A Georgia-based truck driver who worked for Walmart traveled 800 miles to his workplace in Delaware before continuing north in his truck, where he rear-ended a limo carrying actor Tracy Morgan and others, including comedy writer James McNair. McNair died in the collision, and Morgan was seriously injured. The truck driver—who was 13 1/2 hours into a 14-hour workday and had not slept for 28 hours at the time of the crash—was charged with vehicular homicide and assault by auto for the crash, which involved four other vehicles and 21 people in total.
More than a year after the accident, Morgan was still dealing with nosebleeds and loss of memory due to the head injury he suffered in the accident, and Walmart had begun providing increased education to its drivers about the dangers of truck driver fatigue. And one New York lawmaker, Sen. Chuck Schumer, was calling for increased monitoring of truck drivers by the Department of Transportation through the use of black boxes inside trucks that could record hours and alert drivers. “Truck driver fatigue isn’t going to go away,” he wrote.
Several years later, in spite of federal hours of service rules, fatigued truck drivers are still getting behind the wheel and causing accidents. New York State Police determined that the cause of a fatal crash in which one semi-truck driver was killed after his vehicle collided with the wreckage of another semi-truck was a truck driver who fell asleep while driving. The sleeping driver’s truck lost control after he drifted into a guardrail on the side of the road. That truck then overturned, and the second driver could not stop his big-rig in time to avoid colliding with the distressed truck. The secondary accident caused a fire, and the second truck driver involved died at the scene.
If you were injured in an accident that was caused by a fatigued truck driver, an experienced truck accident attorney can help you understand the legal process of obtaining compensation for your injuries.
The Dangers of Fatigued Driving
The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA)—the agency responsible for regulating and overseeing commercial truck transport in the United States—describes fatigue as the feeling of physical or mental exertion that impairs performance. The truck driving industry is one of the most common industries in which workers experience dangerous levels of fatigue.
Here are some facts about the issue:
- A study from the FMCSA indicates that approximately 13 percent of drivers of large trucks involved in accidents reported feeling tired at the time of the crash.
- The human body was designed to sleep during the night. The sleep-wake cycle, known as the circadian rhythm, causes most individuals to feel the most tired between the hours of midnight and 6 a.m., and also in the afternoon between 2 p.m. and 4 p.m. Many truck drivers are on the road during those hours. When a driver is already deprived of sleep, he or she may be even more profoundly affected by the pull of the circadian rhythm when working during such hours.
- The recommended amount of sleep for most healthy adults is between seven to nine hours each night. Research from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health reveals that about one-third of all American workers sleep less than six hours each night, on average. While truck driving is certainly high on the list of industries most likely to have fatigued workers, the risk of fatigue is prevalent in other industries as well, including military or police work, the manufacturing industry, and healthcare positions.
- The FMCSA found that the correlation between fatigued drivers and commercial truck accidents was more related to the time of day than to time on task. Incidents are generally higher within the first hour after a break, suggesting that drivers are starting their journeys before feeling completely alert. This is particularly true for drivers who are taking their breaks in their sleeper berths. The phenomenon is known as sleep inertia, which involves impaired performance shortly after waking.
- Studies indicate that truck drivers often fail to eat light, healthy meals or snacks that would help to improve the quality of sleep, and that many fail to take a nap when feeling fatigued. Short naps, between 10 to 45 minutes in length, have been shown to help drivers maintain optimal performance when on the road. Additionally, many truck drivers use over-the-counter medications for sleeplessness that actually increase drowsiness in the long run.
- Being awake for 18 hours or more can cause similar impairments to the skills needed for driving as having a blood alcohol content of 0.08 percent, which is the legal limit in most U.S. states.
- A study revealed that three out of every four truck drivers have committed at least one driving error as a result of drowsiness.
- Many common tricks to avoid driving fatigue are only temporary fixes, including caffeine consumption or opening a window to let fresh air in. These cures may keep the driver awake temporarily, but they do little to remedy the impairment to skills caused by fatigue in the long run.
The Dangers of Commercial Trucks
More than 4,000 people die each year as a result of accidents with a commercial truck. Even when the driver is well-rested, large commercial trucks—also known as semi-trucks, big rigs, or tractor-trailers—pose risks to other drivers. According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), the majority of fatalities in accidents involving large trucks are the occupants of passenger vehicles.
Here are some of the reasons why:
- Poor braking capability. A commercial truck, when fully loaded, can weigh up to 20 to 30 times more than the average passenger car. Due to its massive size, these vehicles require 20 to 40 percent more distance to come to a safe stop when approaching a hazard. This stopping distance increases on wet or icy roads or when the truck is operating with worn brakes.
- Higher ground clearance. Commercial trucks have a high ground clearance, which creates a deadly space beneath the vehicle that can cause an underride. An underride accident is when a passenger car slips beneath a truck during an accident; these accidents may result in severe injuries and even fatalities.
- High center of gravity. Commercial trucks also have a high center of gravity, which makes them prone to rolling over in certain conditions—such as when making a sharp turn, traveling too fast for conditions, or during crash avoidance maneuvers.
A Deadly Combination
The results of a large truck accident causation study revealed that the four top reasons for truck drivers to cause accidents with other vehicles include:
- Non-performance: The driver fell asleep or suffered an unexpected medical condition, such as a heart attack or stroke.
- Recognition: The driver was inattentive, distracted either by something inside or outside of the truck, or failed to detect a hazard for some other reason.
- Decision: The driver’s decisions, such as driving too fast for the conditions of the road or following another driver too closely, may cause an accident.
- Performance: The driver overcompensated or exercised poor control.
Of these factors, non-performance (the driver fell asleep or experienced a medical crisis) accounted for 12 percent of the accidents included in the study. However, fatigue—which causes impairments, such as the inability to concentrate, use good judgment, or brake or steer correctly—could be involved in any one of those top four reasons for large truck crashes. The survey indicated that major factors behind all of the top reasons were fatigue and speeding to meet deadlines.
In vehicles that are already more difficult to maneuver and stop due to their massive size, having one’s skills impaired by fatigue is just one more risk factor that can lead to a serious crash.
The Sleep Apnea Factor
A study conducted by the University of Pennsylvania and sponsored by the FMCSA and the American Transportation Research Institute of the American Trucking Associations revealed that nearly one-third of all commercial truck drivers (28 percent) suffer from sleep apnea.
Sleep apnea is a breathing-related sleep disorder in which a person’s breathing is briefly interrupted during sleep. These interruptions can last for up to 10 seconds and can occur up to 400 times each night. The condition results in increased fatigue for the sufferer, even if he or she has gotten the recommended seven to nine hours of sleep.
Some sleep apnea symptoms include:
- Loud snoring
- Headaches and nausea upon waking
- Gasping or choking while sleeping
- Excessive daytime sleepiness
- Loss or reduction of sex drive
- Frequent nighttime urination
- Irritability or depression
- Difficulty with concentration or memory
Those who suffer from sleep apnea are more likely to:
- Have a family history of sleep apnea
- Be overweight
- Be over 40 years old
- Have a large neck circumference, narrow airway, recessed chin, small jaw, or an overbite
- Smoke cigarettes and/or consume alcohol
Although FMCSA regulations do not specifically address sleep apnea, they do require drivers to be medically fit to drive. A diagnosis of sleep apnea indicates that there may be a condition that makes the driver medically unfit to drive if the condition is diagnosed as moderate or severe. However, this is a treatable condition, and once a driver has obtained treatment, he or she can regain a medically qualified to drive status and begin working again.
Although many drivers who suffer from sleep apnea have never actually fallen asleep while driving, the condition increases the risk of an accident due to the inability to concentrate or to remain alert that fatigue causes. Sleep apnea is generally diagnosed through a visit to a sleep center where professionals monitor an individual’s sleep and detect if pauses in breathing occur.
Federal Hours-of-Service Requirements
The FMCSA has instituted rules designed to prevent fatigue among commercial truck drivers by regulating the number of hours they’re allowed to drive before taking a break. The rules for property-carrying trucks include:
- A maximum drive time of 11 hours after an off-duty time of at least 10 hours.
- A maximum of 14 hours on-duty after 10 consecutive off-duty hours.
- A maximum drive time of 8 hours after an off-duty or sleeper berth break of at least 30 minutes.
- A maximum of 60 hours on duty every seven consecutive days, or 70 hours every eight consecutive days.
The FMCSA has introduced proposed changes to its hours of service rules, designed to allow drivers more flexibility with break times. The proposed changes include:
- Allowing drivers to remain on-duty but not driving during their 30-minute break after eight hours of driving time.
- Modifying the 10 consecutive hours of off-duty time to allow drivers to split the time into two off-duty periods—one of at least seven hours and one of at least two hours. Neither off-duty time would count against the driver’s 14-hour on-duty window.
- Allow one break of between 30 minutes to three hours that would pause the driver’s 14-hour window, provided they take a 10-hour off-duty break after their shift.
- Extending the maximum drive time by two hours in situations where there are adverse driving conditions that cause the driver to be unable to drive for a time or force him or her to drive slowly in accordance with road conditions.
- Change the short-haul exemption so that certain drivers can have a maximum drive time of 14 hours, up from 12 hours, and a distance of 150 air miles instead of 100 air miles.
U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao stated that the proposed changes to the rules would provide drivers with the ability to deal with challenges, such as traffic congestion and adverse road conditions, without having to race the clock, while also maintaining safety limits to protect other travelers on the roadway.
The Responsibility of the Employer
Employers can be held legally responsible for accidents caused by their drivers, including those that involve fatigue. Because of the safety repercussions that come with having fatigued drivers, more and more trucking companies are requiring all drivers to undergo testing for sleep apnea and offering training on the importance of sleep. However, as with any industry, to protect their bottom lines, some employers pressure their employees to work longer and harder than is reasonable or safe.
If you fall victim to such a drowsy trucker and/or a trucking company that placed unrealistic and unsafe expectations on its driver, a truck accident lawyer can discuss your situation. Look for someone who offers a free case evaluation and works on a contingency fee basis—that way you will pay no out of pocket expenses and your lawyer will only receive payment if he or she secures a judgment or settlement on your behalf.