New Federal Regulations for Truckers in 2012: Do They Go Far Enough?

At the end of 2011, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) set forth a new set of rules pertaining to truckers' work schedules. The updated FMCSA hours-of-service regulations for commercial vehicle operators were officially published on December 27.

Some advocates are now applauding the United States Department of Transportation (USDOT) for tightening certain requirements, but are questioning whether hours-of-service regulations could be doing more to protect motorists. In the end, the FMCSA declined to reduce the daily driving time maximum from the current 11 hours to 10 hours, a move that came highly recommended by many roadway safety groups.

The FMCSA turned some heads by failing to reduce the maximum daily driving time for truck drivers to 10 hours. Safety advocacy groups, along with the Teamsters Union, had led efforts to lower the driving time standards. The move also had the backing of the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health and the National Transportation Safety Board.

Airline Pilots Subject To Far Stricter HOS Requirements than Truckers

Road Safety America (RSA), a group dedicated to preventing trucking accidents and making the highways safer through political action, was quick to point out that recently-released hours-of-service limits for airline pilots were substantially lower than their trucking counterparts. The limits for pilots, announced just one day before the truckers hours-of-service rules, call for no more than 8 or 9 daily hours of flying depending on what time of day the flight hours begin. RSA's officials feel that "fatigue is fatigue" regardless of whether the time is spent behind the wheel of a truck or in the cockpit of a plane, so the jobs should be treated equally.

In fact, since there is little doubt that far more injuries and deaths are caused each year by truck driver fatigue than any kind of airliner mishaps, semi truck drivers should be held to a higher standard, not a lesser one. RSA points out that while consumers voluntarily purchase tickets to get on commercial aircraft, almost everyone must share the road on a daily basis with professional drivers. Treating truckers more like airline pilots - as professionals held to strict standards who are paid accordingly - is a focus of RSA's agenda, and they are far from alone in calling for more well-rested commercial drivers.

Ultimately, however, the FMCSA was unconvinced by RSA and other groups calling for reduced hours-of-service limits. Eliminating the 11th hour would have high costs, said the agency in the final rule, but a new study from the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute found that the risk of safety-critical events rises only slightly in the 11th hour of driving time for truckers. Furthermore, the FMCSA relied on information submitted from several commercial carriers that indicated the 11th hour is used relatively sparingly by most of them, chiefly to account for unexpected situations. Still, a handful of companies reported liberal use of the 11th hour, with one carrier stating it had a special division in which drivers used the 11th hour 85 percent of the time.

Although the daily driving limit remained unchanged, the FMCSA did publish several new rule changes that represent steps forward in the fight against driver fatigue. Drivers may complete other work activities in addition to their 11 hours of driving time (such as loading and unloading), but in no case can they drive after 70 hours of "on duty" time (whether driving or performing other tasks) in eight consecutive days. Drivers have the option of "restarting" this 70-hour limitation by taking 34 consecutive hours off duty. While the 34-hour restart period was an option under the old rules, it now must include at least two periods between 1 a.m. and 5 a.m., and it may only be used once a week to reset weekly duty limits.

Drivers also must now take mandatory rest breaks. Under the new rules, a truck driver may only stay behind the wheel if 8 hours or less has passed since his or her last off-duty period of at least 30 minutes.

Finally, there are new specifically defined penalties for "egregious" hours of service violations. Driving, or allowing a driver to drive, three or more hours beyond the driving-time limit is considered an egregious violation. Such violations will be subject to the maximum civil penalties.

Truck driver fatigue is a contributing factor in as many as 30 to 40 percent of all heavy truck crashes, contributing to some 20,000 injuries every year. With a lower daily driving time limit for truckers, some say these numbers could be reduced. Until more is done to foster prevention, however, motorists injured by fatigued commercial drivers should retain a semi truck accident lawyer and trust in the personal injury legal process to provide after-the-fact remedies.

Legal Actions Against Trucking Companies

Even though the 11-hour daily driving limit remained intact, the new FMCSA rules moved in the right direction towards fewer roadway deaths and injuries. But, some truckers and trucking companies fail to strictly follow the hours-of-service requirements, and even when they do, accidents can still happen.

When another motorist is injured due to the negligence of a truck driver or the driver's employer, he or she can bring a lawsuit to collect monetary compensation for damages like medical bills, wages lost due to an inability to work, and pain and suffering. For fatal trucking accidents, the victim's family may seek damages from responsible parties.

Trucking accidents can be caused in many ways in addition to driver fatigue, including excessive speed, improper truck maintenance, improperly loaded cargo, or dangerous roadway conditions. If you have been injured in a trucking accident, or if a family member has been killed, exercise the legal options at your disposal and ensure that those responsible for your loss are held accountable.