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JACKI LYDEN, HOST:

If you've just joined us, you're listening to WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LYDEN: Let's hit the road. We're coming up to one of the biggest travel days of the year, and you might be out on the road with one of the three million big rig drivers. Every year, between 3- and 4,000 people die in large truck and bus crashes. Starting tomorrow, the long-haul truckers are going to have to shorten the hours they drive. New government regulations will start being enforced, aimed at reducing accidents.

Wheeling up Interstate 95 to Jessup, Md., to ask truck drivers their reactions, Janessa Mann look down from the cab of her 18-wheeler.

JANESSA MANN: The big accidents that happen, it's because the driver was up for 36 hours straight. Your brain can't handle that.

LYDEN: Anne Ferro heads the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, the agency cutting back on driver's hours.

ANNE FERRO: At the core of this rule is a tremendous amount of research about how fatigue contributes to our ability to be alert behind the wheel, and how chronic fatigue undermines an operator's ability to run safely and undermines health.

LYDEN: She says one new rule is that in the first eight hours on the road, drivers must take a 30-minute break. To some truckers, that law just makes sense. Troy Wittmer is on his way from New Jersey to Georgia.

TROY WITTMER: The bottom line is, anybody that's been doing it for a while, I guess, or anybody who's got a good head on their shoulders is going to know when they need to stop.

LYDEN: Gary Hewood also doesn't expect that particular regulation to change much.

GARY HEWOOD: Ain't no big deal. Everybody does that anyhow.

LYDEN: Some provisions, though, are more controversial. Right now, truckers have to take day and a half off for every seven days they're on the road. Truckers can pick the hours they want off. The new regs require them to take time off between 1 a.m. and 5 a.m. to respect circadian sleep rhythms. And the maximum number of driving hours allowed has been reduced from 82 to 70 per week.

These rules mostly will affect truckers driving the longest routes. Ferro says encouraging drivers to rest will save lives, and it will cost money, about $500,00 billion a year across the economy.

FERRO: Drivers are paid by the mile or by the load so it really is the case. The longer you sit, the more money you make.

LYDEN: But there are savings here too. The government estimates that the improvements and safety in driver health will net $200 million annually in reduced health care costs and other benefits. Even so, says Janessa Mann...

MANN: Truck drivers are always going to push it because we don't have a choice. The stuff needs to be there. If you don't make your appointment on time, these companies will leave you sitting there in their parking lot for anywhere from two to eight hours because you were late.

LYDEN: Ferro agrees that pressure from companies can be a problem.

FERRO: The shipping and receiving industries, customers of those trucking companies, also have an obligation to understand their role in that supply chain and the impact of their decisions on safety.

LYDEN: And in fact, it's illegal for a trucking company to push a driver past the legal limits. Truckers have traditionally kept track of their hours in their paper log books. Those hours though are harder to verify, and they've been known to be falsified both by truckers and by their employers. A new generation of automated electronic logs linked directly to a truck's engine are being phased in across the industry. But in the end...

HEWOOD: It's up to the driver whether he's going to make his money or when he's going to get his rest. And if he's got any sense in him, he'll make money and get his rest.

LYDEN: That's Gary Hewood again on the road to North Carolina.

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