Weakening of safety regulations means there will likely be more drowsy truck drivers and more deadly truck crashes.
Interstate 70 passes through St. Charles, Missouri at nearly the halfway point on its way across the United States. I-70, as a primary transport conduit between the East Coast and the Southwest and Southern California. On any day, thousands of tractor-trailers move through St. Charles transporting everything from heavy machinery to packages shipping from online retailers.
Those trucks, engaged in interstate commerce, are regulated by various federal and state agencies. Those agencies have created a regulatory apparatus that is designed to ensure safe trucks and safe truck drivers are on the road, and that dangerous operators are removed from the highways.
However, many forces at work push in the opposite direction. Sadly, Congress and the House of Representatives have become a friend to those elements that weaken safety regulations and allow larger and more unsafe trucks.
In the last few years, there have been multiple cases of truck crashes where truck drivers have plowed into lines of stopped traffic or vehicles parked along the side of the road. Some recent cases have involved fatigue or fatigue combined with distraction, such as from a cellphone or texting. Some drivers have even been alleged to have been watching porn before they crashed. A horrific crash in 2014 cost one highway worker his life and burned an Illinois state trooper over 1/3 of his body. He escaped his burning car and spent weeks in a medically induced coma and three months in the hospital recovering from his burns. He had to undergo 10 surgeries and significant time in rehab. What happened? A trucker, violating the hours limitations set for drivers, had driven for almost 37 hours according to a later investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB). He had fallen asleep and struck the state trooper and another vehicle responding to the breakdown of a different truck.
When Congress deregulated the trucking industry, it meant many smaller trucking companies began operations. This has helped lower the cost of shipping goods from coast to coast on roads like I-70. Nevertheless, that lower cost brings with it another, far greater cost. That of dangerous trucking companies. Federal regulations are supposed to track and remove from the highways unsafe companies. The lobbyists for the trucking industry, however, have been very effective in undercutting and in some cases, outright preventing the development, implementation and enforcement of those safety regulations. Many of the smaller companies operate on minimal budgets with little or no training or supervision for drivers. Drivers are forced by deadlines the skirt or break rules to make those deadlines. If they don’t, they don’t get paid. In attempting to meet those deadlines, the price they and other motorists may pay is their lives.
After years of work the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) issued new regulations covering Hours of Service, which detail how many hours a trucker can work in a day and how many hours they can spend driving. It also contained limits on how many hours they could spend driving in a week and the number of times they needed to have a full night’s sleep. The trucking industry went into an uproar, pushing Congress to rescind the regulation in an 11th-hour budget bill, guaranteeing its passage. This bill did not outright revoke the regulation, but instead opted for the trucking lobby’s preferred method. Congress instructed the FMCSA to “study” the matter and a few months later altered the study to include the lifetime health of truckers. Clearly, this is a blatant attempt to prevent these regulations from ever being enforced while providing cover the Congressional representatives who voted for it. They can innocently claim they only voted to study the problem, and that somewhere, in the far distant future, that study will be complete. A similar approach has been taken towards sleep apnea, from which many drivers suffer. It can lead to drivers falling asleep while driving and regulations from the FMCSA to increase surveillance of the condition among drivers have been stopped by Congress.
The crash of Wal-Mart truck into the van carrying entertainer Tracy Morgan, which severely injured Morgan and killed James McNair in 2014, was the highest profile crash involving a semi-truck rear-ending a vehicle and killing or injuring the occupants. But it was not the only one. One writer lists four such crashes between April and July of 2015, which left 21 individuals dead. The statistics are frightening. 2013, the most recent year with finalized numbers, 3,964 people died in crashes involving large trucks. It is likely that as the economy continues to recover and more trucks are on the road. Think about this the next time construction, or another crash, leaves you stuck in traffic. As you watch your rear-view mirror, hope the truck driver approaching had a good night’s rest.