Thursday, January 19, 2012

A Word About Recent Changes to FMCSA Commercial Trucking Regulations

Hello all-

The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) recently announced changes to the hours of service rules that govern commercial truck drivers. Although the changes do not go as far as some would have liked them to, the new rules are a step in the right direction and should lead to fewer serious and fatal collisions involving tractor-trailers.

The most important change in the rules is to limit the use of the so-called 34-hour restart to once a week. The 34-hour restart refers to a process through which a driver may restart the clock on his weekly hours by taking 34 consecutive hours rest. Under the current rules, a driver could use the 34-hour restart to work up to 82 hours in one week. The new rule will limit the use of the 34-hour restart to once per week and will also require that the 34 hours include two periods of 1:00am-5:00am (i.e. two nights).

This change has two positive effects. First, by limiting the use of the 34-hour restart to once a week, it addresses the problems caused by the long-term fatigue that builds up when trucking companies require their drivers to routinely work at the limits of the hours of service requirements. This new rule strikes a balance between the needs of trucking companies to require their drivers to periodically work very intensely for a week with the special dangers that arise when drivers are routinely pushed to the limits.

Research has shown that fatigue builds up over a matter of time and that a sleep debt built up over several days or weeks is not erased after one or two good night’s sleep. In addition, repeatedly working 70+ hour weeks impacts truck drivers health beyond long-term fatigue, leading to other potentially dangerous conditions such as obesity, hypertension, diabetes and sleep apnea. The second effect of the change is that the 34-hour restart must include two nighttime periods. This is a reaction to research showing that sleeping during the day simply does not have the restorative benefits that sleeping at nighttime does.

 The revised rules left the maximum hours a commercial truck driver may drive in a day unchanged at 11 hours. Although the FMCSA initially preferred to reduce the maximum hours driving to 10 hours, it ultimately left that portion of the rules unchanged in light of the expense such a change would impose upon trucking firms. Although several consumer safety groups were disappointed in this result, it does show that federal agencies do take into account the interests of businesses when making regulations. In this case, the trucking industry lobby was successful in getting their voice heard and keeping the provision more favorable to their economic interests.

Ultimately, the rule changes are recognition of the very important role a commercial truck driver’s health plays in keeping both that driver and the general public safe. Here at Warshauer Law Group, we frequently represent truck drivers. The majority of drivers on the road are hard workers who follow the rules and do the right things in order to protect themselves and others. It takes great skill to safely drive an eighteen-wheeler and a strong work ethic in order to stay on the road mile after mile. These men and women play a pivotal role in making many of the necessities and conveniences of our modern life possible and they deserve not only our gratitude, but also fair wages and working conditions that protect their health and safety.

We also routinely represent individuals and families whose lives have been impacted by a catastrophic collision with a truck driven by a driver who has decided not to follow the rules or employed by a company that requires it’s drivers to break or bend the rules. Although these drivers do not represent the majority of drivers on the road, it is often the case that a collision that seems like an “accident” is actually the foreseeable result of the safety rules not being followed.

Some of the most important rules are those that govern truck driver’s physical qualifications to drive. The FMCSA requires commercial truck drivers to be physically able to drive a truck safely. There are many medical conditions that can have deadly consequences when they affect professional truck drivers and are not treated or addressed properly. These include diabetes and sleep apnea.

Diabetes, if not properly controlled, can cause many problems for a commercial truck driver, including diabetic shock or diabetic comas and vision problems, especially at night. Sleep apnea can also prove deadly because it prevents the driver from ever getting a good nights sleep, allowing a dangerous state of long-term fatigue to build up.

The fact that an “accident” was caused by an unfit driver is not always obvious and often takes a great deal of legal work to uncover. In one recent case, we were able to obtain a favorable settlement for a client who was seriously injured after being involved in a collision with a tractor-trailer driven by a driver with severe and uncontrolled diabetes. The driver’s doctor testified that his patient failed to follow any steps to keep his diabetes in check.  As a result, the driver could not see at night. This inability to see at night directly led to the wreck that resulted in our client being taken to the hospital by ambulance, undergoing many surgeries and ultimately being unable to return to his career.

For a recent news article discussing the challenges faced by America’s truck drivers and how some of those challenges are being addressed, see this recent article in the New York Times.

Trent Shuping 

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