crumpling it, as he was on his way to catch a plane to see her. The driver, nearing the end of his shift, admitted falling asleep.

"We wanted to get together for Christmas and instead, we were making funeral arrangements," the 47-year-old former receptionist said, fighting back tears.

Bandy belongs to a group, Citizens for Reliable and Safe Highways, that is pressing the government to reduce truckers' driving time. They also want the government to scrap a provision allowing drivers to spend as much as 17 more hours on the road per week on top of the 60 hours they were allowed under the old rule.

"That is twice the time that most Americans work, and they have to be alert and able to drive that big truck so it doesn't destroy other people," said Joan Claybrook, president of Public Citizen, a non-profit consumer watchdog group that sued to toughen the 2003 rules. "The result is that drivers are pushed beyond their capacity causing horrific crashes."

Adding an 11th hour doesn't necessarily mean driving an additional hour, said Dave Osiecki, vice president for safety, security and operations for the American Trucking Association.

"There's downtime for loading. There's downtime for unloading," he said. "A driver has to stop and go to the bathroom, (and) stop for fuel safety inspections."

A study by Virginia Tech found that drivers may be getting more sleep under the new rule almost six and a half hours a day.

It's not clear how many crashes involving trucks are caused by fatigue.

The federal government says it was a factor in 5.5 percent of the roughly 4,669 fatal crashes in 2003 involving large trucks, but safety advocates claim it's much higher.

Researchers say it's difficult to pinpoint because there's no easy test to measure fatigue and police agencies don't track it.

The trucking association, citing federal research, says most deadly crashes involving large trucks happen in the first four hours of a shift, while only 4 percent occur after eight hours on the road.

Trucking companies, already grappling with driver shortages, don't dispute the pressure long-haul truckers face. Paid by the mile, they frequently drive in the middle of the night to avoid daytime highway congestion.

The number of miles logged by large trucks has risen from 160 million in 1993 to nearly 215 million in 2003. But the rate of trucking accidents per miles driven has decreased over that time, according to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration.

Cutting a trucker's driving time any further would make the roads less safe because more rigs would have to be deployed to deliver the same amount of freight, trucking companies argue.

"What you would do is actually increase the likelihood of large truck crashes," said Don Osterberg, who oversees driver training and safety at Schneider National, a Green Bay, Wis., trucking firm with nearly 16,000 drivers.

Companies also are making their own devices to keep drivers alert. California-based Iteris, Inc., has outfitted about 15,000 trucks in Europe and North America with a small camera and computer that warn drivers with a sound like going over a rumble strip when they drift out of their lane without signaling.

"When it goes off and you don't expect it," said company executive Bill Patrolia, "it's an eye-opener."

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