Examining Truck Driver Fatigue as a Serious Public Safety Issue

July 29, 2019 Truck Accident Blog

Truck Driver Fatigue and Liability Distribution

According to a study conducted by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, or FMCSA, approximately 13% of the drivers of commercial vehicles were found to be fatigued during the time when an accident occurred. Another study showed that the first hour a driver begins to operate has the highest risk for accidents because of sleep inertia, which impairs motor skills shortly after waking up. These startling facts suggest that an examination of the relationship between driver fatigue, company liability and public safety is needed.

Defining Driver Fatigue

The FMCSA recognizes driver fatigue as a serious impairment to the ability of a worker to safely perform the job. The conditions that lead to driver fatigue have clearly been established as a public safety issue.

New federal regulations to reduce driver fatigue went into effect in 2013:

  • Hours-of-service rules limit the amount of driving for every week to a maximum of 70 hours.
  • Daily limits were imposed to put limits on the amount of time available for driving each day.
  • The driver has some flexibility to split the 10-hour break if necessary.
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These rules for hours of service are effective at reducing driver fatigue, but they still can be broken in many cases. The driver’s only recourse for refusing to break the rules is to file a complaint with OSHA, and many workers fear retaliation. Even though these regulations are effective at reducing driver fatigue when they are followed, many trucking companies still have the profit motive, the incentive and the means to pressure drivers into operating under a fatigued condition. In addition, there are different classes of drivers, and this can affect their ability to get adequate rest.

Finally, drivers are not all paid in the same way. The drivers who are paid per mile have a monetary incentive to drive fast, and they are often pressured in subtle ways to ignore signs of fatigue. Since the companies wield a disproportionate amount of control over the ordinary driver’s working conditions, they also have the bulk of the responsibility.

Distribution of Liability

The liability for the driver’s fatigue can be distributed across all parties that have some degree of control over the working conditions of the driver. This may also include overlapping liability, which means that other conditions were present that made the fatigued driver more at risk of being involved in a collision. Defective manufacturer’s parts might play a role in a crash, for example. If the truck’s brakes were found to be defective, the distribution of liability might include the manufacturer in addition to the driver. Each case must be evaluated based on evidence.

Public Safety and Driver Fatigue

Driving after midnight is directly correlated to a reduction in the alertness of commercial truck drivers. However, the trucking industry often forces drivers to work shifts that are between midnight and 4 a.m. These are risky hours to be driving a truck. Some trucking companies expect fresh produce to be delivered first thing in the morning, for example. At the same time, the driver might not be unloaded immediately, and this pushes their driver hours later in the day. The issue of liability has not yet motivated companies to reduce the amount of time drivers spend driving during the riskiest hours.

A driver might be informed that they will get loaded by noon, but the situation often changes when they arrive at the dock. It is not uncommon for a driver to wait to be loaded until 5 p.m. or even later after expecting to start driving during the afternoon. The next delivery might be scheduled for the early morning hours, and this situation will force the driver to drive all night. To make it even worse, the driver might be unable to sleep in the truck during those hours because of constant interruptions.

They are also unable to leave the truck, which means that they must remain alert even if they report being off duty. This is an impossible situation, yet it is very common in the trucking industry. This type of case of driver fatigue is substantively different than a driver who stays out late at night drinking at a casino, for example. Each situation should be examined on its own merits because the distribution of liability must be proportionate to the distribution of power and control.

Many companies attempt to shift the blame and liability onto other parties. This may include the driver, and this even happens in situations where the driver had no control over the work schedule. For example, some drivers are still using paper logbooks to record their hours, and this opens up their driving time to exploitation by unscrupulous employers. Electronic logbooks are more effective at restraining the abuse of hours-of-service rules, but some companies still find ways to push their drivers past the normal limits of human capacity. This poses a serious public safety threat because of the high fatality rates whenever a commercial truck is involved in a collision.

Driver Fatigue and Truck Accident Lawsuits

The Department of Transportation, or DOT, has the authority to require drivers to use logbooks to document the time spent on duty. However, some companies still use paper logs instead of electronic driver logs, or EDLs. Lawsuits rely heavily on documented evidence to determine the cause of a crash. If driver fatigue played a role, the driver logbooks will show the specific hours of service and other relevant details. If a violation occurred, this evidence is needed to assign liability to the responsible party. Accident victims also deserve answers as well as compensation, and the lawsuit can provide a certain level of closure in some cases.

Working with an experienced team of truck accident lawyers is essential when dealing with the trucking industry. Many trucking companies hire lawyers who will raise the possibility of the driver or other vehicles involved in the collision as being responsible for it, which you must be prepared to counter. You will need to have an experienced legal firm that knows how to handle these legal maneuvers, and that means developing strategies for keeping companies who truly are at fault liable. Drivers might have some liability for their own fatigue, but most of the working conditions they face are determined by the employing company.

Litigating Driver Fatigue Cases

Our truck accident lawyers understand how to deconstruct an accident and follow the paper trails back to the responsible party. We can seek punitive damages as well as monetary compensation for the medical expenses, lost wages, pain and suffering experienced by so many involved in a collision with a commercial vehicle. We can also obtain substantial support for bereaved family members who are suffering from personal loss of a loved one on top of the inevitable assaults from an adversarial legal team.

Some trucking companies will seek to obtain witness statements and other evidence that can be used against you at a later point in time. Our legal team will intervene to protect you against these problems as we simultaneously fight hard to win your case and provide you with relief. We recommend that you contact our practice immediately after an accident occurs. Our clients have legal rights, but these must be aggressively pursued in the courts, and our truck accident lawyers are here to represent your interests every step of the way. Contact us in Somerville at (908) 448-2560 or in New Brunswick at (732) 247-3600 for a consultation.

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