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Virginia Tech Transportation Institute study: Can truckers have more flexible rest regs?

Jan 07, 2016 at 08:05 AM CST

VTTI, which maintains a body of research that ranges from studies on asphalt to self-driving cars, signed a $2.5 million contract with the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration to monitor the behaviors of more than 200 long-haul truck drivers who will not have to strictly adhere to a consecutive eight-hour sleeping requirement. The FMCSA is a U.S. Department of Transportation sub-agency that regulates the commercial trucking industry.

The debate over trucker rest regulations has been fueled over the past several years because of incidents such as the fatal 2014 New Jersey wreck that also seriously injured comedian Tracy Morgan. The Wal-Mart truck driver involved in the wreck was charged and a complaint centered on the driver’s sleep deprivation.

Congress, just months after that wreck, suspended a relatively new provision of a law that requires truckers to stop for 34 hours after 70 hours of driving in eight consecutive days. The previous version of the law required the entire 34 hours to contain two periods between 1 a.m. and 5 a.m.

Federal authorities have long tried to ensure that truck drivers get adequate rest. But the commercial truck operators, who have schedules to meet in order to get paid, have resisted.

Regulations on how long truckers can drive before resting, or be off duty, have mostly remained unchanged during the past 13 years.

Starting in 2003, truckers have been allowed to work up to 14 straight hours, but driving had to end by the 11th hour (the remaining three hours could be spent doing paperwork, etc.). Drivers are also required to take 10 straight hours off between when they stop driving and start again.

Also in 2003, drivers with sleeper berths — a compartment in the cab the driver sleeps in — had to spend two periods totaling 10 hours in the berth. Each period had to be at least two hours. From 1962 to 2003, the two periods — each of which required at least two hours — had to total at least eight hours. And from 1937 to 1962, drivers were simply required to take two periods totaling eight hours.

By 2008, a change was made to the berth requirement, mandating that truckers spend eight of at least 10 hours in the berth during one period.

“What if I want to take six hours now, and [four] hours later?” said Richard Hanowski, director for the VTTI’s Center for Truck and Bus Safety. “If there’s no impact on safety, why can’t they do it?

“Part of the things we’ll be looking at is what are the impacts, if any?”

The VTTI still has to find the drivers for its study and work out the agreements with them. Therefore, Hanowski said, the actual monitoring part of the study won’t start until at least 2017.

Exactly how the drivers will be recruited still needs to be fleshed out, but the study will call on commercial truckers already on the roads today, Hanowski said.

The project involves a California-based company called SmartDrive that will place cameras inside the cabs to capture footage of the driver and the road. The VTTI will equip each of the drivers with an electronic wristband unit to measure how much sleep they get.

“The study is trying to understand: Are drivers driving with less or more skill depending on when they have used their sleeper berth? ” said SmartDrive CEO Steve Mitgang. “Then you have video evidence to see what the driver was actually doing in the cab.

“If you are swerving, the video will trigger. Did the driver actually have his eyes closed for a significant period of time? … Or was it in fact a deer the driver was avoiding?”

Each participating driver will spend about three months in the study, which is expected to last a year.

The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration didn’t exactly say whether it will look at more rule changes should the VTTI discover that more flexible sleeper berth schedules don’t impact driving.

“It’s all driven by safety. The study results, if it indicates that greater flexibility does not negatively impact safety, or vice versa, that would be something we would look at and consider,” said FMCSA spokesman Duane DeBruyne. “It potentially could drive some modifications to regulation, but I can’t speculate on what the outcome is going to be.”

From 1975 until 2003, when the trucking industry saw its first significant rule changes in roughly four decades, the annual number of deaths from crashes involving large trucks steadily fluctuated.

A total of 4,305 deaths occurred in 1975, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, a nonprofit that aims to reduce deaths and injuries from motor vehicle crashes in the U.S. After peaking at 6,539 in 1979, the number of deaths in 2003 was 4,905.

The number of deaths slightly increased to 5,049 in 2005, but gradually dropped for most of the following years until 2014 when a total of 3,660 deaths occurred. In 2003, the required off duty hours went from eight to 10, while the sleeper berth requirements also went from at least eight hours to 10.

Drowsy driving remains a leading cause of crashes and highway fatalities, according to federal officials.

In a New York Times story published in June 2014, shortly after the crash that injured Tracy Morgan, the newspaper referenced that driver fatigue was cited in deadly accidents in Madison County, Ohio; Austin, Texas; and Marseilles, Illinois, during that month.

In all, more than 30,000 people die on highways annually in the United States; crashes involving large trucks are responsible for one in seven of those deaths, according to the New York Times story.

Several long-haul truckers who recently stopped in Christiansburg and Ironto welcomed more flexible sleeping schedules that they said would be akin to a return to the old laws.

Willie Lovett, who drives for an Atlanta-based company called KK Express LLC, said it makes little sense for a driver to have to shut down for many hours even though he may just be an hour outside of his destination.

“Sometimes you might have to take your break, or you’re not really sleepy,” Lovett said. “They need to be more flexible because, like I said, only the driver knows how he feels. Today, you might feel good. Tomorrow, you might not. You might not even feel like driving 10 hours tomorrow.”

Larry Jackson, who owns his haul company in Michigan, said he believes the old laws made the job safer.

“If you’re tired, you can stop and sleep for a couple hours and go on,” he said. “Right now, they want you to sit right in that seat for 11 hours.”

Jackson said he thinks the current regulations often complicate a trucker’s schedule. For example, he said, truckers sometimes don’t know how much time they’ll spend at a warehouse, a typical on-the-job occurrence that can cause them to take longer than expected to arrive at their next destination. The hours, however, shouldn’t keep truckers from reaching their next stopping point if that destination is nearby, he said.

“It gives the driver more time, or gives him more breaks,” said Stephen Rhein, who has been in the business for 50 years and drives cross-country for an Oklahoma company. “It will be less stress.”

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