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When Truck Driver Fatigue Causes Accidents

Fatigued trucker sitting in the cabin of a large tractor-trailer.

Driver fatigue and exhaustion were among the top 10 reasons for truck accidents, according to researchers studying large truck wrecks.

Rising fuel costs, a shortage of drivers, and pressure from trucking companies (more concerned with speed and profit than employee health) mean many drivers are forced to operate their vehicles while sleep-deprived. Refusing to do so could mean missing out on vital paychecks or losing their job entirely.

The danger of sleep-deprived tractor-trailer and commercial drivers is well-studied. But if the danger is so well-known and obvious, why are large truck accidents caused by fatigue still happening?

Federal laws and regulations are trying to combat the problem, but drivers and trucking companies still try to find ways around them. The consequences often end in disaster or tragedy.

Truck Driver Fatigue Laws

The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) requires truck drivers to take regular breaks within a set amount of hours. These requirements are known as Hours of Service (HOS) Rules.

  • Operators can only drive a maximum of 11 hours after taking 10 consecutive hours off.
  • Operators cannot drive beyond 14 hours after going on duty.
  • Operators cannot drive for more than 60 hours in a week, and no more than 70 hours in eight days (this works out to about 10 hours per day with one rest day).

Certain exceptions are made for traffic jams, accident delays, and poor weather conditions.

Revised regulations (the HOS Final Rule) are updated yearly. By the end of 2023, all commercial trucks will be required to have electronic logging devices to ensure drivers are not operating their trucks while fatigued.

Company Pressure Often Undermines Driver Well-Being and Road Safety

The FMCSA’s Motor Carrier Safety Planner spells out in Chapter 6 that:

“Drivers may not operate, nor shall a motor carrier require or permit a driver to operate, a CMV if they are too tired or sick to drive safely. Operation may be discontinued at the driver’s discretion. In the case of a grave emergency, where danger to the driver, occupants, or other users on the road would increase if the driver stopped operating the CMV, the driver may continue until the nearest place the danger can be eliminated.

Despite guidelines emphasizing driver discretion when operating their vehicle, trucking companies often put pressure on operators to do whatever they can to stay mobile.

This pressure to meet tight deadlines leads to dangerous situations where the driver is exhausted, unfocused, and less reactive to the moment-by-moment situation on the road. They may not brake in time to avoid a crash, forget to check blindspots, make dangerous maneuvers, or fall asleep at the wheel.

Log Books and Monitoring

Truckers are required to record their hours in log books.

This is a crucial safety tool: it not only holds drivers accountable, but also protects them and others on the road. With driver pay tied to miles (and trucking companies incentivized to deliver more quickly), log books try to prevent this pressure from creating problems down the line.

For many decades log books were made of paper. Some are still in use, but electronic logging devices (ELDs) have become standard (exceptions to the rule include vehicles manufactured before 2000 and short-haul drivers).

Drivers record basic information for each 24-hour period in the logbook, such as date, carrier name, truck number, and total miles driven. It may also contain the start/end of the shift, names of co-drivers, shipping documents, from/to locations, on-duty non-driving, and off-duty/sleeping time.

Drivers are required to have their records of duty status (RODS) from the last seven days available for inspection. Motor carriers must keep drivers’ logs and supporting documents for at least six months in case of an audit. Entries must also meet federal standards.

In the event of an accident or lack of enforcement, sometimes these truck driving records are falsified or thrown away to conceal violations. A company may even try to say the ELD malfunctioned prior to the accident or was destroyed.

Anyone who attempts to falsify or destroy log books to avoid penalties is subject to prosecution.

Liability After a Drowsy Driving Truck Accident

If fatigue or drowsiness influenced an accident, the driver and the trucking company employing them may be held liable for the damages and injuries to the victim. The trucking company in particular may be directly liable if it encouraged, pressured, or threatened the driver to violate driving hours or falsify log books.

A victim will need to prove the trucker and the company that employed them were negligent (i.e., failed to use reasonable care based on circumstances). Showing negligence can be a difficult task. The trucking company will most likely try to stall or ignore requests for investigations by the victim or their family.

Hiring a personal injury lawyer to represent your truck accident case can increase the odds of a successful settlement. The trucking company is less likely to get away with delays or the destruction of evidence.

Large truck and semi-truck accidents can happen out of nowhere and leave victims with devastating injuries. Don’t delay in hiring legal representation. When the unexpected occurs, contact our Atlanta truck accident lawyers at Gary Martin Hays & Associates for a free case evaluation to get the help you need fast.

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