In late October, a FedEx Freight driver crashed his tractor-trailer into an Olive Garden along Interstate 70 in Columbia, Mo. The cab and one of two trailers erupted in flames. The driver survived, and the restaurant was, luckily, unoccupied at the hour. Investigators pointed to driver fatigue as the primary cause.
Such episodes are far from rare. According to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, a record 4,067 people perished in large truck crashes last year. Yet Congress, in the 11th hour of its term, appears poised to allow truck drivers to work longer hours — a change in the rules tacked onto a continuing resolution to keep the federal government funded from Friday until next spring.
This is not a problem to be taken lightly. The nation's traffic fatality rate is going in the wrong direction, and the problem is particularly perilous for crashes involving big rig trucks, which collectively caused 116,000 people to be injured in 2015, according to federal government records, a 57 percent increase since 2009.
Because trucks are so large and heavy and therefore so potentially danger of a semi truck in a collision, their drivers must be held to a higher standard than the average suburban SUV jockey. That means giving them sufficient time off to recover — the so-called "restart rule" that requires truckers to rest at least 34 hours after a 70-hour workweek, including two nights (which are defined as periods of time extending from at least 1 a.m. to 5 a.m.).
Congress may instead suspend that rule, leaving open the opportunity for drivers to work up to 82 hours per week in some cases. The trucking industry has been pushing for such a change for years — arguing, for example, that the restart rule forces too many trucks on the road after 5 a.m. and thereby puts them in conflict with morning rush hour.
The dangers associated with driver fatigue are clear enough. A report released this week by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety found that drivers who sleep only five or six hours in a 24-hour period are twice as likely to cause an accident as drivers who get seven hours of sleep or more. The link between more sleep and fewer crashes was undeniable — and the findings echo previous studies that suggest about one-fifth of all fatal crashes involve a drowsy driver.
At the very least, Congress ought to hold hearings on the measure, investigate the claims made by the trucking industry and decide the issue of trucker hours on its merits. But tacking the rule onto a short-term funding resolution bypasses that process and reeks of the very swamp Donald Trump and his fellow Republicans have vowed to drain — a Washington where backroom deals are cut by influential lobbyists.
It's difficult to even argue that the restart rule makes it more difficult for trucking companies or their employees to make a living. Safety advocates estimate that 85 percent of truck drivers never come in conflict with existing work rules, and many trucking companies actually have no problem with the shorter hours of service and credit them for making drivers more productive. For some truckers, the issue is simply making the rules clear and sticking to them — the last Congressional rewrite (slipped into a 2015 spending bill) contained a glitch that may yet cause trucker hour rules to be loosened inadvertently.
Is this any way to run highway safety? Of course it isn't. Yet judging from the lack of public attention on this issue, average Americans seem far less concerned with the 35,092 people who died last year in traffic crashes, a whopping 7.2 percent increase in fatalities from the year before, than they do about shark attacks, which also hit a record high last year — 98 worldwide with six fatalities, or 35,086 fewer than the total carnage on U.S. highways.
Expecting truck drivers to be fully rested and ready isn't much of an imposition. They direct 80,000-pound vehicles hurtling down the road at speeds of 70 miles per hour or greater. The vast majority are responsible professionals. Why not keep them — and the driving public — as safe as possible?