New rules aimed at trucker fatigue

Federal rules meant to reduce trucker fatigue begin Sunday

December 31, 2003|By Meredith Cohn | Meredith Cohn,SUN STAFF

New federal rules aimed at keeping drowsy truck drivers off the road go into effect Sunday, the first change in more than 60 years, but not everyone agrees they will save lives and protect property.

Fatigue costs about $2.3 billion a year in losses and causes about 410 of the nearly 5,000 deaths from large truck crashes, according to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, which held a press conference yesterday to publicize the new "hours of service" rules.

The agency studied sleep patterns and conferred with the industry, and came up with a trade-off: New rules allow interstate drivers to stay on the road an extra hour, up to 11 hours, in exchange for taking two more hours off. Currently, truckers are limited to driving 10 hours at a time and must rest at least eight hours.

Further, drivers will be limited to a 14-hour shift whether they are driving or not.

"The new safety rule gives us the means to save hundreds of lives, protect billions in commerce and safeguard our roads and highways for years to come," said U.S. Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Mineta in a prepared statement.

Federal officials asked the states to give truckers a 60-day educational period before issuing fines that could reach $11,000. Maryland State Police plan to comply.

So far, the industry and its observers are split on changing the rules, which federal authorities admit are already flouted by drivers pressured to get products to market on time. About one-sixth of driver inspections last year resulted in citations for too many hours.

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, a research group funded by auto insurers, said rules that are not enforced can't work. The group unsuccessfully advocated for on-board computers to prevent truckers from doctoring their log books.

"Truckers refer to their log books as comic books," said Russ Rader, a spokesman for the group.

The Teamsters union said rules that add time behind the wheel can't reduce fatigue.

"I urge anyone who thinks the extra hour does not matter to just even ride in a truck for 10 hours no matter how much sleep you got the night before," said Ron Black, a union spokesman.

And Martin Moore-Ede, chief executive of Circadian Technologies Inc., a Lexington, Mass., company that advises businesses on productivity, believes the rules are too rigid to work for all drivers.

They do not account for the human biological clock that makes us sleepy at night and alert during the day, he said. He advocates a system that he said was pioneered in Australia that calculates risks for each driver depending on when he last slept normal hours.

"You can drive for 11 hours, take off 10 and drive another 11, putting you on a 21-hour day," he said.

"That essentially gives you a three-hour time zone shift each cycle, the equivalent of moving toward Europe. So by the second day you're on Paris time and disrupting your natural sleep-wake cycles."

In Maryland, which reported 6,800 accidents last year involving tractor-trailers, the Maryland Motor Truck Association also questioned the new rules.

Craig Talbot, vice president of safety for the group, said aggressive and distracted drivers might be a bigger problem than sleepy drivers and the rules don't apply to them. Also, rules can't force drivers to sleep in their time off.

Further, he said 14-hour limits on a driver's shift will be costly because unloading time can no longer count as rest.

"If you start at 6 in the morning, at 8 in the evening you're done whether you've driven one or 11 hours."

Annette M. Sandberg, administrator of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, said she would consider altering the rules again if the accident rate doesn't decline and costs skyrocket. She predicts the rules will save about 75 lives and $628 million a year.

Ron Taylor, director of safety and training for Bond Trucking Company Inc., an Anne Arundel company with 137 drivers, said he supports the rules even though they could increase company costs by 15 percent to 25 percent.

About 40 percent of Bond's business involves hauling Snapple beverages, sugar and other goods to New York, and the rules would mean each round trip would require two drivers instead of one.

"The trucking industry learned how to work within the federal regulations for the past rules," he said. "The industry is going to learn to work within the new rules."

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