Truck Driver Fatigue

Drowsy Driving Is as Dangerous as Drunk Driving

Truck accidents involving fatigued truck drivers should not happen. Since at least 2007, when the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) released its comprehensive study of the causes of truck accidents, we have known that truck driver fatigue plays an overwhelmingly significant role in truck-involved collisions and single-truck accidents.
But, unfortunately, truck accidents because of driver fatigue still happen in Washington State. The Washington State Department of Transportation reports that 162 heavy truck-involved crashes occurred in the state in 2018, which resulted in 138 serious injuries and 57 deaths. If the FMCSA’s research is any indication, a large percentage of those crashes likely involved a fatigued truck driver.
Below we take a look at the problem of fatigued truckers in Washington State and around the nation. We examine why fatigue is so dangerous behind the wheel of any vehicle, especially a heavy truck, why and how often it occurs, and what you can do to protect your physical safety and legal rights around heavy trucks.

Driving Any Vehicle While Fatigued Is Extremely Dangerous

Several years ago, the Governors’ Highway Safety Association published a comprehensive report urging states to take action to curb fatigued (or drowsy) driving. The report highlighted the extreme dangers of getting behind the wheel without adequate rest, and the potential breadth of the problem:
A drowsy driver is an unsafe driver. A lack of sleep negatively impacts performance. It slows reaction time, impairs judgment and situational awareness, increases lapses in attention and risk taking as well as the potential to microsleep—literally dozing off for a few seconds while driving. To compound the problem, being tired impairs our ability to judge just how tired we really are. While one in four motorists has admitted to driving at least once during the past month when they were so tired they could barely keep their eyes open is that self-reported assessment truly accurate?
Driving without enough sleep, it turns out, is just as dangerous as driving under the influence of alcohol; and we all know how dangerous that can be for any driver of any vehicle. So, while truckers, thankfully, have a much lower rate of drunk and drugged driving than the general population, any occasion when they take the wheel without adequate sleep is a significant threat to public safety. Trucks are large and heavy. In a collision with a passenger vehicle, they inflict horrific damage and terrible injuries. When they crash on their own, they cause extensive destruction and pose significant risks of secondary accidents and other harm to the public.

Truckers Are Prone to Fatigued Driving

Unfortunately, studies show that truckers drive drowsy a lot. Their jobs, lifestyles, and typical state of health make them prone to fatigue behind the wheel. Specifically:

  • Truckers work erratic schedules dictated by the needs of the parties whose cargo they carry. Sometimes they work during the day, and sometimes they work at night. This inconsistent work schedule means truckers also have an inconsistent sleep schedule, which translates into poor-quality sleep and feelings of waking fatigue. The monotony of driving a big rig on long, straight roads for hours at a time can compound truckers’ drowsiness.
  • On average, truckers are also less healthy than the general population. In 2014, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) conducted a nationwide survey of truckers and found they have higher-than-average rates of obesity, diabetes, smoking, and sleep disturbances. This is not altogether surprising. Truckers work a sedentary job. They get a less-than-ideal amount of exercise. They lack healthy food options at rest stops and other roadside eateries. More than a third of them do not carry health insurance. And they are an aging group – almost half of all long-haul truckers are over age 50.

Lack of quality sleep and lack of overall healthfulness feed on each other. The worse one gets, the worse the other gets. The result is a group of workers who are bound to feel worn down all the time. The CDC’s trucker survey results bore this out. In responding to survey questions, more than one-third of the truckers admitted to having nodded off or fallen asleep behind the wheel. A small but significant number (7 percent, or about one in 15) told researchers they felt very drowsy behind the wheel every day.
The consequences of these widespread levels of fatigue also became apparent in the survey. Nearly a quarter of the truckers who responded to the survey admitted to having had at least one near miss incident behind the wheel in the previous week. More than one-in-ten admitted to two or more such near misses in the previous week.
Perhaps the scariest thing about these responses is that they almost certainly under-estimate the scope of the problem. Like any group of workers who are asked to rate their own performance, truckers likely downplayed how often they engaged in unsafe driving behaviors and narrowly avoided disaster.
And even if the survey respondents were completely accurate in self-reporting about their poor driving, what they admitted should frighten anyone who takes to Washington’s highways and byways. It is virtually certain that on anything but a short drive around the block, a Washington driver will encounter a truck being driven by a fatigued trucker whose reaction time, decision making, and motor function are just as impaired as a drunk driver’s.

What’s Being Done

You might wonder, with this much evidence available about fatigued driving, what’s being done to keep the roads safe from tired truckers?
For starters, Washington State has made an effort to educate truckers about the dangers of fatigue. The current edition of the Department of Licensing’s Commercial Driver Guide contains a lengthy discussion about the dangers, warning signs, and means of combating fatigue behind the wheel. All truckers should read it and follow its recommendations.
The Washington State government, and Washington D.C., have also implemented regulations that limit the number of hours truckers can spend behind the wheel, and require detailed record keeping to ensure drivers follow the rules. These rules are known as hours of service (HOS) regulations. The HOS regulations passed by federal regulators apply to truckers who drive loads across state lines (known as interstate commerce). The Washington State regulations apply to truckers who drive within the boundaries of the state (known as intrastate commerce).
To keep things simple, Washington State’s HOS regulations are identical to the federal HOS regulations. All truckers in Washington State may not drive after:

  • Driving 11 hours after 10 consecutive hours off-duty;
  • Being on-duty for 14 hours after 10 consecutive hours off-duty; and
  • Being on-duty for 60 hours in seven consecutive days or 70 hours in eight consecutive days.

They must also take a 30 minute rest break after 8 consecutive hours of driving. They must keep detailed logs of their driving activities, and be prepared to present these logs to law enforcement upon request.
The goal of the HOS regulations is to keep drivers off the road when they have not gotten adequate rest. Unfortunately, because they are a one-size-fits-all type solution, HOS regulations only go so far in solving the problem of fatigued truckers. The requirements of the job still make it difficult for truckers to establish a reliable, consistent sleep schedule, and to get enough exercise and healthy food. At Boohoff Law, we like to be optimistic. But when it comes to fatigued truck driving, we find little reason to think HOS regulations alone can solve the problem or keep drivers safe on Washington’s roads.

What You Can Do to Stay Safe

All drivers should take measures to keep themselves and their passengers safe whenever they share the road with a large truck. First, they should always follow the widely-known rules about driving in proximity to a big rig: avoid the blind spots on all four sides of a truck, do not cut trucks off, give trucks ample stopping distance, and be extra careful of trucks driving in poor weather conditions.
There are also some specific steps you can take to stay safe from fatigued truckers in particular. We recommend:

  • Heightened caution in high-risk situations. Although truckers drive tired all the time, the danger of encountering a fatigued trucker is highest at night on a lonely road. Give trucks on late-night roads extra room to operate and be on the lookout for warning signs of a drowsy trucker: weaving, sudden course corrections, drifting out of lane, and erratic braking. And if you see a truck operating dangerously, call 911. Yes, the trucker might get in trouble if law enforcement pulls them over, but at least they and others won’t end up in a hospital, or worse.
  • Respect the realities of trucking. We need trucks on our highways to get products on store shelves and raw materials to manufacturers. They’re a vital part of our economy. And for truckers, the highway is the office. Give truckers the space to do their job safely.
  • Don’t drive fatigued. You can make the road a safer place for truckers and everyone else if you also take care never to get behind the wheel without adequate rest, and if you get to know the warning signs that you feel fatigued. Before a long road trip, always get a good night’s sleep. Try to drive during your normal waking hours, not at odd times of day or night. Do not rely on caffeine or other stimulants to keep you awake – they can temporarily make you more alert, but they cannot make your body feel less fatigued.

Washington Legal Help for a Fatigued Trucker Accident

Despite your safe driving, you may end up in an accident with a fatigued trucker. If you do, what should you do, and what are your legal rights?
Well, the first thing anyone should do after any kind of accident is to seek medical care. Your health is precious. Do not assume that just because you feel okay in the immediate aftermath of an accident that you are, in fact, okay. Only a doctor can tell you so after an examination for conditions that frequently go unnoticed at an accident scene, like brain injuries or soft tissue injuries. Seeing a doctor also generates records of your care that can prove useful if you ever need to prove the accident caused your injury.
As for your legal rights, if someone else’s careless or reckless conduct caused the accident, and you ended up injured, then you likely have the right under Washington State law to seek compensation. This is almost certainly the case in an accident caused by a fatigued truck driver, who should have known better than to get behind the wheel.
How do you recover compensation for your injuries? Speak with an experienced Washington truck accident attorney right away. A lawyer can evaluate the facts and circumstances of the truck accident that injured you, and determine who has legal liability to you for damages. In the typical truck accident case, that may include the trucker and their insurance carrier, the trucker’s employer (if any), the truck owner, the cargo owner, and others whose actions may have contributed to the trucker’s fatigued condition or unsafe driving.
How much compensation can you recover? That depends on a wide variety of factors, including the severity of your injuries, your out-of-pocket costs, your lost wages, and the availability of insurance or other funds to pay you damages. An attorney can help to evaluate the losses you have sustained in a fatigued driver truck accident and advise you on the amount of damages you might seek.
Trucker fatigue, as we have shown, is a real and persistent problem on American roads. Unfortunately, laws and regulations limiting trucking practices can only do so much to keep the public safe. If a fatigued trucker causes an accident in which you sustained serious injuries or lost a loved one, Washington State law entitles you to seek compensation. Do not wait to speak with an experienced Washington State truck accident lawyer to learn about your rights to compensation.

November 21, 2019
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