From the December 2016 issue
An inescapable collision with a large truck is a driver’s worst nightmare. On August 25 in Binghamton, New York, a semi hauling a load of stone plowed through 10 cars stuck in construction traffic. One car burst into flames, and an SUV was so compacted that the semi’s front license plate was mashed into the back of the driver’s headrest. Luckily, onlookers pulled the driver from the flaming vehicle, there were no back-seat passengers in the crushed SUV, and no one in the incident died or suffered life-threatening injuries. It was just another in a recent uptick in truck crashes that is sounding alarms around the country. But pending legislation that threatens to undermine decades of progress could be what really reverses us into deadlier territory.
Trucks were involved in 411,000 crashes in 2014, almost double that of 2010 when injury and fatality rates began rising, according to the latest data from the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA). In 2014, 3903 people (including cyclists and pedestrians) died in trucking accidents, a 6-percent increase over 2010. Truck-occupant deaths have jumped 24 percent, and injuries in trucking accidents have soared 39 percent. These figures are misleading, though. The recession slowed trucking, with crash statistics enjoying a proportional depression. The widely reported increase in crashes and fatalities roughly paces the industry’s recovery in recent years, realigning recent data with the long-term trend lines. The greater threat to those trend lines comes from proposed regulatory changes.
Driver fatigue is often underreported in truck crashes, but as with airline pilots and doctors, proper rest is critical for the job. In a joint study between the Canadian transport ministry and FMCSA, drivers and trucking-company reps who’ve been trained to recognize sleep disorders and to combat the onset of fatigue reported longer sleep cycles and fewer accidents. Incidents of nodding off, as well as other near-crash scenarios, were reduced by 40 percent. The FMCSA reported that nearly all drivers involved in fatal crashes during 2013 who were officially classified as fatigued had exceeded federal hour limits, or had failed to log their time behind the wheel.
Slow it Down
Last summer, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and FMCSA introduced a proposal that would fit all new heavy trucks and buses with governors. The agencies claim that limiting heavy-truck speeds could save as many as 500 lives annually. And it’s not only a safety measure, as lower speeds generally correspond to increased fuel economy. Regulators claim the initiative could save up to $1 billion in fuel per year. The motion has significant support from the trucking industry. Indeed, the American Trucking Association has been petitioning the government to enact such a rule for years, though it has also suggested that the limit for all traffic be set to the same speed as trucks’ limiters. That part we’re less excited about. –Jared Gall
Currently, truck drivers can legally drive for 60 hours over seven days, or 70 hours over eight days, with a mandatory 34-hour rest period before restarting. Trucking companies successfully lobbied for the suspension of a 2013 ruling for two consecutive rest periods between 1 a.m. and 5 a.m., but another amendment to a transportation bill in December 2014 would have stretched a driver’s on-duty time to 82 hours in one week. That amendment was cut, but the bill now permits 73 hours in seven days—13 hours more than the current limit—if the FMCSA can’t prove that the consecutive rest periods improve driver safety. FMCSA recently completed a five-month study and submitted its findings to the Department of Transportation, but there is no timeline on the DOT’s decision. The American Trucking Association (ATA), the country’s largest truck lobby, thinks those nighttime rest periods make motorists less safe. Forcing drivers off the roads in the early overnight hours, it says, makes them more prone to crashes when surrounded by morning rush-hour traffic. “We do not necessarily advocate more hours, just the flexibility to use those hours efficiently,” says ATA spokesman Sean McNally.
But the nation’s 1.5 million truck carriers face ever-thinning profit margins and revenues that now run nearly 60 percent behind inflation. The phrase “if you’re not turning, you’re not earning” is a hard reality for many truckers who don’t get paid if they’re not accumulating miles, and they already have to deal with traffic, weather, loading, inspections, and maintenance.
“Sometimes it does get down to that last mile; their pay is impacted,” says Patrice Vincent, manager of federal affairs for AAA. “Anyone who gets behind the wheel of any vehicle needs to have enough sleep. Safety needs to be considered over any economic factors.”
Back on Track
There is more than just some shut-eye being deliberated. Other pending legislation would raise the maximum gross vehicle weight on interstate highways from 80,000 to 91,000 pounds (it’s already legal for logging trucks to weigh up to 99,000 pounds in Minnesota) and increase the maximum length for semitrailers towed in tandem from 28 feet to 33 feet. Another provision would have lowered the minimum age for an interstate commercial driver’s license from 21 to 18, although the final law restricted those youngsters to active military and veterans.
Yet another pending bill wants the FMCSA to block all trucking safety records from the public for at least two years and permanently prevent courts from admitting them as evidence in civil trials. The FMCSA itself is proposing to erase “non-preventable” crashes (accidents where the truck driver is proved not at fault, such as a car cutting into a lane or a drunk driver hitting the truck) from these safety records and raise the threshold at which these accidents start to hurt trucking-company crash scores, which currently aren’t public. And trucks aren’t required to have stability control or any of the other driver aids so prevalent in today’s cars.
Due to skill, regulations, and enforcement, commercial-truck drivers have far better safety records than the average driver of a passenger vehicle. But the stakes climb with vehicle weight; and speed limiters, higher insurance limits, testing for drug use, and mandatory driver assists such as blind-spot monitoring are all under legislative review, and in some cases, are supported by the trucking industry.
The FMCSA wants to catch faulty trucks by using infrared scanners that can recognize when tires, axles, and brakes are close to failure. When all trucks install electronic logging devices by the end of 2019—opposed by some over legitimate concerns of location tracking—it may lead to remote inspections where vehicle vitals and driver hours can be checked without stopping.
Modern truckers have to work even harder these days for their living, and safety costs money. But when it comes down to cars versus 18-wheelers, the cars need all the advantages they can get.