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A Closer Look at Drowsy Truck Driver Crash Claims

A Closer Look at Drowsy Truck Driver Crash Claims
Pianko Law Group 
November 3, 2021

For the umpteenth time since the coronavirus pandemic began, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration waived certain hours of service rules. These waivers allow drivers to stay behind the wheel, even when they are dangerously fatigued.

This time, the waiver applies to livestock haulers. The National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, a lobbying group, has pushed long and hard for this exemption. “I believe FMCSA’s continuation of this exemption indicates their confidence in our producers to keep doing their work safely and effectively,” declared NCBA Executive Director of Government Affairs Allison Rivera. Previous HOS waivers have applied to almost all truckers who transport almost any consumer goods. 

Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration Deputy Administrator Meera Joshi, who has been approved by a Senate committee as the next permannt head of the agency, has publicly endorsed safety waivers.

Why Are Truck Drivers Sleepy?

The easy answer is that truck drivers are sleepy because they drive too much. However, the easy answer is usually not the entire answer.

Federal HOS rules include daily driving limits, weekly driving limits, and mandatory rest periods. In normal times, these rules are extremely strict. The FMCSA usually hands out stiff fines to drivers and the shipping companies who send them on runs.

But although the worst of the pandemic is clearly over, as far as the FMCSA is concerned, these are not normal times. So, the agency has watered down a number of these rules. For example, “rest” used to mean “rest.” Now, the FMCSA usually defines “rest” as any activity not directly related to driving, even something like pumping gas. The agency has also changed the definitions of long-haul and short-haul trips. Fewer restrictions apply in short-haul trips, and now more runs qualify as such. 

Other waivers include higher weekly caps as well as expanded makeup times. These expansions apply if drivers were stuck in traffic or had to slow down because of bad weather.

All these waivers have created a culture of tolerance. The aforementioned aggressive enforcement is a thing of the past. We should not be surprised. If the people who make the rules aren’t concerned about drowsy truck drivers, it’s only natural that the people who enforce the rules would feel the same way.

Sometimes, sleep time, or the lack thereof, has little or nothing to do with fatigue. Most people are naturally drowsy early in the morning, in the middle of the day, and late at night. Most truckers are behind the wheel at these times.

Underlying medical conditions, such as sleep apnea, also contribute to the number of drowsy truck drivers. This condition blocks a person’s primary airway during sleep. As a result, these individuals do not normally get very much deep, restorative sleep. Instead, they basically nap all night. Mostly since truck drivers sit for such long periods of time, they are highly at risk for developing sleep apnea.

Effects of Drowsy Driving

The causes of drowsy truck driving might be complex, but the effects of drowsy driving are quite straightforward. An additional two awake hours in a twenty-four hour period, not an additional two working hours, increases the risk of a wreck by a staggaring 400 percent.

Drowsy driving and drunk driving have a lot in common. Alcohol dulls motor skills. It also gives people an artificial sense of euphoria, so it affects judgement abilities. Fatigue has basically the same effect. Drowsy individuals have slower reactions than alert individuals. Their brains take a bit longer to process information. That tiny bit longer can make a significant difference on the road.

Furthermore, there is no quick fix for either condition. Only time cures alcohol intoxication, and only sleep cures fatigue. Quick shortcuts, like blasting the air conditioner or drinking coffee, might help people feel more alert for a few moments. But the effect quickly fades. Moreover, such life hacks do nothing to speed up the mind-body connection which drowsiness slows down.

Evidence in Drowsy Driver Claims

We discussed the three major causes of drowsy driving, long work hours, time of day, and sleep apnea, above. Each cause involves some different evidence issues.

To establish driving hours, attorneys typically use the data in an Electronic Logging Device. A few years ago, trucking industry lawyers fought the ELD mandate all the way to the Supreme Court. It’s easy to see why.

Back in the day, truckers used paper log books to track their hours of service. These books were easy to falsify. But an ELD is connected to the truck’s drivetrain. While the vehicle is in motion, the HOS clock is ticking. So, these gadgets provide almost irrefutable proof about how long the trucker was on the road prior to an accident.

ELDs offer direct evidence of fatigue. Circumstantial proof includes the time of day or night as well as relevant medical records.

Frequently, the driver’s SMS report brings it all together. The Safety Measurement System database is basically a mult-istate driving record which includes information about:

  • HOS compliance,
  • Crash history,
  • Medical fitness reports,
  • Vehicle maintenance history, and
  • Citation rcords.

These reports are gold mines for a New York personal injury attorney in a couple of ways. As mentioned, an SMS report is basically a multi-state driving record. That’s significant because many truckers have licenses in multiple states. It’s very time-consuming, and sometimes impossible, to obtain out-of-state driving records and thus get an accurate picture.

Furthermore, SMS reports usually draw on law enforcement records as opposed to judicial records. If Tina got a speeding ticket and took defensive driving, the citation probably would not show up in judicial records. But law enforcement records probably contain this information.

Accident victims are entitled to substantial compensation. For a free consultation with an experienced personal injury lawyer in New York, contact the Pianko Law Group, PLLC. We do not charge upfront legal fees in these matters.

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