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The recent six-vehicle accident on the New Jersey Turnpike--allegedly caused by a fatigued Wal-Mart truck driver--that critically injured comedian Tracy Morgan and killed fellow entertainer James McNair occurred just days after a Senate panel voted to suspend recently enacted rest rules for truckers.
Specifically, the Senate Appropriations Committee voted June 5, 2014, in favor of an amendment offered by Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, to strip funding to enforce new hours-of-service requirements for long-distance truckers that took effect in July 2013. But the June 7, 2014, accident could deter the progress of Collins’ proposal--a proposal supported by the trucking industry.
The Department of Transportation (DOT) rule was intended to prevent accidents involving driver fatigue by dropping truckers’ maximum hours per week to 70 from 82 and requiring that mandatory 34-hour breaks during workweeks include the hours from 1 a.m. to 5 a.m. on two consecutive days. The 34-hour restart, as it’s known, is required only if a driver has reached the maximum weekly limits of 70 hours over eight days or 60 hours over seven days. These hours were chosen due to the circadian body clock demands when people need the most sleep, according to the DOT.
A criminal complaint filed in the June 7 accident asserts that the Wal-Mart driver had not slept in the 24 hours before the accident; however, the company issued a statement declaring that he was “operating within the federal hours of service regulations.” Federal law sets a maximum of 11 hours of driving after 10 consecutive hours off duty.
“At the heart of this rule is an expectation to minimize the risk when tired drivers are behind the wheel of an 80,000-pound truck,” said Anne Ferro, head of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, which enforces the rule. Working long hours on a continuing basis is associated with chronic fatigue, a high risk of crashes, and a number of serious chronic health conditions in drivers, Ferro said. Truck crashes caused 3,912 fatalities in 2012, and the fatal-crash rate increased each year from 2009 through 2012, reversing a five-year trend. The new hours-of-service regulations were projected to prevent 1,400 truck crashes a year, saving 19 lives and avoiding 560 injuries, according to the proposed rule.
Collins said her amendment suspending the rule was necessary “to remedy some of the unintended consequences stemming from the rule change,” specifically, safety hazards caused by having more trucks on the road during daylight hours, which are the heaviest traffic times.
The amendment doesn’t repeal the 11-hour per day limit currently in place for truck drivers. Collins has asked the DOT to conduct “a comprehensive study to see if these changes are truly justified.”
The trucking industry opposed the new hours-of-service rules and unsuccessfully tried to sue to reverse them. Critics of the rules say that the new regulations have had the unintended consequence of putting more traffic on the nation’s already congested highways just as the morning rush hour begins.
“Since these rules were proposed in 2010, [American Trucking Associations] has maintained that they were unsupported by science and since they were implemented in 2013 the industry and economy have experienced substantial negative effects as a result,” said ATA President and CEO Bill Graves in a statement.
Ferro recently told members of the Senate Commerce Committee that the safety impact of more trucks on the road is incremental and outweighed by the benefits of drivers sleeping more at night.
The amendment is attached to a Senate bill appropriating transportation funds for fiscal year 2015. It has to clear the full Senate and be reconciled with the transportation funding bill that emanates from the House. The Government Accountability Office is also currently studying the issue.
Roy Maurer is an online editor/manager for SHRM.
Follow him @SHRMRoy
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