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Significant amendments to the hours-of-service regulations for truckers took effect in 2013, designed to improve safety of the motoring public by reducing truck driver fatigue. It was estimated these regulations would save 19 lives and prevent approximately 1,400 crashes and 560 injuries per year, resulting in $280 million in savings in fewer crashes.

Although the amended regulations retained an 11-hour daily driving limit and 14-hour work day, they limited the average work week for truck drivers to 70 hours (reduced from 82 hours), further requiring truck drivers to take a 30-minute break during the first eight hours of their shift.

The most recent provision, passed by Congress in December 2014, temporarily suspended the 2013 rules, again allowing truck drivers to work as many as 82 hours a week. It also eliminated the requirement that truck drivers must take breaks between 1 a.m. and 5 a.m. on consecutive nights before they can work again.

Commercial truck crashes resulted in nearly 4,000 deaths in 2012 and deaths from trucking accidents continue to increase each year. Yet, in a rush to finalize a $1.1 trillion spending bill to keep the U.S. government funded into 2015, Congress approved a provision that rolled back the hours-of-service (HOS) requirements intended to improve truck driver and motorist safety. The provision allows truck drivers to work up to 82 hours per week, rather than 70 hours under previous rules. Unfortunately, these changes could put more tired truck drivers on the road.

Background on FMCSA Efforts to Battle Fatigue-Related Accidents

The Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) promulgated the first federal HOS in the late 1930s.  The HOS limit the amount of time that a truck driver can both work and drive in a given 24-hour period. The HOS require that truck drivers record their duty status for each 24-hour period of time, including days not spent driving.  The driver has only four choices in recording her duty status: off duty/OFF, sleeper berth/SB, driving/D, or on duty not driving.

The HOS remained largely unchanged for a period of more than 60 years from 1940-2003. In April of 2003, the FMCSA enacted the first significant change to the HOS in more than a half a century.  Under the HOS as amended, a driver could not operate a property-carrying commercial motor vehicle without first taking 10 consecutive hours off duty.  A driver could then be on duty for up to 14 consecutive hours and drive for up to 11 consecutive hours during that time.

Beyond limiting the daily activity of a driver, the HOS also restrict total driving and on-duty time, stating a driver may not drive after 60/70 hours on duty in seven to eight consecutive days.  The application of a seven- or eight-day period depends on whether the motor carrier operates its vehicles every day of the week.  A driver may only restart a seven or eight consecutive-day period after taking 34 or more consecutive hours off duty.

Sleep Deprivation and Circadian Rhythm and their Effects on Drivers’ Alertness

The effect of sleep deprivation is cumulative, and losing as little as one to two hours of sleep per night can cause serious sleep deprivation over time.  Each hour of sleep lost is an hour added to a person’s sleep debt and can only be reduced by getting extra sleep.  Beyond getting less sleep, loss of sleep caused by sleep disruption or fragmented sleep also results in sleep deprivation.  Drivers who average less than five hours of sleep per night are nearly five times more at risk to be involved in a fatigue-related crash.

Furthermore, fatigue-related accidents are more likely to occur during the early morning hours from 2 a.m. to 6 a.m.  The body’s internal clock, known as a circadian clock, regulates the timing of periods of sleepiness and wakefulness throughout the day.  People experience lows during nighttime hours because the circadian clock is synchronized to the external cycles of light and darkness.  The body’s circadian rhythm causes people to feel more alert at certain points of the day, even if they have been awake for hours.  The circadian clock is programmed for its lowest point around 3 a.m. to 5 a.m., with performance reductions from about 12 a.m. to 6 a.m.  During these low points, a person will experience decreased performance, alertness and mood.

Sleep Disorders and Medical Qualifications

At least 40 million Americans suffer from chronic long-term sleep disorders.  One such sleep disorder that is prevalent among truck drivers is sleep apnea. Sleep apnea is a breathing-related sleep disorder that causes brief interruptions of breathing during sleep that can last at least 10 seconds or more and can occur up to 400 times a night.

One study has shown that as many as 28 percent of individuals holding a commercial driver’s license suffer from sleep apnea.  Risk signs for sleep apnea include being overweight (body mass index of 31 or more); a neck size 17 inches or greater; daytime sleepiness; falling asleep at inappropriate times; loud snoring; and lack of concentration.  Sleep apnea is much more than an inconvenience to the individual affected.

One study found that drivers with untreated sleep apnea did worse on performance tests than healthy, nonsleepy subjects whose blood alcohol concentration was above the federal limit for driving a commercial motor vehicle.  Another study found that individuals with moderate to severe sleep apnea had up to a 15-fold greater risk of motor vehicle accidents.  Yet another study found that approximately 1,250 fatal truck crashes that occurred in 2005 could have been attributed to sleep apnea or other sleep disorders affecting commercial drivers.

Another way in which the FMCSA has attempted to battle the risk of fatigue through the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations (FMCSR) is the medical qualifications of drivers. A driver is not allowed to operate a commercial motor vehicle unless she is medically qualified.  One physical requirement is that the driver have no established history or clinical diagnosis of a respiratory dysfunction likely to interfere with his/her ability to control and drive a commercial motor vehicle safely.  Within the explanation of this regulation, sleep apnea is identified as such a respiratory dysfunction.

Beyond the issue of a driver’s medical qualification, the FMCSR further expressly prohibit drivers from operating commercial motor vehicles when fatigued. Specifically, the regulations provide that “[n]o driver shall operate a commercial motor vehicle, and a motor carrier shall not require or permit a driver to operate a commercial motor vehicle, while the driver’s ability or alertness is so impaired, or so likely to become impaired, through fatigue, illness or other cause, as to make it unsafe for him/her to begin or continue to operate the commercial motor vehicle….”

Restorative Sleep and the Fatigued Driver

When you consider what is known about restorative sleep and the causes of fatigue, it should be no surprise that truck drivers are at great risk of fatigued driving. In the National Sleep Foundation’s 2012 Sleep in America Poll, truck drivers were reported to work an average 10-hour shift, with the largest portion working shifts from nine to less than 12 hours.  Only 51 percent of truck drivers worked the same schedule each day, and only 27 percent worked the same number of hours each day.  Over half of the truck drivers reported only eight to 12 hours off between shifts. On average, truck drivers reported 51hours spent working each week.  Almost 40 percent of truck drivers reported that they rarely had a good night’s sleep.

Yet, 31 percent of the truck drivers responding reported they only needed six to seven hours of sleep per night to function at their best. Further, 60 percent of truck drivers reported they did not drive while drowsy and only 22 percent admitted they had driven drowsy at least once per month.  Almost 70 percent of drivers reported that sleepiness had never impacted their job performance and only 15 percent admitted it impacted their job performance at least once a week.  Only 16 percent of truck drivers reported experiencing any work incident because of sleepiness, with 2 percent reporting an accident and 14 percent reporting a “near miss.”

These statistics demonstrate a readily apparent disconnect between the objective data known about fatigue (e.g., accident data, medical literature, driving hours) and the general subjective belief of truck drivers that fatigue is not affecting their ability to safely do their jobs.  This puts all citizens who share our roadways with commercial trucks at danger, particularly when hours-of-service regulations are inadequate to ensure that truck operators are getting the sleep that they need.  Given the financial incentives that encourage drivers to haul as much as possible unimpeded by breaking for sleep, a truck driver is not likely to admit that fatigue played any causative role in an accident, even though it’s well established that the two are linked.


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