Senate Panel Weighs Truck-Driver Safety Rules

A big rig truck is parked outside of the Cinerama Dome at the "Big Rig" party. i

A truck is parked at the "Big Rig" party Nov. 5, 2007, during AFI FEST 2007 at the ArcLight Cinemas Rooftop Village in Hollywood, Calif. A Senate panel this week is considering the contentious issue of how many hours truckers can safely drive. Michael Buckner/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Michael Buckner/Getty Images
A big rig truck is parked outside of the Cinerama Dome at the "Big Rig" party.

A truck is parked at the "Big Rig" party Nov. 5, 2007, during AFI FEST 2007 at the ArcLight Cinemas Rooftop Village in Hollywood, Calif. A Senate panel this week is considering the contentious issue of how many hours truckers can safely drive.

Michael Buckner/Getty Images

The Senate Commerce Committee this week is considering the highly contentious issue of how long it's safe for a truck driver to be behind the wheel.

The Bush Administration loosened regulations in 2004 to allow truckers to drive longer hours. Safety groups sued, saying tired truckers are putting themselves and others on the road at risk, and won twice in federal court.

But last week, federal regulators re-issued the same rule on working hours.

'Sweat Shops on Wheels'

Unlike millions of Americans, truckers typically work more than 40 hours a week.

Take trucker Rick Smith. He can have a rig on the road for 11 hours each day and up to 77 hours per week.

"There's a large percentage of truck drivers who see these trucks as nothing but sweat shops on wheels," he said. "You could almost work an unlimited number of hours."

Current hours-of-service regulations permit truck drivers to be behind the wheel up to 11 hours instead of 10 previously, and limit drivers to 14 hours in a duty period. The 14-hour duty period may not be extended with off-duty time for meal and fuel stops. Each duty period must begin with at least 10 hours off duty, rather than eight previously.

While the 60 hours on-duty in seven consecutive days, or 70 hours in eight consecutive days, rule remains the same, drivers can "restart" their work week after just 34 consecutive hours off-duty.

Contributors to Fatigue

At the Flying J truck stop in Carlyle, Pa., truckers smoke cigarettes and slump over plates of fried food. Patron and truck driver Richard Shotts said he likes that he can squeeze in more hours because he gets paid by the mile.

"It's great. It's wonderful," he said."

Other drivers say the new rule makes them feel less safe. Brenda Prince said it's tough to drive 11 hours, and the regulation makes it harder to pull off and take a nap.

"I'm tired after I drive for seven hours," Prince said, adding that she has dozed behind the wheel before.

Her current employer lets her stop when that happens. But the last employer didn't. "They get you out there, and they force you to go — that's the scary part," she said.

It's not just driving that makes truckers tired. Their trucks need to be loaded and unloaded, and that can sometimes take another 40 hours per week, according to Todd Spencer, vice president of Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association.

"This is time that's uncompensated, and generally its time that's never even recorded on a driver's log book," Spencer said, calling it a second full-time job.

He said businesses want just-in-time delivery and while truckers make that possible they also pay the price.

But safety advocates say truckers aren't the only ones sacrificing.

Crash Statistics

"Every year, 5,000 people or more are killed in truck crashes. We know fatigue is a major problem," said Jackie Gillan of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety.

AHAS has twice sued the Department of Transportation, challenging longer driving hours and shorter weekly rest periods.

The DOT denies that the regulation has compromised safety.

"I think what the data show is that that has not occurred," said John Hill, head of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration. "We have data now that supports the fact that 11 hours of driving, with a 10-hour rest period, really does combine for a safe operating environment."

Hill said the government's view is backed up by crash statistics in 2004 and '05.

"There was only one large truck involved in a fatigue-related fatal crash in the 11th hour of driving," Hill said.

Officials at the American Trucking Association, which represents big trucking companies, agree with the government.

"We as an industry are able to do our job moving America's freight, and we're doing it more safely than ever. So we oppose changes to the rules, said Dave Osieki, the association's vice president for safety, security and operations.

Osieki added that overall safety is improving, and less than one-tenth of large truck crashes are linked to truck driver fatigue.

Data are at the center of the safety debate.

Anne McCartt of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety said the risk of a crash goes up twofold when a truck driver has been driving more than eight to 10 hours. Further, she said, more truckers are admitting to falling asleep behind the wheel.

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