With Trucking Accidents Rising, Industry Debates When Drivers Should Be Sleeping

May 1, 2015

Truck driver Nathan Brooks
Credit Miles Bryan

  

Nathan Brooks drives all over the country delivering goods as a long-haul trucker, and when I met him at a rest stop just outside of Laramie, Wyoming, he was about to start his favorite drive— back home to Alabama. Brooks has been a trucker for twenty-seven years and says the job is getting harder than it used to be.

“Everything is more expensive now. There is a lot more traffic on the road. And you are more likely to get caught up in some kind of accident.”

Truckers like Brooks deliver seventy percent of our domestic goods, and there are more trucks on the road now than ever. But truckers only make an average of $38,000 a year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and many are paid by how many loads they deliver. There’s an obvious incentive to drive as much as possible— when I asked Brooks how long he’s on the road each day, he got a little shifty.

“You are going to get me in trouble now.”

Brooks insists he stays under the federal limit of eleven hours of driving time a day, but answers like his make National Transportation Safety Board Chair Chris Hart nervous. Hart says that, since 2009, the number of trucking caused accidents and deaths has been going up steadily.

“That [trend] is contrary to the general trend in motor vehicle accidents, which has been going down during that same time period.”

Credit Miles Bryan

One reason for that is fatigue: Hart says that fatigue causes thirteen percent of trucking accidents and contributes to more than half of them. In 2013, federal regulators introduced new rules for commercial trucking that reduced truckers’ weekly driving limits from 82 to 70 hours per week. More controversially, they also required truckers to take breaks at night.

“Humans are most likely to experience fatigue during the wee hours of the morning,” Hart says. “So we wanted two periods between 1:00 am and 6:00 am when drivers would have the opportunity to sleep.”

But those rules were suspended by a Congressional rider last December, thanks largely to the lobbying efforts of the American Trucking Associations, an industry group.

“Government shouldn't be telling people when to sleep,” says Chris Spear, the organization’s chief lobbyist.  “That’s just not right.”

Spear claims that keeping truckers on the road at night is a win-win: they get clear roads and quicker delivery times, and we get truck-free commutes.

“It’s just a better time to work, but a lot of people don’t see that because they’re home in bed. “

The new trucking regulations are suspended until the completion of a congressionally-mandated safety study. Federal officials won’t tackle regulations again until October, at the earliest. In the meantime, truckers can hit the road anytime they want. That is good news for Nathan Brooks, who couldn’t get back home fast enough.

“I have more trees in my front yard than there are in the entire state of Wyoming.”