No bargains to be had in shortchanging trucking safety

March 21st, 2005 by Julie Ferguson

Most of us like bargains. We almost all feel good when we can save a few pennies here and a few dollars there at the grocery store or the mall. But when is a bargain not a bargain? Maybe when we trade the potential for saving a few cents with safety on our highways.
Recently, a new regulation proposed extending the number of hours that truckers can work each day from 14 to 16. Representative John Boozman (R-AK) sponsored the bill, which some have dubbed “the Wal-mart Amendment” because the world’s largest retailer has been in the forefront of pressing for the changes. It might more aptly be called the “What were they thinking” bill. This is one of those issues that concerns the safety of both the worker and the general public. About 5,000 people, more or less, are killed in big-rig fatalities each year. Let’s look at a few work driving fatality statistics from NIOSH:

  • From 1992 through 2001, roadway crashes were the leading cause of occupational fatalities in the U.S., accounting for 13,337 civilian worker deaths (22% of all injury-related deaths).
  • Truck drivers, who are included among Transportation/Material Mover occupations, had a rate of 17.6 deaths per 100,000 FTE, a rate considerably higher than that for this occupation group as a whole.
  • Vehicles occupied by fatally injured workers were most often semi-trucks (3,780, 28%), cars (3,140, 24%), other and unspecified trucks (2,359, 18%), and pickup trucks (1,607, 12%).
  • Between 1992 and 2001, truck occupant deaths increased, as car occupant deaths decreased.
  • Crashes involving large trucks (more than 10,000 lb. gross vehicle weight rating) were 7 times as likely to be fatal to other motorists as to truck occupants. An average of 4,425 motorists involved in collisions with large trucks died each year from 1992 through 2001, compared to 681 large-truck occupants.

Long driving hours: a recipe for fatigue
The current Hours of Service were revised in 2004, extending the allowable hours for driving from 10 to 11, but limiting the maximum duty period down from 15 to 14 hours. The three non-driving hours are for breaks, meals, loading and unloading, etc. Proposed legislation would increase the hours of duty to 16 and the hours of driving to 14. Rep. Boozman seems to think this will increase driver safety.
The Asheville Daily Record frames the issue when they pose the questions “While locked onto the flank of an 18-wheeler in the narrow Pigeon River Gorge on a rainy day, have you ever wondered just how tired the driver of that spray-throwing behemoth next to you is?”
The Daily Record has been an advocate of truck and highway safety over the years. They have an excellent editorial on the topic entitled Trucker fatigue still an issue; give drivers a big say in any workday changes that will be available for a few more days before being archived. It�s worth a read. They point out that a 16-hour workday is the equivalent of two full workdays for most people, and suggest that the matter of hours be best left to federal regulators and the truckers themselves:
Settling on the best formula for truck drivers’ hours is best left to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA), not to retailers and the trucking industry, which have much more interest in profits than what is best for the guys behind the wheel.
The FMCSA is in the midst of revising these rules, and should be gathering testimony from the truckers themselves. Congress should stay out of this process.

Boozman withdrew the bill last week in the wake of protest, but it is likely it will resurface again since some of the largest retailers are lobbying hard for extended trucking hours.
We’ve previously blogged about how extended hours and fatigue on the part of workers with a public trust can become a can become a public hazard. (See When injured workers meet tired doctors). From our perspective, tired workers are a hazard to themselves and to others. Extending trucker hours will result in more accidents and more deaths. Sometime later, public outrage and lawsuits will cause the pendulum to swing the other way again. In workers’ comp, it doesn’t take long to learn that cutting corners usually doesn’t pay – a short-term gain can be quickly outweighed by a long-term loss. There are no bargains when it comes to short-changing safety.
More resources
Work Related Roadway Crashes: Who’s at Risk
Truck Drivers Should Grab the Wheel When it Comes to Sleep Management
How to share the road with truckers
Driver Fatigue Quiz

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