Will Accidents Increase During Suspension Of FMCSA Trucker Rest Rules?

The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration's hours-of-service rules establish mandatory hours-worked limits and rest periods for truckers. These rules play an important role in reducing crashes involving driver fatigue in Oregon and elsewhere. However, in late 2014, the HOS rule requiring overnight rest during weekly "restart periods" was suspended. Currently, truckers don't need to log two periods of rest between 1 a.m. and 5 a.m. during each restart period.

The potential safety effects of this change, which is effective until September 2015, are debatable. Supporters believe the suspension will allow truckers greater flexibility to rest as needed and drive when traffic is lighter. However, critics worry that the suspension will lead to more accidents, injuries and fatalities.

Mixed effects on accident risk

According to The New York Times, critics of the overnight rule contend that it forces truckers to drive when congestion peaks. Accidents are typically more likely to occur when traffic is congested. Under the suspension, truckers can drive at night, when traffic is minimal, and theoretically lower their risk of accident involvement.

Despite this potential gain, the rule suspension could also have adverse effects. The rule effectively limited truckers to working 70-hour weeks. Now, depending on the way the restart period is scheduled, truckers may log more weekly hours. This means that the rule suspension may result in more fatigued drivers on the road and, consequently, more accidents.

Research has shown that drivers who log one overnight rest, rather than two, are more likely to show performance impairments. These include drifting into other lanes and losing focus on driving. The impairments associated with fatigue can be much worse, however, as the crash that injured Tracy Morgan last year illustrated. Unfortunately, statistics indicate that similar fatigue-related accidents occur all too frequently.

Drowsy driving not uncommon

Trucking industry officials estimate that drowsy drivers contribute to about 7 percent of all truck accidents. The Department of Transportation, however, estimates that driver fatigue plays a role in 13 percent of all truck accidents. This figure is based on the results of the FMCSA's Large Truck Crash Causation Study, which surveyed over 900 representative accidents.

Officials note that driver fatigue may go undetected in many truck crashes. Unlike some other forms of truck driver negligence, fatigue is often difficult to recognize or conclusively prove. Therefore, the proportion of trucking accidents that involve fatigued drivers actually may be even higher than these estimates.

In Oregon, medium and heavy trucks were involved in 2,015 reported crashes in 2013, according to the Oregon Department of Transportation. Based on the federal DOT's estimated drowsy driving crash rates, about 261 of these accidents may have involved driver fatigue. Sadly, more of these accidents may occur under the FMCSA rule suspension, especially if the rule is not restored in September.

Recourse for fatigue-related accidents

Legal remedies may be available to the victims of truck accidents involving driver fatigue or other preventable factors. The decision to drive while fatigued can be considered negligent, given the known safety risks of drowsy driving. Even if fatigue cannot be established, victims may be able to prove a driver violated safety regulations or traffic laws. Accident victims may benefit from discussing their situation with an attorney to better understand the available legal options.