The Reason the Trucking Industry Won't Fix the Big Rig Accident Problem
On January 27, 2014, Doug B. stopped to help a big rig that had stalled out on the Ronald Reagan Memorial Tollway in Illinois. Doug, a State Trooper, was standing by while a tow truck and a Tollway vehicle helped get the stalled semi truck situated. Visibility was good that night, and the road was littered with flares, flashing lights, and warnings to oncoming traffic.
The flares and the lights didn't stop a big rig operator from driving full-speed into the trooper's squad car, launching him into a ditch and turning his car into a flaming wreck. The driver's flatbed truck was loaded with three 14,580-pound coils that launched on impact, killing the driver of the Tollway vehicle and injuring the driver of the stalled truck. Doug was left with severe burns over a third of his body, requiring him to spend weeks in a medically-induced coma while undergoing 10 surgeries and months of rehab. Investigators later learned the reason why the truck driver didn't stop: he was asleep.
Accidents like this aren't uncommon: in 2013, drowsiness caused more than 70,000 collisions. What you may not know is that driving-while-tired is a well-known phenomenon in the trucking profession. At 80,000 pounds fully-loaded, a drowsy truck driver is far more dangerous and deadly than any other kind of driver. Unfortunately, trucking industry practices are creating more drowsy drivers every year.
Semi Truck Hours of Service Put Intense Pressure on Drivers
From the moment a driver wakes up and is on duty, he has 14 hours before he has to turn in for the night. Only 11 of those hours can be spent driving, which isn't as much as it seems. After their 14-hour workday is finished, they have to take a 10-hour off-duty break. The Sleeper Berth provision requires truckers to spend at least 8 of those 10 hours in their sleeper berths. Truckers will work this schedule for no more than 60 hours in a week (or 70 hours in an 8-day period) before they need to take a "restart." A restart is a 34-hour period where they do no driving. All of their hours must be recorded in a federally-mandated logbook, either a paper one or an electronic one.
Truckers regard federal hours of service rules as a nuisance (at best) or a detriment to the American Dream (at worst). According to The Huffington Post, one trucker said to NTSB investigators, "Do you know how difficult it is to make money?" Asked about keeping a compliant logbook, he added, "If anybody tells you they roll 100% by the book, they're lying to you." The truth is, the hours of service arrangement is hard for truckers. This industry article from 2017 explains why falsified paper logs were once an issue.
For trucking companies, hours of service creates a culture of secrecy and desperation that makes their jobs easier—and cheaper.
Electronic Logging Devices & Road Safety
While paper logs were once easy to falsify, paper logs are now an industry artifact. As of December 2017, federal officials have mandated the adoption of ELDs, or Electronic Logging Devices, for all carriers and drivers. ELDs allow drivers to automatically track their off-duty time, driving time, and on-duty non-driving time (e.g. waiting for loading and unloading). By connecting the log directly with the engine, carriers and officials have a more accurate record of how much time drivers are spending on the road.
However, though paper logs are going to be relegated to the past soon, that doesn't mean the problem is solved. According to some experts, it's possible to falsify ELDs, at least to a limited degree. For instance, drivers are still responsible for marking their own off-duty and on-duty time. For drivers under pressure from carriers to make miles, it would still be possible to classify their on-duty, non-driving time as off-duty time, meaning they're not actually getting the rest they need. In some cases, drivers could even label their drive time as "off-duty," since drivers are allowed to drive empty trucks to truck stops, residences, or within freight yards. These violations are easy to catch upon inspection, but the culture of secrecy and long hours may continue.
Let's Talk About Pay-Per-Mile (& Its Effect on Road Safety)
If truckers were paid like other employees, either with an hourly rate or a salary, then hours of service wouldn't be a problem for them. However, carrier employees aren't paid that way—they're paid by the mile. That means no matter how long a driver has been hauling loads through city streets or open highways, they're paid according to the incredibly fickle, inconsistent number of miles they drove. If there's a traffic jam, well, that's money a driver will never see. If they need rig maintenance, tough luck. If they're running behind, they'll skip the brake check (just this once). Paying drivers by the mile motivates them to skip out on the critical duties of a big rig operator, focusing them on one thing only: getting from A to B.
"What does that have to do with me?" you might ask. When drivers have a choice between obeying the law or making enough money to support their families, many of them choose their families. That means falsifying logbooks (a practice the trucking industry condemns but has been accused of indirectly encouraging) and driving for longer and longer hours to make ends meet. Independent contractors don't fare much better—their livelihood depends on getting dispatchers to give them "good loads," i.e. routes that come with hundreds of miles of easy driving. Contractors who get "bad loads" can't refuse them or they'll lose the ability to get the good loads later on. So, they get stuck with trips that cause them to lose money, putting them in the same situation as carrier employees: driving for illegal hours to make ends meet.
Thousands of Virtually Drunk Drivers on the Road
Driving for longer hours than allowed isn't just a matter of legal nitpicking. Long hours create sleepy drivers, and sleepy drivers are wildly dangerous. According to the Large Truck Crash Causation Study, at least 13 percent of truck crashes involve fatigued drivers; experts insist the actual percentage is higher. One study done by AAA found that drowsy driving plays a role in eight times as many accidents as federal agencies estimate. The National Sleep Foundation reports that being awake for 18 hours makes you drive like your blood alcohol content is at .05. Being awake for a full 24 hours makes you drive as though your BAC is at .10—essentially making you as dangerous as a drunk driver.
The semi truck accident we mentioned earlier? The driver was in the middle of a 37-hour drive, an ordeal that's more common in the trucking profession than you might hope. When drivers feel compelled to drive for days without rest, there's something wrong with the industry.
How Trucking Companies Are Fighting to Keep Things the Same
Thanks to insurance delays and armies of highly-paid lawyers, semi truck accidents aren't all that costly for carriers. At least, they're not costly compared to the profits they make by underpaying drivers. Even when lawmakers try to fix the serious issues plaguing the industry, trucking companies hired lobbyists to keep things exactly the same.
According to a Huffington Post analysis, the trucking lobby has fought:
- Regulations that would screen drivers for sleep apnea (making them prone to tiredness)
- Regulations that would require side guards on trucks to prevent underride accidents
- To prevent the FCMSA from making immediate safety changes
- Safety changes that would force companies to let truckers sleep at night
Trucking companies insisted that letting truckers sleep at night would make roads unsafe by putting drivers on the road at rush hour. However, statistics show that most fatal accidents happen between midnight and dawn. In total, trucking lobbyists spent $20 million to influence Congress between 2012 and 2015, according to a study from Public Citizen. As far as access to power, safety advocates don't stand a chance—FedEx alone has 51 lobbyists, 37 of which used to work in government.
The Only Language Big Truck Companies Speak
Companies only change when the financial penalties for unsafe practices are too high to pay. According to an analysis published by the Cornell School of Law, the auto industry and chemical manufacturers have made significant safety improvements to their products in large part because they were afraid of getting sued. All we need now is to do the same for trucking. The key to doing that? Semi truck accident lawyers. By holding companies accountable to the people they hurt, we can make it costly for large carriers to keep things the way they are.
That's why truck accident survivors and their families call our firm. Arnold & Itkin LLP has won billions of dollars for people who were harmed by negligent companies. Our mission is to make the roads safer by encouraging companies to do the right thing—and when necessary, forcing them to do it in court. If you've been hurt in a trucking accident, either as a trucker or as a motorist, tell us what happened. We can help you decide what happens next.
If you've been injured in a big truck accident, call (888) 493-1629 or contact us online to learn your legal options.