It was early on a Saturday morning in June 2014, and a deadly pileup on the New Jersey Turnpike involving a tractor-trailer had just taken the life of comedian James "Jimmy Mack" McNair and critically injured actor Tracy Morgan and others.
According to New Jersey state police, a Wal-Mart truck driver "failed to observe the slow-moving traffic ahead of him" and was unable to avoid slamming into the limo bus carrying Morgan and six other people.
While the cause of the crash is still being investigated, the accident couldn’t have come at a worse time for advocates of weaker federal truck safety rules. Just a week earlier, the Senate Appropriations Committee passed an amendment aimed at suspending a requirement that truck drivers rest for at least 34 consecutive hours – including two nights from 1 a.m. to 5 a.m. – before beginning their next work week. This "restart" requirement was one of several changes that took effect last summer in an attempt to reduce driver fatigue.
According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the rate of fatal truck crashes increased nationwide from 2009 to 2012, and there were 3,912 deaths in 2012. One of the leading causes of those truck crashes every year is fatigue, according to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA).
That’s what prompted changes to the U.S. hours-of-service (HOS) rules for truck drivers, with the final rules going into effect on July 1, 2013. The rules cut back on weekly driving time for some truckers, especially long-haul tractor-trailer operators. Although truckers will still be able to drive 11 hours and work 14 hours per day, their ability to use a 34-hour “restart” will be restricted. The new rules:
- Limit the maximum average work week for truck drivers to 70 hours (down from the previous maximum of 82).
- Allow truck drivers who reach the maximum 70 hours of driving within a week to resume if they rest for 34 consecutive hours, including at least two nights from 1 to 5 a.m.
- Require truck drivers to take a 30-minute break during the first eight hours of a shift.
The FMCSA estimates the new regulations will save 19 lives and prevent 1,400 crashes and 560 injuries every year. The estimated savings is $280 million from fewer large truck crashes and $470 million from improved driver health.
But not everyone agrees with that math.
A broad coalition of drivers, advocacy groups and politicians has been opposing the FMCSA’s new rules. Opponents argue that the new rules fail to provide the promised health and safety benefits, in addition to having the “unintended consequences” of putting more trucks on the road during peak congestion and commuter hours, causing more accidents, not less. If a bill currently working its way through the Senate becomes law, drivers will no longer be limited to one 34-hour restart in a 168-hour period, and the restart will no longer have to include the two consecutive 1 a.m. to 5 a.m. periods.
But for now, the FMCSA isn’t backing down, saying it has no intention of changing the regulations.
What’s your next step?
Hours-of-service rules could potentially affect everything from your drivers’ weekly paychecks to when shipments arrive at their destination, as well as shipping costs. You could even be forced to pay drivers more, or find yourself scrambling for good drivers.
So what can you do? First, make sure your safety and risk management efforts are on track. Next, stay up-to-date on the latest news about the HOS rules at www.fmcsa.dot.gov/HOS. And finally, talk to the transportation insurance experts at Higginbotham about how to protect your business from the unique risks you face.